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COVID positivity rate hits 4-month low as Israel prepares to allow in tourists

Just 642 people tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday; government lifts cap on outdoor gatherings, readies vaccine drive for kids

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

A child receives a coronavirus test at a health clinic in Katzrin, September 6, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
A child receives a coronavirus test at a health clinic in Katzrin, September 6, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The COVID-19 positivity rate in Israel dipped further on Thursday, reaching a low not seen since the beginning of July, according to Health Ministry statistics.

But ahead of the expected approval of vaccinations for ages 5-11, health officials are warning against dropping the ball on vaccines that could stave off future waves.

Just 642 people tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday, out of close to 80,000 tests, marking a positivity rate of 0.81 percent. At the peak of Israel’s fourth wave in early September, the positivity rate surpassed 8%.

The government voted Wednesday evening to cancel the restrictions on outdoor gatherings, which until now had been capped at 5,000 people. As of Friday, open-air gatherings that require a Green Pass will be able to have an unlimited number of attendees.

Overall, all indicators point to the ending of Israel’s fourth COVID wave, which began in July and at its height saw more than 10,000 new cases reported each day. As of Thursday, there were 10,031 active COVID cases in the country, with 332 hospitalized, 238 of those in serious condition and 139 of them on ventilators.

The number of serious cases, a key figure for Israel’s COVID policies, remained steady on Thursday, after weeks of decline from a peak of more than 700 in late September. The average rate of COVID-linked deaths has also declined steadily in recent weeks, with just one such death reported on Wednesday, although those figures are often later revised.

Empty beds in the intensive care unit at the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on October 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Under Israel’s traffic light program — which ranks localities as red, orange, yellow or green depending on their number of new cases, rate of positivity and growth rate of cases — just one town is currently listed as red: the Beit El settlement outside Jerusalem. Eleven towns are ranked as orange, and the rest of the country is either yellow or green.

The end of Israel’s fourth wave has been credited at least in part to its booster vaccine campaign, which began among those over 65 in August and was quickly rolled out to the rest of the population. As of Thursday morning, almost 4 million Israelis — more than 42% of the total population — have received a third dose of the COVID vaccine. Close to 67% of the total population has received at least one shot.

Around 650,000 people who are eligible for vaccines have not received any of the shots, while about 1.1 million Israelis eligible for the booster have yet to receive it.

A key Health Ministry advisory panel is set to meet next week to begin the approval process for vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds, after the US Food and Drug Administration approved it earlier this week. Health Ministry director general Nachman Ash said he expects a fair amount of hesitancy among parents, but that the ministry is aiming to make the approval process as transparent and clear as possible to alleviate any concerns.

13-year-old Tomer Zarfati receives his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary Clalit health care center in Jerusalem, August 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel is still awaiting a shipment of the Pfizer COVID doses for children, which are one-third of the dose given to adults. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly ordered health officials to hurry along the shipment, which is slated to arrive in mid-November.

Starting Monday, Israel will be opening up its borders — somewhat — allowing in vaccinated tourists who have received a second or third dose or recovered in the past six months. Despite the restrictions, experts say that reopening Ben-Gurion will pose a risk of new variants and a spike in cases.

According to Channel 12 news, tourists caught violating quarantine will be deported and banned from reentry for three years. And those caught violating quarantine while COVID-positive will be deported and banned for five years.

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