Bennett: Tightening of border controls has kept Omicron from spreading in Israel

PM says airport regulations bought time for vaccine campaign; announcing plan to give shots in schools, says inoculation rates must rise to protect children from new strain

Travelers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 29, 2021. (Flash90)
Travelers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 29, 2021. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday defended his government’s decision to tighten airport restrictions, saying the entry ban for noncitizens and increased quarantine for incoming travelers, which was extended last week until December 22, has kept the Omicron coronavirus variant from spreading throughout the country.

“Two weeks ago we decided to tighten restrictions on entry into the country, and there were those who said we were going too far but we see now that we were not going too far at all,” he said as he opened the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “The Omicron [variant] is indeed worrying. Europe is entering the holiday season under significant restrictions and lockdowns in some countries.”

Bennett said that thanks to the entry ban as well as stricter quarantine regulations for incoming travelers, Israel has been able to do without such measures.

“We know that the Omicron variant has entered Israel, but at the moment, following the steps we have taken, the numbers are low. The situation in Israel is significantly better than most of the world, but it is not difficult to understand that if Ben Gurion Airport opens, the numbers will skyrocket,” he said.

Bennett is himself set to fly to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday.

Amid the rise of the Omicron COVID-19 variant late last month, the government took the far-reaching steps of shuttering its borders to foreigners for two weeks. On Thursday evening, Bennett ordered the directive extended an additional ten days.

Explaining the decision Sunday, Bennett said, “We want to delay [Omicron’s] entry into the country through the restrictions at Ben Gurion Airport, and at the same time take advantage of these precious days to increase everyone’s immunity. We are not protected enough at the moment.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 12, 2021. (EMIL SALMAN/POOL)

With Israel having expanded its vaccination campaign to those aged 5-11 earlier this month, the Health Ministry said Sunday that some 111,000 children in that age group have been vaccinated with at least one shot.

Urging parents to get their kids vaccinated, Bennett warned Sunday that children can be affected by the Omicron variant.

“Just this week in England, two middle school students died from Omicron; one was not vaccinated at all and the other was partially vaccinated,” Bennett said, apparently referring to the cases of 15-year-old Harry Towers and 14-year old Mohamed Habib, reported in Britain this week.

However, the two contracted the virus before the Omicron variant was detected in the UK and there have been no deaths reported in Britain from the strain. (Bennett later put out a tweet correcting his statement and confirming Towers and Habib had died from the virus but not the new variant.)

“In Israel, too, children are being harmed,” he added. “The way to protect them is to vaccinate them. Do not waste a moment, take them today to get vaccinated.”

Children aged 5-11 receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, at Clallit vaccination center in Jerusalem on November 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett said that in order to increase vaccination rates, particularly among children, the Health Ministry together with the Education Ministry would begin on Sunday administering vaccinations in schools across the country. Fifty schools are set to take part in the pilot program Sunday, with more added throughout the week.

Echoing comments made last week by Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Bennett also said that Israel was “preparing for the need” to administer fourth shots in the new year, starting with the immunocompromised.

The comments came as newly verified Omicron cases on Saturday brought the number of confirmed infections from the variant in Israel to 55.

According to the Health Ministry, 36 Omicron cases were among people returning from South Africa, England, France, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Hungary, Italy and Namibia. It said 11 people were infected after exposure to travelers coming from South Africa and England, while eight cases were the result of community spread.

The ministry said Saturday night that 42 people infected with Omicron were “protected,” which it defines as those who received a booster shot, or who received their first two vaccine doses or recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months. The other 13 cases were listed as “unprotected.”

Hospital workers wearing safety work in the coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on October 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The ministry also said it was waiting on the test results of another 51 cases in which there was a “high suspicion” of Omicron.

And in a first, the Health Ministry announced someone was hospitalized in serious condition from Omicron — an unvaccinated man. The ministry said he was one of 40 people with Omicron experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. No details were given on the vaccination status of the other symptomatic cases.

The latest Health Ministry figures showed 223 coronavirus infections were confirmed in Israel on Saturday, with 0.63 percent of tests coming back positive. The number of serious cases has recently ticked back above 100, days after dropping below that mark for the first time in four months.

The death toll remained at 8,210, with no fatalities since last Monday.

A total of 6,400,940 Israeli have received a first coronavirus vaccine, with 5,789,014 of them having also received a second shot and 4,120,329 of them having received a third.

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