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As virus cases continue to tumble, official says indoor face masks may be scrapped

Daily caseload lowest in over a month and a half, number of hospitalized patients down; senior Health Ministry official says mask requirement could end by Passover in mid-April

Israelis wear protective face masks in Dizengoff Center, Tel Aviv, on September 13, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israelis wear protective face masks in Dizengoff Center, Tel Aviv, on September 13, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Health Ministry figures released Sunday show a further drop in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, with a senior ministry official saying that if the trends continue, a requirement to wear face masks at indoor locations could be dropped in weeks.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is to meet with Health Ministry officials later in the day to discuss easing a range of remaining rules aimed at curbing infections as Israel appears to be exiting a wave driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Face masks will be one of the topics on the agenda, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Ministry figures on Sunday showed that there were 10,354 new virus cases diagnosed the day before, the lowest daily caseload since 6,615 on January 2. The number of people diagnosed tends to be lower on weekends due to a reduction in the number of tests carried out.

Although there was a slight rise in the number of seriously ill patients, reaching 832 on Sunday morning, overall there was a reduction in the number of people who were hospitalized — 1,803, down from 1,918 the day before.

Over the past seven days, 575 people became seriously ill with COVID-19, a drop of 36 percent from the week before that, according to the ministry.

A worker on a coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on February 09, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With the deaths of seven more people on Saturday, the toll since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 rose to 9,841.

A senior Health Ministry official told Kan that if the fall in cases continued, it is likely a decision will be made to cancel the requirement for wearing face masks in indoor public spaces before the upcoming Passover festival in April.

The official said such a move, which would constitute the revoking of one of the remaining significant virus rules, would totally depend on a continued downward trend in infections until then.

In this Monday, September 21, 2020 file photo, ultra-Orthodox Jews wear face masks during a morning prayer in a synagogue separated by plastic partitions, in Bnei Brak, Israel. (AP/Oded Balilty, File)

The unnamed official said that due to the large numbers infected during the Omicron wave and data showing that infection with the variant may offer future protection against similar strains, there could be a relatively long stretch before the rise of a future wave of infections.

However, he noted that any variant that is significantly different from Omicron could set off its own infection spike.

On Friday a top adviser to the government, Eran Segal, estimated that nearly half of Israel’s 9.5 million population were likely infected at some point with the Omicron variant during what was the country’s fifth wave of infections over the past two and a half months.

Around 70 percent of Israelis have been infected with the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, or around 6 to 7 million people, Segal told Channel 12.

When Bennett huddles with health officials on Sunday, he also will discuss ongoing limits on public gatherings, as well as the potential scrapping of some travel regulations.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Feb. 13, 2022. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

Officials will also discuss the ongoing framework for operating the education system that is set to expire on March 1, Kan reported. Health Ministry officials expect the arrangements won’t be extended and will be canceled in a week and a half. Under current rules, all students undergo home antigen tests twice a week and no longer need to quarantine if they are exposed to a carrier.

Last week, ministers agreed they would not extend the Green Pass system beyond March 1. The certification grants entry to some public venues to those who are vaccinated, have recovered from COVID-19, or have recently tested negative for the virus.

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