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Coronavirus czar calls for return to masking in public as infections climb

Salman Zarka urges Israelis to take precautions during Hannukah, get updated vaccine; Health Ministry warns flu, RSV viruses spreading

Magen David Adom emergency service staff with a patient from the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on February 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Magen David Adom emergency service staff with a patient from the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on February 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka on Thursday warned that COVID-19 infections are on the rise and urged Israelis to wear masks indoors and take other precautions.

“Coronavirus morbidity is climbing — both the number of infections is up and the number of positive test results,” Zarka said in a meeting with outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

“It’s important that our defense gets better, by way of vaccines and putting on masks in closed spaces like the bus, train, flights and the supermarket,” Zarka said, according to Channel 12.

He said the number of people hospitalized with the virus was the primary concern, with 15-20 patients entering hospitals per day as the Omicron variants BQ.1.1 and BQ.1 spread through the population.

Only three percent of 470 severe infections in the past month had received the most recent vaccine, he said, and only 314,920 people have been vaccinated against Omicron, according to Health Ministry statistics.

“I’m again calling on the public, especially the at-risk population, to go get vaccinated as soon as possible and not wait for a new infection wave,” Zarka said.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus in Jerusalem on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He added that people should be especially careful when gathering with family during Hannukah and urged young people to take precautions when visiting elderly relatives by wearing masks and testing themselves for the virus.

Israel officially lifted the indoor mask mandate on April 24, scrapping one of the few remaining coronavirus restrictions that were still in place more than two years into the pandemic. Between April 2020 and April 2022, Israelis were required to wear face coverings indoors for all but 10 days in June 2021, when the mandate was briefly lifted before being swiftly brought back amid burgeoning cases at the time.

The Health Ministry said 54 people were hospitalized in critical condition with COVID-19 as of Thursday night. There were 13,662 confirmed active cases, 22 people died in the past week and the death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 11,905. Over 63,000 people have been infected in the past week.

The R number, which indicates how many people each COVID case infects on average, stood at 1.01, meaning the virus was slowly spreading.

At the height of the pandemic, there were 88,000 active cases in the country and 1,228 serious cases.

Hospital staff in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on February 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Thursday also warned Israelis of the dangers posed by the flu and the RSV viruses.

In the past week, the number of patients hospitalized with RSV jumped 31%. Since the beginning of October, 696 people have been hospitalized with RSV, including 229 in the past week.

RSV is one of the typically common illnesses that have receded during the pandemic, surprising many doctors. The virus, which causes symptoms like runny nose, cough and fever, can cause a child to eat less and spreads easily in schools and daycare facilities.

Most children will have contracted the virus by the age of 2 and, for most of them, the virus is not dangerous. But RSV can lead to more serious illness in babies, whose airways are smaller and who lack immunity to the virus.

Doctors speculate that lockdowns last year kept people from contracting RSV, therefore lowering the level of immunity to the virus in the general population as it emerged from lockdown.

The Health Ministry also urged the public to get vaccinated against the flu, particularly elderly people and those at risk. Only 15% of people registered with HMOs have been vaccinated against the flu, and 54% of those 65 and over.

Since the beginning of October, 791 people have been hospitalized with the flu, including 202 in the past week.

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