COVID czar cautiously optimistic sixth wave will recede soon

Despite recent discovery of new subvariant BA2.75 in Israel, Salman Zarka says mask mandate not expected to return anytime soon

Jerusalemites wearing face masks walk in the city center in February 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Jerusalemites wearing face masks walk in the city center in February 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Despite the discovery of a new COVID subvariant in Israel this week, coronavirus czar Salman Zarka sounded a note of calm on Monday, suggesting the current wave would soon be subsiding.

Two weeks after he urged the public to wear masks indoors and said health officials were weighing reintroducing a mask mandate, Zarka told North Radio 104.5FM that he did not think such a move was necessary.

“As long as we are living alongside the virus, it doesn’t seem to us that at this time we need to obligate the public,” Zarka said.

Israel canceled its indoor face mask requirement in April after having made them mandatory for close to two years, barring a two-week period in 2021.

The discovery of three new cases of the BA2.75 subvariant in Israel on Sunday did not prevent Zarka from maintaining a positive outlook, though he noted that any time a new variant arises there is “cause for concern.”

“As long as we are unsure about the transmissibility and aggressiveness of a variant, it is our role to be cautious. Therefore we’re somewhat concerned until we clarify the matter,” Zarka said.

Screen capture from video of national coronavirus czar Salman Zarka during a video press briefing, July 6, 2022. (Twitter)

Nicknamed “Centaurus,” the relatively new variant has been detected in other countries as well, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands.

Since the end of mandatory PCR tests for those arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in May, it has been difficult to accurately gauge the number of cases and the identity of new variants entering the country.

Zarka said that according to the Health Ministry’s estimation, there are likely between 30 and 100 cases of the BA2.75 subvariant already inside Israel.

New daily COVID-19 case numbers have continued to drop, with 7,976 confirmed cases reported on Sunday, down from 12,252 confirmed cases two weeks earlier. The positivity rate among those tested was 31%, and the R number stood at 0.87, indicating that the current wave is in decline.

Although daily case numbers may be dropping, Sunday’s data from the Health Ministry showed 456 people with COVID hospitalized in serious condition, the highest such figure seen during the current sixth wave.

A child receives a COVID vaccine in Jerusalem on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Zarka predicted, however, that the numbers of both new daily cases and those seriously ill with COVID will begin to decline in the coming week.

Two weeks after the Health Ministry approved giving COVID vaccines to children aged six months to five years, Zarka said that such shots had yet to be rolled out, since Israel is still waiting for shipments of the correct-sized doses.

“We are talking about a reduced dose, and the issue of safety is the most important — the vaccine has been tested very well in this respect,” he said.

Interest in COVID vaccines for babies and toddlers is expected to be fairly low in Israel. As of Sunday, less than 18% of children ages 5-11 had received both doses of the COVID vaccine, while 25% had received at least one.

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