COVID czar says health officials weighing return of indoor mask mandate

Salman Zarka says highly infectious variant driving 6th wave is a danger to the elderly, steps must be taken to protect at-risk groups; calls for returning travelers to get a PCR

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

COVID czar Salman Zarka urged the public on Wednesday to wear face masks when indoors, and said that officials will meet in the coming days to consider making the practice mandatory as new virus cases continue to tick upwards.

At a video press briefing, Zarka said the increase in patients seriously ill with COVID-19 makes indoor masking crucial, stressing the need to protect the elderly and at-risk populations.

Israel has recently seen a surge in COVID-19 infections with the daily caseload jumping to over 12,000 and the number of seriously ill patients tripling to more than 370.

Zarka said if the number of seriously ill and hospitalized patients continues to go up, it will be necessary to make face masks compulsory in enclosed spaces. He said officials will discuss the matter in the coming days.

But Zarka noted that in his professional opinion, face masks should already be mandatory indoors.

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.

Illustrative: A woman wearing a face mask gets her hair done at a salon in Jerusalem on November 1, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Zarka said that the sixth wave of infections the country has experienced since the pandemic began in early 2020 is being driven by an Omicron variant.

“This variant is more infectious; it is very infectious,” Zarka said.

With more than 90% of those hospitalized with COVID over age 60, he said that those in that age group “must wear masks” in enclosed areas. He also called on the general public to be careful when visiting elderly people and advised taking an antigen test before making such visits.

A new highly infectious variant has been recently detected in India, Zarka reported, urging those returning from abroad to seek out a PCR test. He said the ministry was in particular asking those who return from India or Africa to take a PCR test, though the ministry canceled mandatory post-flight testing in May.

In a related development, the Health Ministry said its director-general Nachman Ash has backed the recommendation of an expert panel to make vaccines available for children 6 months to 5 years old. Currently, the vaccines are only offered to age 5 and above.

The ministry said in a statement it will top up supplies at health clinics to ensure there are enough for the nation’s tots in the coming weeks.

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash at a press conference in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

The announcement came a day after a letter was leaked to news outlets in which Ash supported vaccines for kids as young as 6 months old, but did not explicitly back the panel’s advice that shots be recommended for high-risk babies and toddlers.

Wednesday’s statement, however, included that endorsement.

“The vaccine is especially recommended for children at high risk of serious illness from the coronavirus due to chronic underlying conditions or whose immune system is compromised,” the statement reads.

The ministry noted that its endorsement comes after the US Food and Drug Administration already okayed the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and after two meetings by the panel in which comprehensive analyses found the vaccines to be safe and effective for kids.

Health Ministry figures published Tuesday showed that a day earlier, 13,901 new virus patients were diagnosed, the highest one-day figure since February 17. The number of seriously ill patients was given as 376, compared to just 91 a month ago.

Of the 49,641 virus tests carried out at testing centers on Tuesday, 30.01 percent were positive. Since the start of the pandemic, 10,984 people have died in Israel from COVID-19.

Israel made mass vaccination a key strategy in confronting the pandemic. By Monday, of the total population of around 9.5 million, 6,712,696 had received at least one dose, and 6,145,742 had two shots. There were 4,502,191 people who had received a third dose, and 830,694 who have had a fourth.

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