Israel to Reinstate Indoor Mask Mandate Next Week as COVID Delta Variant Spreads

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Nachman Ash in Holon at a vaccination drive in February.
Nachman Ash in Holon at a vaccination drive in February.Credit: Hadas Parush

Israel's coronavirus czar Dr. Nachman Ash said Thursday that Israel will reinstate its indoor mask mandate beginning Sunday, in light of the recent rise in coronavirus cases across Israel.

Ash said that the government is working on bringing more Pfizer vaccines to Israel. If Israel is unsuccessful in attaining new vaccines, it will run out in July, when Israel's store of vaccines is set to expire.

Ash added that Israel is investigating new "technological tools" to enforce coronavirus quarantines, citing Israel's previous attempts to employ electronic tracking bracelets. "We will bring forward new proposals in the technological arena. The Shin Bet tracking did not deal with enforcing quarantine, and so, for the time being, we don't plan on implementing it," Ash said.

Despite the dangers of the new COVID variants, the government doesn't plan to prohibit Israelis from leaving and entering the country, Ash said. "We are trying to avoid that (scenario) by testing and isolating" people, he said. 

A child in a coronavirus testing center in Binyamina, Wednesday.Credit: Rami Shllush

"The current outbreak started as a local one, and we have seen several of those, but I can't say for sure that we are in a general outbreak. We will see if we can put out these small fires or if it will ignite a bigger blaze," Ash added.

Israel's Health Ministry registered 148 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the highest daily increase since May, as the infectious delta variant makes further headway across the country.

Also on Thursday, a senior official with Pfizer Israel said that the company's vaccine is 90 percent effective in preventing symptomatic coronavirus cases, and 95 percent effective in preventing serious cases that require hospitalization. However, the effectivity of the vaccine in preventing infection and transmission is still unclear.

The northern city of Binyamina has been declared "red" on Israel's so-called traffic light system, reflecting a relatively high rate of coronavirus infection, amid a new uptick in cases.

Prof. Ran Balicer, the chief of the professional coronavirus cabinet which advises the Israel's coronavirus cabinet, told Kan public radio that he believes that there will be more localities to face restrictions in the coming days, but played down the prospects of a further lockdown.

Earlier, Prof. Chezy Levy, the director general of the Health Ministry, told the radio station that the ministry will soon know the breakdown of the numbers – how many of those diagnosed had returned from abroad, for instance, and how many were unvaccinated children. But, he added that "the wave of infections is continuing regardless."

When asked how many of the new coronavirus patients have been vaccinated, Levy said that "We're looking at a rate of 40 to 50 percent," and said that the figure is concerning.

"Even though the numbers are low, the fact that this is reaching vaccinated people means…that we are still checking how many vaccinated people have also been infected," Levy added.

The increased infection is attributed to the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus in the country – a strain first identified in India. The World Health Organization says it is becoming the globally dominant version of the virus. 

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