Israel will reduce the isolation period for people diagnosed with COVID-19 from seven days to five, after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz both agreed to the move on Monday.
A coronavirus carrier must have two negative tests and no symptoms in order to leave isolation after the fifth day.
The change was given approval by Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash.
Horowitz and Bennett also agreed to provide free home testing kits to anyone who wants them, but no details were announced.
The decision, which came after health experts publicly advocated easing the isolation rules over the past few days, will go into effect on Wednesday.
According to the decision, people under 60 who are not vaccinated and were exposed to a confirmed carrier must quarantine for five days as well, and have a negative test to end it.
For confirmed COVID cases to leave isolation after the fifth day, they must have a negative result from a home testing kit on both the evening of the fourth day and the evening of the fifth day, and have no symptoms. People who are unvaccinated and were exposed to a confirmed case (and who are under the age of 60 and not in an at-risk group) must isolate for five full days and be tested at the end of the isolation period.
- As omicron infections skyrocket, should Israel rethink its isolation policy?
- Four vaccines a year: Is this how Israel will go on coping with COVID?
- Israel still not sure omicron causes milder illness, despite research
Bennett explained that the high number of those infected and those in isolation "is creating a heavy burden on the economy" and that the change would both protect the health of the public and allow economic activity.
The country's coronavirus czar, Salman Zarka, meanwhile said the number of COVID carriers in Israel has still not peaked, but added that the omicron variant causes relatively mild illness. "We are examining the possibility of allowing essential workers to continue their work under certain circumstances, both in the health system and in other systems," he said. "We will continue to track infection, hospitalizations, [and] tests and we will adjust our policy whenever it is necessary."
Zarka further said that evidence shows that people are most infectious during the first three days after being infected, with 80-85 percent of infections occurring within the first five days. Regarding the reduced isolation time, Zarka said: "If there are symptoms, or if one of the tests is positive, it is not possible to leave. They will have to continue taking another tests the next day until a situation is reached in which there are no regular symptoms and the two tests come out negative."
The PCR lab test is capable of finding traces of the virus even in very low and insignificant concentration, even weeks after infection and while the person is not infectious or suffering from symptoms. But the rapid antigen test is less sensitive, and is aimed at discovering higher concentrations of the virus that not only verify the person as infected, but also indicates their ability to infect others.
“Of course a negative antigen test will always come before a negative PCR test,” explains a source at one of the COVID labs. “Five days is a statistical matter. Some people get tested close in time to being infected and are in the very first days of their illness, and so perhaps they won’t be negative in an antigen test after five days. Some people, though, get tested a while after being infected, for instance after developing symptoms without knowing that they were exposed, and five days later will already be in recovery and come up negative in the antigen test.”
The Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians had previously suggested that patients not be required to isolate at all unless they had symptoms, were at risk of serious illness or had contact with a high-risk population.
Prof. Idit Matot, who heads the department of anesthesiology, intensive care and pain at Ichilov Hospital, also advocated exempting asymptomatic patients from isolation.
The Health Ministry deemed these statements “irresponsible talk whose goal is to erode the public’s trust” and warned that such a policy, if adopted, would result in the virus spreading even more widely and rapidly.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced three weeks ago that it was cutting the isolation period for asymptomatic patients to five days, which prompted the ministry’s expert advisory panel to consider the issue as well.