Israel's Health Ministry announced changes in its coronavirus testing policy on Wednesday, in light of the continued surge in COVID infections and the consequent demand for testing.
Speaking at a press conference, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz announced that beginning on Friday, vaccinated, healthy Israelis under the age of 60 who have come into contact with coronavirus carriers can now take a rapid home test to be exempt from isolation, thereby avoiding long lines at testing sites and unnecessary quarantine. He also urged the entire public to get vaccinated.
According to the new guidelines, the ministry will reserve PCR tests for people aged 60 and older, as well as for high risk groups. These groups won’t be determined solely by age and vaccination status, sources in the health system said, but will likely include people with conditions such as diabetes, obesity and pulmonary disease. Young unvaccinated Israelis will have to take supervised antigen test.
Horowitz added that the new home testing policy "is part of our coronavirus routine, which will allow us to keep our economy open.
"We are adjusting to the new situation. The omicron wave is different, and is obligating us to change our perception. The guiding principle here is protecting high-risk groups," Horowitz said.
The Health Ministry said that antigen tests would start being given at elementary schools to students and teachers who were exposed to a confirmed coronavirus case. On Thursday, the Education Ministry told its district directors not to conduct antigen tests at schools because the Health Ministry's decision had not been coordinated with it. The ministry said that in addition to the lack of coordination, it had not received a clear, prepared protocol for carrying out the plan.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton slammed the Health Ministry, saying it was creating "chaos" in schools. A statement from the ministry criticized the Health Ministry for publicly announcing that antigen tests would be given in schools, despite knowing that it did not yet have a clear protocol for it.
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The Health Ministry hit back, with unnamed officials saying in a statement that Shasha-Biton had "do everything to interfere and sabotage the fight against the coronavirus" since the beginning. "She systematically violates every agreement that is made with her, and it's the students and the teachers who get hurt."
This shift in policy comes to relieve the pressure on testing facilities, relying more on home antigen swab tests to clear vaccinated people who aren’t in a high-risk group from quarantining. Health care providers and other testing facilities have made it clear to ministry officials that the current policy is unsustainable given the amount of people who need tests.
But even under the new policy, the system may well have trouble meeting the demand for tests, given that the number of new cases is expected to jump to around 30,000 a day by early next week.
On Wednesday, Israel broke a new record for COVID cases, recording its highest-ever number of diagnoses since the pandemic began as the omicron variant continues to spread.
The Health Ministry reported 11,978 new cases, with 6.65 percent of COVID tests coming back positive.
The rapid surge in the number of cases is also putting pressure on Israel's health maintenance organizations, which administer vaccinations, conduct PCR tests and treat outpatients with COVID-19. Their physicians are also responsible for prescribing a new coronavirus drug, Plaxovid, to people deemed at high risk of serious illness.
“We’re currently stretching our capabilities to the limit,” said Dr. Doron Netzer, who heads Clalit Health Service’s community medical services. “We know the peak is still ahead of us, but based on what we do know, this wave is expected to be large but brief.”
The rapid rise in the number of COVID-19 cases and the government’s decision to approve a fourth dose of the vaccine for high-risk groups – a second booster shot – is also spurring more Israelis to get vaccinated, Netzer said. On Tuesday, 50,000 people got the shot; for half of them, this was their fourth dose.
Initial results from a study conducted at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer found that antibody levels rose fivefold a week after the fourth dose.