Israel decided to ban entry to non-residents and impose stricter quarantine rules for Israelis returning from abroad, in an effort to prevent an outbreak of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the country.
The ministerial committee leading Israel's COVID response met on Saturday to approve a series of new measures, after at least one case of omicron, which experts worldwide see as a variant of concern, was confirmed.
According to the cabinet's decision, all Israelis returning from abroad must quarantine for three days, regardless of vaccination status. In addition to a PCR test upon landing, as was required so far, they will need to undergo another one 72 hours later. If both tests return a negative result, they may be released from quarantine.
Foreigners will not be allowed into the country at all for two weeks, unless in exceptional circumstances approved in advance by Israeli authorities. More information on obtaining such approval can be found on the Health Ministry's website.
The omicron variant was first discovered in South Africa, and has since been detected in Belgium, Botswana and Hong Kong, as well as one confirmed case in Israel, in a woman who returned from Malawi.
The Health Ministry's director-general, Prof. Nachman Ash, called the new variant "the most concerning there has been so far." Speaking Sunday on 103FM radio, he said Israel's response "isn't hysteria, but concern... It's important to take measures. We want to be able to at least delay the variant's entry into Israel."
Ash said he assesses it would take about two weeks before there is credible information concerning the variant's resistance to existing vaccines. He added that it's likely the vaccines would prevent serious cases of the new variant.
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Health Ministry officials are looking into seven other cases that they suspect may be the new variant. Four of the infected individuals had been abroad, while the other three had not, raising concerns that they may have been infected within Israel.
The COVID cabinet also reaffirmed last week's decision to add about 50 countries and territories in Africa to the list of "red" destinations, effectively barring Israelis from traveling there and barring entry to any non-residents coming from these areas.
Israelis returning from any of these countries and territories will be sent directly to a state-run quarantine facility, until the results of their first PCR test – taken at the airport or any other point of entry – returns a negative result.
They would then be required to continue their quarantine at home, for seven days in total. A negative test at the end of the seven days means they are no longer required to quarantine.
Returnees from any "red" areas who test positive will be required to stay at the quarantine facility until recovery.
The new measures took effect immediately for arrivals from Ethiopia, Botswana, South Africa and Malawi, and will apply to all other "red" countries starting Monday.
Ministers also agreed to expand Green Pass regulations that require proof of vaccination or recovery to any events with more than 50 people. This is pending an approval by the full government.
Infection rates rising, but slowly
As of Saturday evening, Israel has 118 COVID patients in serious condition, with 74 in critical condition and 56 on ventilators. Of those, 97 patients – over 80 percent – are unvaccinated.
No coronavirus deaths were recorded for Friday or Saturday in Israel; since the beginning of the pandemic, 8,182 people have died of the coronavirus in the country. On Friday, 508 people were diagnosed with COVID.
Israel's R number – the number of people each coronavirus carrier goes on to infect – stands at 1.07, remaining slightly over one, showing that infection is spreading, but at a relatively stable and low rate. The number is calculated from data from 10 days prior.
Earlier Saturday night, Switzerland announced that it would not allow entry to citizens of Israel, South Africa, Hong Kong or Belgium due to cases of the omicron variant found in these countries. Swiss citizens returning from these destinations are required to undergo a 10-day quarantine and present a negative COVID test result.
The omicron variant has an unusual constellation of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible, experts say.
Bennett noted that South Africa has seen a sharp increase in COVID cases within a week, and that omicron has surpassed delta as the dominant variant in the country. He added that it is likely that there are additional omicron cases in Israel.
Horowitz, meanwhile, said his ministry was working on improving PCR tests to allow them to test for the new variant more accurately. The ministry is isolating samples of the variant and testing its potential to overcome immunity, he added.
Shin Bet tracking
The cabinet also approved the resumption of digital tracking of confirmed coronavirus carriers by the Shin Bet security agency. This, according to the agency's chief Ronen Bar, would be a temporary measure and would only apply to carriers of omicron.
The use of Shin Bet technology to locate citizens who came into contact with COVID patients was controversial from its inception in March 2020. The government authorized that the telephone of any patient who did not cooperate with infection tracing efforts be monitored. Both the Shin Bet and the public expressed objection to the security service's tracking of civilians.
The High Court of Justice ruled in February that the Shin Bet must end its tracking of COVID patients, as the justices found that it was not an effective means for fighting the pandemic, and that it was no longer justifiable following the success of the vaccination drive.
The State's Comptroller's October report found that the tracking is not effective enough compared to the epidemiological investigations conducted by the Health Ministry. The Knesset's Security and Foreign Affairs Committee consequently rescinded the government's decision to continue using Shin Bet tracking, leaving room to dial back the scope of the tracking. In practice, use of this technology was stopped following the plateau in COVID infection rates.