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PM: At this rate, could be 1 million daily cases in 3 weeks

As Omicron wave looms, Bennett says next 2 weeks critical to get kids vaccinated

Prime minister warns Omicron may be twice as contagious as Delta variant, hints that he could pursue more restrictions to flatten curve once wave hits

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton hold a meeting at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem on December 20, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton hold a meeting at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem on December 20, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hinted Monday at future health restrictions and said that while most people may eventually contract COVID-19, being vaccinated would keep their illness from “being a big deal.”

At a meeting with education officials about vaccinating children, Bennett said Israel would race to make sure every eligible kid was immunized in the next two weeks, as Israel girds for what is expected to be a major wave of new cases fueled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

“This is a wave that we cannot stop, but we can delay and slow and diminish its strength,” said Bennett alongside Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton. The goal, he said, was to get through it without harm to the economy or the education system.

The prime minister warned that the Omicron variant “is unusually contagious. While during Delta we saw a doubling [of cases] every 10 days, now the average is [a doubling] every day or two or three days,” Bennett said, adding that health authorities were still learning about the new variant.

“If today we have 1,000 [new daily] confirmed cases, and it’s doubling every two days, then in 20 days there’ll be a million new cases daily,” he also said, according to a Channel 12 news report, which noted dryly “not everyone in the healthcare system would sign off on that.”

Noting early evidence that shows Omicron may be better than the Delta variant at evading vaccine protection, Bennett said it was likely vaccination still thwarted serious illness.

“It’s not inconceivable that many of us will unfortunately be infected, but it’s not a big deal because we are vaccinated,” he said.

The prime minister said over the next two weeks, the main priority for “the State of Israel, the government of Israel and the education system is to vaccinate the children of Israel before the beginning of the wave.”

A child is vaccinated against the coronavirus at an elementary school in Tzur Hadassah, December 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Once the wave arrives in full force, said Bennett, “we will try to flatten it so that it does not double itself.” He did not say what measures would be put in place, though observers interpreted the comment to mean he would push for more restrictions.

Bennett’s government has imposed curbs on movement haltingly as case numbers have risen, largely cutting off international travel but keeping most venues inside the country open to those with a vaccination certificate. Instead the government has pushed heavily for all eligible Israelis to be vaccinated, though Shasha-Biton and others in Bennett’s cabinet have faced accusations that they are not sufficiently supporting the vaccination of young children, including in schools.

Israel began vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds one month ago, but the response has been relatively slow thus far. As of Monday, 11.4 percent of the age group had received a first dose of the COVID vaccine, compared to 61% of children ages 12-15, who became eligible for the shot in June.

News reports have alleged that many school officials were instructed to refrain from pushing for in-school vaccinations and not to encourage parents to do so.

According to Hebrew media reports, Bennett asked Education Ministry staff at the meeting on Monday if they were in favor of a vacation day from school to allow for vaccination, and most officials said they were opposed.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton seen during a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Shasha-Biton recently fired the Education Ministry’s director-general, reportedly over disagreements due to COVID vaccines in schools, claims that the minister has denied. Days later, the ministry’s COVID chief quit, spurring further rumors over the reason for the firing.

Shasha-Biton vocally opposed vaccinating children against COVID on school grounds earlier this year, calling such a move “criminal,” but later reversed course and agreed to let it move forward. She rose to prominence in the Knesset last year after challenging health restrictions pushed by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Monday, Shasha-Biton voiced support for increasing the number of mobile vaccination stations at schools.

“Where there were mobile vaccine stations, there was a success in vaccinating, particularly in the Arab sector,” said Shasha-Biton, noting that more mobile units are being rolled out.

“The more medical personnel we have, the more it will be possible to expand the vaccine operation in the [education] system in a short time and to increase the number of those vaccinated,” she added, saying that the education system is “cooperating fully” with the Health Ministry, IDF Home Front Command and other bodies to support vaccinating school-age children.

Bennett reiterated the need for education officials to get on board with the vaccination drive.

“I expect every district chief, every supervisor, every principal and every teacher to understand that this is the chief goal of the next two weeks,” he said, “above all other goals.”

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