The decisions come as 20 new omicron cases were discovered in Israel and as the rate of COVID infection rises to a three-month high ■ Bennett is also weighing up sanctions to encourage booster shots
Naftali Bennett announced on Saturday that the list of 'red countries' will be reexamined on a daily basis, in light of the discovery of 20 new omicron cases and a three-month peak in the COVID infection rate.
Travel to and from 'red countries' is expressly forbidden, unless permission is granted by the Exceptions Committee. Health Officials are set to add further countries to the list in the coming days.
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In a meeting of party leaders, it was also decided that Green Pass restrictions would also be introduced to shopping malls, barring entry to unvaccinated Israelis.
Following the new omicron infections on Saturday, Israel's total number of cases with the new coronavirus variant now stands at 55, with 36 of the carriers returning from England, France, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Belarus, Hungary, Italy and Namibia.
Another 11 caught the variant due to contact with people who had returned from South Africa and England, while eight caught it through community transmission.
Health Ministry data on Saturday also reveals that another 51 people are strongly suspected of having been infected with the variant, but the results of the final tests haven’t yet been received.
On top of the new strain, the Health Ministry recorded a three-months peak in the spread of the virus. The R number – the average number of people each COVID carrier infects – reached 1.11 on Saturday. Eights day ago, the figure stood at 1.03.
According to health officials, Bennett is facing a renewed push to impose further restrictions in the coming days.
His main focus, though, will be examining ways to expand the vaccination drive, with around 1 million people in the country refusing to get inoculated, and he is even weighing up imposing sanctions on those refusing to take the booster shot.
Other proposals to stop unvaccinated Israelis from exiting the country have been shot down, and the idea of a selective lockdown on unvaccinated people was blocked by the Deputy Attorney General by Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri.
During the conversation, the prime minister was presented with vaccination data from the HMOs, which he feels are insufficient at this stage. Currently, over 4.1 million people have received the third vaccine dose, and Bennett pushed for the HMOs to act with all the tools at their disposal in order to expand the vaccine rollout.
The number of daily vaccines administered stands at 7,000-8,000 people, whereas Bennett seeks to promote a snap process in which 80,000 eligible people are vaccinated.
“There is great pressure to increase the vaccination rate,” said a senior health system source. “There are grounds for concern. If the infection level of the variant is as reported worldwide, this is a much faster infection rate, doubling itself every few days,” he said. Another health system official estimated that in the next few days the government will be pressured to approve further restrictions, due to the worsening global situation.
Data on omicron building up
Also on Saturday, Sheba Medical Center in central Israel held a press conference, revealing that three doses of the shot lower the risk of infection with the omicron variant, but does not offer the same protection as it did against delta.
The preliminary data shows that people who were vaccinated with two doses six months ago or more are unlikely to be protected from omicron at all.
According to Gili Regev-Yohai, Director of the Infection Prevention and Control Unit at Sheba Medical Center, there is a dramatic gap in immunity between those vaccinated with two doses and those vaccinated with the booster shot.
Meanwhile, a report published over the weekend by the U.K. government estimated that the new variant will become dominant in the kingdom – and that at the current replication rate there will be more than a million newly infected per day by the end of the month.
The scientists of the U.K. Health Safety Agency (UKHSA) found that the existing vaccines against COVID-19 provide reduced protection from symptomatic illness to those infected with the omicron variant compared to the delta variant, but that the booster shot provides significant protection to those infected.
An omicron wave is highly likely in Israel, according to Weizmann Institute Prof. Eren Segal. “It’s more infectious, infects more recovering patients, and you can’t prevent its arrival. The rise can be rapid, because the infection factor is already over 1. The good news is that the booster apparently gives good protection from omicron, so the main effort should be in boosters in child vaccinations, and the time is now,” he said.
About a million Israelis are considered anti-vaxxers. Alongside extension of restrictions on entry into Israel, Bennett seeks a tenfold increase in daily vaccinations and to motivate – through sanctions – those eligible for booster shots to get them. Bennett claimed at a discussion last Thursday that the vaccination rate in Israel is “pathetic” and that campaigns initiated by the government thus far have fallen short of expectations.
According to estimates in Israel, the spread of omicron in Africa is ahead of the rest of the world by about two weeks. Bennett spoke on Thursday with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, against a backdrop of COVID spread in the country. The head of the Public Health Services, Sharon Alroy-Preis, proposed on Thursday declaring all of Europe a red continent. Bennett made clear that he is considering such a move.
The U.K. reported over 58,000 new COVID infections – the highest figure since January 9 – and another 120 deaths. There were 448 omicron infections reported, compared to 249 the day before. Thus far there have been 1,265 recorded infections of the new variant in the U.K, with the number of omicron infections doubling itself every two or three days.
The fact that every day sees more confirmed cases indicates that Israel cannot fully prevent the variant’s entry. In addition, the fact that there are cases in the community untraceable to returnees from abroad may indicate the existence of undiscovered infection chains.
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