'With God's help, we'll get through the fifth wave safely'

PM urges vaccination to slow Omicron: Time is running out, infection wave is coming

Bennett says border restrictions delayed entry of variant, but there is already community transmission; reportedly not planning a sweeping ban on international travel

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday that while travel restrictions had delayed the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant in Israel, a wave of infections is inevitable and vaccination is of the utmost importance.

“This government did a great thing when it made a quick decision three weeks ago to restrict entry into Israel, greatly delaying the entry of the strain into the country,” Bennett said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“We bought the State of Israel precious time; we delayed Omicron for at least three weeks,” he said. “But time is running out, and it just is not enough. Omicron is already in the country and there is already community transmission.”

The prime minister said that people in Israel cannot just rely on other members of the community getting vaccinated, but need to also be inoculated themselves.

“The collective, national protection that the state gives is not enough,” Bennett said. “The wave is coming. Every family needs to be prepared. Every person should make sure that they are vaccinated with three doses, and that their children are vaccinated.”

He added: “With God’s help, we’ll get through the fifth wave safely.”

Ministers at the meeting were told that they should avoid attending crowded gatherings, a day after Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attended an event along with hundreds of supporters of his Yesh Atid party in the northern town of Kiryat Tiv’on.

Bennett has canceled a planned event with journalists from the foreign press that was set to take place on Sunday evening, and pulled out of a business conference later in the week.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) abd Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi arrive to attend a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

At the cabinet meeting, Bennett was expected to urge ministers to get behind a plan to expand the travel ban to a number of countries, including the United States, as Israel braces for a wave of new COVID-19 infections driven by the Omicron variant.

Bennett is not planning a sweeping ban on international travel but instead is aiming for an extended “red” no-fly list, the Haaretz daily reported Sunday.

The cabinet is expected on Sunday to weigh the addition of a number of countries to the list, including the US, Canada, Germany and Turkey.

The additions, which also include Portugal, Morocco, and Hungary, will be brought for cabinet approval, with those countries then set to enter the no-fly list by the end of the week. The UK, Denmark, France, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Norway, Finland and Sweden are already on the “red” list.

Israelis who return from “red” countries are required to enter quarantine in state-run hotels until their first COVID test comes back negative, after which they can leave, but must remain in home quarantine for seven days, even if they are fully vaccinated. Those wanting to travel to “red” countries first need to obtain special permission from a government committee.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Sunday that the restrictions were needed to “buy time” for the vaccination campaign.

“We are facing a new situation. Most of the infection from Omicron is coming from abroad, so we must limit the rate of entry of the virus into Israel in order to buy time and vaccinate as much as possible before the spread also occurs in Israel,” Horowitz told Army Radio.

Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 28, 2021 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Bennett has come under criticism in recent weeks for the policy steps he has taken; however, according to Haaretz, the premier believes he has bought the time needed to slow the entry of the highly contagious variant into the country, giving scientists a window to study it as well as buying time for the vaccination and booster campaign.

The Haaretz report said that this week, Bennett is expected to focus on the vaccination of children, some one million of whom remain unvaccinated.

One plank of the campaign, according to the report, is for schools to become “environments that encourage immunization,” increasing the motivation of students to get vaccinated.

The report said Bennett has been in discussions with officials at the Education Ministry in recent days and found indifference to the vaccination campaign, leading to a lack of motivation for students to get inoculated.

The Education Ministry has been roiled in controversy in recent days amid reported disagreements between Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and ministry officials over COVID policies.

According to Channel 12, Bennett has been presented with data showing “a significant outbreak” of COVID-19 within three weeks, with a peak that would surpass that of the Delta wave, which started in June.

On Sunday, Prof. Ran Balicer, chairman of the government’s COVID-19 advisory team, said that a wave of infections was inevitable.

A child receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Katsrin on December 16, 2021 (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

“It may take a few weeks, but the next wave will come,” Balicer told Army Radio. “We are still in a fog of uncertainty and until the severity of [illness caused by] the strain becomes clear, it will be very difficult to determine a clear course of action.”

A day earlier, Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science and a top adviser to the government’s coronavirus cabinet, said there were still many unknowns about the Omicron variant but that Israel may see “a significant morbidity wave” and “a doubling of cases every two to three days, compared to every 10 days with Delta.”

Segal estimated that the uptick in cases will occur in about 2-3 weeks.

He said that currently available data on Omicron’s severity was “contradictory,” with initial “encouraging” data from South Africa, which raised the alarm about the new variant in late November, offset by data from the UK.

Segal said Israel has been able to buy itself some time, “but the vaccination campaign is virtually treading water,” with more than three million people not fully vaccinated including a million children and another million adults who have yet to receive their booster shots, the third dose of the vaccine.

The Health Ministry is also considering vaccinating the elderly population with a fourth dose, pending further research on such a move. Horowitz said Sunday that the decision would be made by the relevant experts.

“We intend to consider a fourth [dose of the] vaccine, because we are seeing that the booster begins to weaken after a few months,” Horowitz said. “This week there will be a meeting of the [relevant] team — it is a purely professional, medical decision. We want to protect the most vulnerable population — the elderly.”

A teen is tested for COVID-19 in Katzrin, December 12, 2021 (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said Sunday that 372 new COVID-19 infections were diagnosed on Saturday, a low number representing reduced testing over the weekend. Some 838 new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed Thursday, 45 of which had been confirmed to be of the Omicron variant, bringing the total number of Omicron cases in Israel to over 130.

Most of the cases were found in people returning from overseas. The ministry did not provide a breakdown of the latest figures.

According to the ministry, there were 81 patients in serious condition and 41 on ventilators Sunday. Most patients in serious condition are over 60 and unvaccinated.

Since the start of the pandemic, 5.8 million Israelis have received two vaccine doses, and over 4.1 million have gotten a third, booster shot.

The death toll in Israel since the start of the pandemic stood at 8,232 on Sunday.

On Sunday morning it was announced that the Shahar Eshkol Elementary School in the south of the country had switched to distance learning after a virus outbreak infected 20 students and sent some 300 others into quarantine. Last week, an elementary school in Jerusalem shut down after 62 students were infected in an outbreak of the virus.

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