How Israel Designates U.S., Italy as Omicron 'Red Countries' and Bans Travel There

Haaretz explains Israel's criteria for restricting travel to a country and which are expected to join the 'red countries' list over omicron

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
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Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, last month.
Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, last month.Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

The government is expected to approve an expansion of the list of “red” countries, ones that are off-limits to Israeli travelers. Due to join the list are Italy, United States, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Canada and Switzerland, which would bring the total to 62 countries.

Travel to these countries is subject to approval by an exemptions committee, and those entering Israel from them are required to fully quarantine.

In recent days the Health Ministry has reexamined the ranking system for countries. First, upon the spread of the omicron variant throughout Africa, that continent’s countries were declared red. When the variant began to spread in Europe, the ministry formulated four scenarios for further restrictions on leaving the country, from loosest to strictest. The ministry first took the loosest approach, but quickly adopted a stricter one.

Now the ministry is using another approach that changes once every few days according to illness rates and government decisions. The model adopted includes three criteria for defining a country as red:

The first criterion applies only to countries that do their own genetic sequencing for most COVID tests within their borders, as does Israel. Such a country will turn red if the rate of omicron infection reaches 10 percent of the total COVID infections in that country. The Health Ministry admits that this is a tricky condition as many countries that likely also have been invaded by the new variant are not on the list due to lack of data.

The second criterion applies to most of the world’s countries, which cannot distinguish an omicron carrier from a person infected with another strain of COVID. Such a country will be declared red if at least five of every 10,000 entrants from it are found to be COVID-positive, and if omicron carriers are at least 10 percent of all verified cases entering from that country.

The third criterion is “strong geographical connection to a country with at least 10 percent omicron among infections.” This definition applies to countries where many residents of red countries may be found. It does not rely solely on geographical proximity: The United States has been defined as close to the United Kingdom, despite the entirety of the Atlantic Ocean separating them, due to the heavy traffic on the London-New York air routes. For the same reason, Turkey has been declared "close” to Africa.

Data shown to Haaretz by the ministry clarifies why each of the countries added Sunday were put on the list: Belgium, Portugal, and Canada reported an omicron prevalence of higher than 10 percent among COVID infections; among entrants from Italy, U.S., Morocco and Switzerland, more than five of every 10,000 entrants were found to be COVID-positive, and the rate of omicron among these exceeds 10 percent. While the figures for Germany, Hungary and Turkey are lower, in all these countries the rate of omicron carriers among all COVID carriers is very high, and they have strong ties with red countries.

The government decision may add “borderline countries” – those that are close to the defined threshold but not over it – to the list of red countries. Such a country is The Netherlands, which went into full lockdown on Sunday.

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