For the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus in Israel, restrictions will be lifted on Tuesday. Children and adults who have not been vaccinated will be allowed to join multi-participant events, enter businesses, restaurants, gyms, hotels, concerts, and attend other activities – without restriction or proof of vaccination.
Meanwhile, the declining trend of COVID-19 infection rates are continuing and show are lowest since it broke out. On Sunday, out of 22,360 tests, only four new cases were discovered. In Israel as a whole, there are only 352 active cases, and 49 coronavirus patients are currently hospitalized in critical condition. Close to 5.5 million Israelis have been vaccinated so far (of which about 5.1 million have received two doses), and more than 832,000 have recovered from the disease.
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However, lifting the restrictions will not include abolishing the obligation to wear a mask in enclosed spaces – and this will remain in place in the near future. Experts in the Health Ministry and the head of the ministry’s public health services, Dr. Sharon Elroy-Preis, expressed hope that the continued decline of the pandemic in Israel will make it possible to remove masks completely in June.
30,000 bracelets down the drain
Other restrictions that won’t be lifted are those imposed on people entering and exiting Israel. The Health Ministry announced that as of Monday, Argentina and Russia will join the list of countries considered maximum risk countries, which currently includes Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico and Turkey.
The regulations prohibit the departure of Israeli citizens and residents to maximum risk countries except in special cases. Traveling to countries on the list, even for those who have been vaccinated or recovered, requires the approval of an exceptions committee. In addition, all those entering Israel from these countries, including those vaccinated or recovered, must enter quarantine.
Despite the very low level of infection in Israel, the main concern of the Health Ministry is the entry of new strains from abroad, and the ministry’s attention is currently directed to Ben-Gurion International Airport – which was and remains the Achilles’ heel of managing the crisis. Despite regulations and restrictions, the entrance gate to Israel, for all intents and purposes, is wide open. More than two-thirds of those entering Israel do not spend time in quarantine and do not get a second coronavirus test (in addition to the mandatory one performed when they land) in the days following their arrival.
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The technological solution – monitoring with an electronic bracelet those entering from abroad to ensure they are staying in quarantine – already exists and is ready for operation. Following a bidding process, the Health Ministry secured the services of SuperCom, a company charged with providing and operating 30,000 bracelets, at the cost of 40 million shekels (around $12 million). The system is ready to be deployed but requires the approval of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which remains inactive.
SuperCom’s legal team has written to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also heads a special coronavirus ministerial committee, noting that in such a situation, there is no legal impediment for the government to declare electronic supervision of those entering Israel. In its letter, the company stated that in recent weeks it has been preparing to operate the system and has ensured that all the interfaces work properly. “The Health Ministry, along with its professional staff, agree on the vital need to initiate the technological supervision project without any delay,” the letter reads.
Nevertheless, the solution, which is supposed to significantly reduce the risk of the entry and spread of new mutations in Israel, and on which tens of millions of shekels have been spent, has not yet been implemented for procedural reasons.
At the same time, the Health Ministry is concerned with the vaccination of children aged 12 to 15. On Tuesday, Israel's coronavirus task force is expected to continue discussing the extension of the vaccine to this age group. According to sources in the health care system, medical clinics have initiated logistical preparations to start vaccinating the children as early as next week, and in accordance with the official recommendations.
The move to vaccinate this age group, which includes about 600,000 children, is expected to be fundamentally different from the extensive and urgent vaccination campaign that began more than five months ago. The low national rate of coronavirus infections and the fact that children’s risk of developing serious symptoms is extremely low puts children’s vaccines in a completely different light than a nationwide vaccine campaign.
Meanwhile, some parents expressed their worries over a possible link between the vaccination and myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.
An investigation panel, headed by Hadassah University Hospital's Dr. Dror Mevorach, concluded that there is a link between the vaccine and the inflammation, after it has analyzed at least 100 cases of myocarditis in Israeli vaccinated patients. Despite the possible link, it remains a rare phenomenon, and the Israeli health officials will have to determine whether the risk of side effects in teens outgrows the risk of catching the virus.
If the vaccination rollout will be approved, the Health Ministry has decided to use a hearty language of recommendations instead of urging parents to vaccinate their children like it did at the beginning of the vaccination drive. It will stress that the vaccine has been formally approved and give the parents the freedom of choice.