COVID in Israel: Omicron Drives Surge in New Cases, but Also Vaccinations

As COVID infection rate hits six-month high, Israeli cabinet reduces list of high-infection 'red' countries from 70 to 15, approves new plan for schools

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A coronavirus test center in Jerusalem, in December.
A coronavirus test center in Jerusalem, in December. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel has confirmed 2,967 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, in a second day of relatively high figures as the highly infectious omicron variant keeps spreading in the country.

Meanwhile, more Israelis are getting vaccinated, and the number of serious cases remains largely stable even with a spike in overall COVID cases.

The R number – the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects–  stands at 1.53, the highest figure since late June, according to data released by the Health Ministry on Wednesday.

Any R number over 1 means the pandemic is spreading. The last time it indicated COVID was shrinking in Israel was more than a month ago.

Vaccinations are also on the rise, with more than 11,000 people getting their first shot on Tuesday. The number of Israelis getting a first dose of the vaccine has been on an upward trend over the past days, as the government amped up its campaign to get children inoculated.

As of Wednesday morning, there are 88 COVID patients in serious condition. This figure, as well as overall hospitalizations, remained largely stable over the past weeks.

'Red' list shrinks

The ministerial committee responsible for Israel's coronavirus response approved overnight into Wednesday a new plan for restrictions on elementary schools in locations with relatively high incidence of COVID-19 cases, as well as paring down the list of countries deemed “red” and therefore off limits for travel by Israelis other than with special permission.

The list of countries was cut from 70 to 15, effective as of Thursday. Among the countries that remain red are the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and South Africa. Mexico has been added to the list.

Travel to and from so-called "red countries" is expressly forbidden, unless permission is granted by a special committee. Those who return from any of these 15 countries must enter a seven-day quarantine. 

The coronavirus cabinet also approved a provision that passengers returning from abroad can stay in home quarantine upon their return, as they await their COVID test result, only if they agree to police location tracking.

Passengers who refuse to comply with the tracking requirement will be in quarantine at a state-run coronavirus hotel until a negative test result is received. The decision, subject to approval by the Knesset's Constitution Committee, will go into effect on Thursday.

The Health Ministry also announced a new quarantine policy on Wednesday, according to which vaccinated and recovered people who were exposed to COVID – without distinction between the variants – will be able to perform a rapid antigen test to be exempted from quarantine. The new outline will take effect tonight at midnight.

To date, vaccinated and recovering patients exposed to a coronavirus carrier have been required to perform a PCR test and stay in isolation for 24 hours or until receiving a negative result.

Remote learning

The amended guidelines for elementary schools in communities with high infection rates are meant to reduce the number of students required to study remotely.

Until Wednesday, all primary school students in so-called "red" communities observed procedures limiting contact, like outdoor classes and division into "capsules." In cases where these procedures could not be met, the students studied remotely.  

According to the new regulations, the requirement to observe contact limiting procedures in grades 1-4 will only apply to those classrooms in red communities in which a student has tested positive for COVID.

In grades 5 and 6, in case a student is diagnosed with COVID, their class will shift to studying remotely.

According to an Education Ministry official, 70 percent of students in grade 8 and above are vaccinated, therefore there are only about 800 high school classrooms studying remotely in Israel.   

The school policy changes took effect overnight and will remain in effect through January 9.

The new guidelines were passed after earlier this week, the Knesset Education Committee rejected school health guidelines that the committee considered too strict, demanding that the coronavirus cabinet alter the plan to permit more students to continue to receive regular classroom instruction.

The committee also called on the coronavirus cabinet to come up with new guidelines for junior highs and high schools by Sunday for the Knesset committee’s approval.

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