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COVID reproduction number rising steadily in Israel in recent weeks

Two weeks after most restrictions lifted, coronavirus czar Salman Zarka said to be worried that trend of declining cases will reverse ahead of Purim, Passover

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

A Magen David Adom worker takes a COVID-19 test sample at a drive through complex in Jerusalem, on January 17, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A Magen David Adom worker takes a COVID-19 test sample at a drive through complex in Jerusalem, on January 17, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The rate of COVID transmission has ticked upward in recent weeks in Israel, leading some health officials to be concerned that a new wave of the virus could be on its way ahead of Purim and Passover.

The R number — the reproduction rate of the novel coronavirus — hit 0.87 on Sunday, rising steadily from 0.66 over a period of two weeks. New daily COVID cases have dropped fairly steadily over the past month, from more than 30,000 in mid-February to just over 5,000 on Friday.

As cases have dropped, signifying the tail end of the Omicron-driven fifth wave, health officials have continued to lift restrictions. As of March 1, the “Green Pass” program was canceled, and no proof of vaccine is required for entry to any activities. All tourists are also now allowed to enter the country regardless of their vaccination status — after presenting a negative COVID test before boarding and undergoing another test upon landing in Israel. The indoor mask mandate, however, has remained in place, although it goes largely unenforced.

Next week will mark the holiday of Purim, often celebrated with large parties and celebrations. A month later is Passover, which is generally observed with extended family gatherings. Two years ago, Passover was marked under a strict lockdown, with families ordered to not host any relatives from outside their household.

As on Sunday afternoon, there were 41,619 active COVID cases in the country, with 3,957 new cases confirmed on Saturday. Among the active cases, 882 are hospitalized, with 353 of them in serious condition and 158 of them on ventilators. Fifty-five people with COVID in Israel have died over the past week, a 57% drop from the figure a week earlier. The death toll since the start of the pandemic stands at 10,379.

According to Channel 12 news, COVID czar Salman Zarka said in internal Health Ministry meetings that he is “concerned that by next week the trend could reverse, and we could start to see a rise in seriously ill patients.” He also reportedly warned that cases are rising in old age homes, and that people are being less careful as the wave has ebbed.

Separately, the Health Ministry announced Sunday that the price of PCR tests for those landing at Ben Gurion International Airport would drop, and passengers could pay extra for fast results. Under the new price guide, slated to go into effect by March 27, passengers paying in advance for a PCR test will pay NIS 63, compared to NIS 80 until now; and those paying at the airport will pay NIS 79, compared to NIS 115 until now.

All arriving passengers are subject to a PCR test before exiting the airport, and must remain in isolation until a negative result is received. When the prices change, passengers will also be given the option of paying more to receive the test result within four hours: NIS 85 in advance and NIS 107 for those who pay at the airport.

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