Israel recorded its lowest rate of positive coronavirus tests since December on Wednesday, amid a downward trend in infection rates and other metrics, and top health officials say that accordingly, they don’t expect restrictions to be ramped up in the next few weeks.
According to Health Ministry data, only 3.3 percent of tests returning positive. Furthermore, the R number – which reflects the average number of people each COVID-19 carrier infects – decreased to 0.9 on Wednesday, down from 0.95 on Tuesday.
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The Health Ministry data also showed a decline in the number of patients hospitalized in serious condition. At present, 653 patients are hospitalized, with 215 of them on ventilators.
According to sources at the Health Ministry, there are already discussions underway regarding a further easing of restrictions regarding the number of people allowed to gather in any one location.
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The head of public health services at the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Elroi-Preiss, said that if the COVID figures continue moving in the same direction, with the number of confirmed new cases remaining stable, the R number staying at 1 or less, and a drop in the number of seriously ill or critical patients, there will be no need for renewed restrictions.
The news come as Israel's vaccination drive continues to beat world records, with more than 5 million people – around 55 percent of the population – having received the first shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Some 3.5 million Israelis – 39 percent of the population – already have so-called green passports, or vaccination certificates, which are issued a week after the second vaccination.
Among people ages 50 and older, which have been shown to suffer the most debilitating illnesses from the coronavirus, the vaccination rate is 89 percent. In this age group, 280,000 people have not yet been vaccinated.
In light of the country's downward trend of coronavirus infection rates, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Wednesday that Israel is unlikely to enter another lockdown during Passover.
Asked about vaccinations for children, Ash said he hopes to start inoculating children under the age of 16 soon, which is necessary for Israel to achieve herd immunity. Indeed, Israel is now one million people away from reaching its full potential of vaccination, and achieving herd immunity will require vaccinating a critical mass of children under 16 years old.
Dr. Chezy Levy, director general of the Health Ministry, said that his office is discussing further easing of restrictions on gatherings. "As of now we don't see any severe consequences of the [mass] gathering in Purim," he told ynet news, adding that this is the reason he is considering loosening restrictions.
The latest data released Wednesday joins a long list of data, articles and surveillance data collected in real time, all showing that the effects of vaccination have been dramatic with regard to all aspects of the epidemic.
“The idea is to understand how we regard the pandemic differently at this stage. We have more than 5 million people who’ve been vaccinated, with 3.5 million having a certificate indicating that they’ve received both doses. That definitely changes the nature of the pandemic. It means we can open up more using the so-called green passports, and rely on the assumption that places we open will have low chances of spreading infections. This will allow larger gatherings of people with such certificates,” said Dr. Elroi Preiss.
The emerging picture is of a country managing with these green passports, in which larger chunks of routine activities are opening up only to people recovering from COVID-19 or to people who have been vaccinated. As long as the effects of vaccination increase and expand, there will be more societal pressure on unvaccinated people, with many people keeping their distance from the recalcitrant.
In addition to the outstanding issue of vaccinating children, the effectiveness of the vaccine against the new variants which have reached Israel and the duration of the vaccine’s effectiveness remain essential issues which remain unanswered for now, occupying the minds of experts and professionals.