Expert panel urges end to ‘red countries’ list as Omicron swells

List of banned destinations for Israelis will be obsolete in two weeks, government consultants say

Travelers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport on December 22, 2021. (Flash90)
Travelers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport on December 22, 2021. (Flash90)

A panel of experts advising the government on its COVID-19 response called on Sunday for scrapping the list of countries to which Israelis are barred from traveling, as the Omicron variant is fast becoming the dominant strain in the country.

The experts said that in two weeks, Omicron infections would surpass Delta cases in most of the world, rendering obsolete the list of so-called “red” countries with high infection rates.

At the end of November, Israel closed its borders to foreign nationals in an attempt to hold off the variant, and has continually expanded its list of “red” countries.

Nearly 70 countries have been deemed high-risk by Israel, including the United States, Turkey, and most of Europe and Africa.

The Health Ministry said Saturday that the vast majority of the 1,118 confirmed Omicron infections in Israel were detected among travelers returning from abroad.

Travel for Israeli citizens to high-risk countries is forbidden unless they are granted special permission from an exemptions committee.

An Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at a vaccine center at the Malcha mall in Jerusalem, on December 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The experts also advised reexamining the current quarantine requirement for vaccinated people who are exposed to Omicron, in order to further incentivize Israelis to get the vaccine.

But they said there was a dilemma as to the level of risk in exempting vaccinated individuals from quarantine rules, since they could potentially still infect others.

According to the Walla news site, the experts are leaning toward exempting vaccinated individuals from the quarantine rules, as they are still less likely to infect others compared to the unvaccinated.

While early studies suggest Omicron may not produce symptoms as severe as the less-transmissible Delta variant, experts in Israel say that due to the rate at which the virus is spreading in the country, the sheer number of cases will still likely cause a burden on hospitals.

The government has made vaccination its central strategy for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Vaccines are currently available for all people in Israel over the age of five.

According to Health Ministry figures Sunday, out of Israel’s population of roughly 9.5 million, 6,502,720 have had a least one vaccine shot, of which 5,876,953 have had two doses, and 4,191,735 have also had a third, or booster, shot.

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