Israel Isn't Planning New Restrictions Despite Rising COVID Curve

Israeli health officials said they will extend indoor mask mandate and launch new vaccine drive for high-risk groups, as Prime Minister Bennett and Health Minister Horowitz meet to discuss growing coronavirus infections

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People shop at the Hatikva Market in south Tel Aviv, in February.
People shop at the Hatikva Market in south Tel Aviv, in February.Credit: Hadas Parush
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz intend not to tighten coronavirus restrictions despite the country's rise in infection rates. The two discussed the issue in a meeting on Wednesday.

Sources in the Prime Minister's Office and the health minister's bureau said both men lean toward keeping current rules in place. Bennett and Horowitz are expected to meet Thursday with the heads of the country's four health maintenance organizations.

The Health Ministry announced that it will extend the indoor mask mandate; Horowitz intends to roll out a campaign to encourage mask-wearing, in a bid to reverse complacency resulting in part from a general decline in infection rates. He is also planning a vaccine drive for at-risk populations, especially in nursing homes, in light of the relatively low number of Israelis who have received four doses of the vaccine.

An estimated 1.5 million Israelis are expected to go abroad next month – the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic. The Health Ministry is aware of the estimate and the possible implications for public health. In a statement, the ministry said it had no plans at the moment to reinstate the color-coding of countries employed earlier in the pandemic or to try to restrict foreign travel, though this could change. Sources in the Transportation Ministry, which is also involved in setting travel policy, said there have been no recent briefings on the topic.

During the fifth wave of the coronavirus in Israel, significant disagreements arose between the prime minister and the health minister regarding the possibility of new restrictions. Bennett wanted significant restrictions, such as imposing a lockdown on people who were not fully vaccinated or closing Israel's borders to all travel, but Horowitz was vehemently opposed.

Bennett and Horowitz agree that in light of the genetic similarity between the increasingly dominant omicron variant known as BA.2 and the "original" BA.1 omicron variant, and the large number of Israelis infected with the latter, no new restrictions are currently necessary.

In accordance with a cabinet resolution, the state's response to the pandemic is scheduled to shift into "between waves" mode on April 1, with a temporary drawdown in staffing hours and relaxation of national preparedness. In light of the uptick in illness and infection numbers, however, the change will likely not occur, say officials in Magen Israel, the national pandemic response center.

According to figures issued Wednesday morning by the Health Ministry, 13,384 people tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday. The R number, represented the average number of people infected by each carrier, rose to 1.39, indicating that the pandemic is spreading. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in serious condition dropped to 300, of whom 119 are on ventilators. In the past week, 30 people have died from COVID, bringing the total number of recorded deaths from the virus in Israel to 10,449 people.

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