Israel facing new COVID outbreaks

What happened: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said the government would adopt a series of measures to try and stop a coronavirus outbreak from spiralling out of control.

  • In his first major speech since taking office, the Prime Minister said yesterday he would reconvene the coronavirus cabinet and urged Israelis to avoid nonessential international travel. Bennett said the public would be notified of additional measures in the coming days.
  • According to official data, 125 Israelis tested positive for coronavirus on Monday, the majority carrying the Delta variant likely imported from abroad.
  • Speaking on a tour of Ben Gurion International Airport with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, Bennett added that “the Delta variant of the virus, also known as the Indian variant, is spreading rapidly around the world, with an infection rate that is much higher than we’ve seen before”.
  • Some of the initial measures Bennett announced is to stop people coming into the country spreading the new variant. As of today, all passengers must take a PCR test before leaving the airport. As a result, Israel will increase the number of testing sites at the airport from 30 to 70.
  • The Prime Minister also said that masks will become mandatory again within the airport, and encouraged Israelis to resume wearing face masks indoors, despite the government ending the requirement last week.
  • Seventy-eight of those tested on Monday were children and about a third of the new cases had received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The Health Ministry said that most of the new cases were found in Modiin and Binyamina – localities that had already been identified as places of the new outbreak.

Context: The return of coronavirus to Israel comes after outbreaks in schools in Modiin and Binyamina.

  • Whilst 75 per cent of the eligible population in Israel has received the Pfizer vaccine, this includes only 2-4 per cent of 12-15 year-olds since they were made eligible this month, according to health ministry data.
  • Prime Minister Bennett’s drive to vaccinate all teenagers is part of this effort to stop the spread of the new variant.
  • The Health Ministry’s director-general, Prof. Hezi Levi, has said that the population is not fully protected as herd immunity has not yet kicked in and that the uptick of COVID cases is a cause for concern.
  • Other health officials are less alarmed by the rise in cases. Ran Balicer, the head of Israel’s COVID advisory panel, said the rise in cases is not surprising or alarming and noted there has been no severe COVID cases reported among those infected. Coronavirus response coordinator Nachman Ash has described the outbreaks at several schools as localised upticks, and not a sign that Israel could be facing a fresh wave of infections.
  • With infections falling to single digits by June after a successful vaccination drive, Israel dropped nearly all social distancing and announced the opening of its borders to vaccinated tourists next month. However, the new outbreak puts this in doubt.
  • The Health Ministry is now requiring Israeli travellers to sign a declaration stating that they would not enter countries designated as virus hotspots, including Russia, India, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.
  • Defence Minister Benny Gantz said: “The war on coronavirus is not behind us, but with determined and rapid action, we will maintain a low level of infection and we will win this fight as well.”

Looking ahead: The Health Ministry has authorised officials to impose quarantine on vaccinated Israelis if they had been in high-risk countries.

  • Quarantine could also be imposed on people who had come in contact with a COVID-19 patient carrying the Delta variant or other highly transmissible virus strains.
  • Israel has around one million Pfizer vaccines with an expiry date of the end of July and is hoping to vaccinate as many youths as possible in the coming month.
  • It is believed by health experts that Israel will not achieve herd immunity if teenagers are not vaccinated.

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