Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday that a resurgence of COVID-19 infections can be beaten back without putting the country under new restrictions, and urged vaccination of the youth population.
His remarks came as the daily caseload of coronavirus infections continued to climb, reaching 283 the day before, a level not seen since April. Infections have been steadily climbing over the past two weeks from just a few dozen cases a day.
Bennett, who was joined by Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and incoming Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash, toured a youth vaccination center in Holon as part of efforts to encourage inoculation among children, now that the country has made the shots available to those aged 12-15.
“We can beat the current coronavirus wave without restrictions,” Bennett said. “Vaccinations instead of lockdowns, masks instead of restrictions.”
Nonetheless, he said the government would strive to clamp down on Israelis who visit banned countries on a so-called “red list” of locations where there is a high risk of COVID-19 infection. Health officials have blamed the recent spike in infections on travelers who brought back new variants of the virus from abroad and did not properly quarantine after arriving.
“We are working to completely prohibit flights to red countries,” Bennett said. “It will be a violation of the law.
He noted that efforts were being made to close loopholes at Ben Gurion International Airport that had previously enabled some flyers returning to the country to pass through the terminus without being checked for infection.
“We are in the process of closing that,” Bennett said. “One hundred percent of people are being checked but there are still bugs that we are correcting and checking.”
The prime minister appealed to parents who are holding back on getting their children vaccinated, saying, “The Delta disease can harm those who are not vaccinated, and that is the children,” a reference to the virus variant that has been identified as causing most of the recent infections.
Bennett set a goal of vaccinating 30,000 youths a day for the next 10 days.
“It is ambitious but possible,” he said.
Bennett also noted that current vaccine supplies will pass their expiration date by the end of July and three weeks are needed between the first and last shots.
“Thus, we have ten days in which we can still administer the first vaccination,” he said. He noted that Sunday saw 18,000 people getting vaccine shots, the highest figure in months.
The Population, Immigration, and Border Authority, together with the Health Ministry, announced earlier in the day that eight Israeli citizens tried to board a flight to Russia, a red-listed country, without getting required permission for the journey from a special PIBA committee. The passengers, who were traveling using foreign passports, were stopped at the boarding gate and handed over to police.
Though there is a NIS 5,000 ($1,500) fine on Israelis who travel to red countries without permission, the passengers may not have to pay up as they did not actually leave the country, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
Earlier this week, the Health Ministry introduced regulations requiring all Israelis leaving the country to sign a form declaring they will not visit countries on the red list. Authorities were checking if the passengers signed the form, in which case they could be fined for making a false declaration.
The countries where Israelis are currently banned from traveling, per Health Ministry orders, are Argentina, Brazil, India, South Africa, Mexico, and Russia.
With the rise of daily infections, there were 1,537 COVID-19 patients in the country, according to Health Ministry figures released Tuesday. Of those, 21 are in serious condition.
The Health Ministry on Tuesday morning downgraded two more localities that have seen a surge in infections under its “traffic light” system for ranking municipalities based on the severity of morbidity there.
Kfar Saba and the West Bank settlement of Zufim joined Binyamina and Kohav Yair as red locations with the highest infection rates.
Modiin remained orange, while Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Ramle, and Pardes Hanna were all yellow.
Binyamina’s outbreak, the first major spread of the virus in Israel in recent months, apparently began with a student who came into contact with an infected person who recently arrived from abroad.
The Delta variant of the virus, first identified in India, is more contagious than other variants and may be better able to bypass vaccines, but apparently does not cause serious infection. The transmissibility of the Delta variant over the original strain is around 40%, according to the United Kingdom’s Public Health agency. The effectiveness of two vaccine doses for protection from hospitalization is at 96%, according to the agency.
Since the start of the virus outbreak in the country last year, there have been 841,319 COVID-19 cases detected and 6,429 people have died of the disease.
Despite the apparent surge in Delta cases in Israel, serious cases and hospitalizations in the country have remained relatively stable.
On Friday, Israel reimposed its indoor mask requirement. The Health Ministry also called on Israelis to wear face coverings when taking part in mass gatherings outdoors, and urged those in at-risk groups or who are not vaccinated to avoid gatherings. Officials are also reportedly weighing whether to recommend the wearing of masks outdoors as well as whether to place restrictions on gatherings.
Previous waves of virus infections saw restrictions introduced on public life and gathering including periods of near-total lockdown of the population.