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Government orders stepped-up COVID screening at airport, quarantine inspections

Steps come amid fears dangerous Delta variant is being brought into country by travelers; Health Ministry weighs returning indoor mask mandate amid school outbreaks

Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 20, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)
Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 20, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced late Sunday that Israel would step up COVID-19 testing and restrictions at Ben Gurion Airport amid fears that the highly contagious Delta variant, first discovered in India, is starting to spread in Israel.

Bennett convened a meeting with senior officials, including the health and transportation ministers and top health officials, where it was acknowledged that Israel faced a threat from “the spread of the Delta variant throughout the world, visits by Israelis to [high-risk] countries and the fact that many of those returning from abroad are not strictly adhering to the quarantine directives,” said a statement from his office.

Following recommendations from those present, Bennett ordered increased enforcement of quarantine for those returning from abroad, including temporarily assigning 250 police officers for enforcement.

He also approved establishing another testing facility at the airport, boosting current testing booths, and a stepped-up campaign to make Israelis aware of the importance of quarantine for those returning.

In addition, passengers will have to sign declarations that they did not visit high-risk countries, including Argentina, Russia, India, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil. Travel to those countries will require special approval from a government committee.

The statement said the government also planned to consider fining parents whose children violate quarantine and starting to prepare for the possibility Israel could see a renewed major outbreak.

The steps come as Israel has experienced a small uptick in new COVID-19 cases due to two outbreaks in schools in Binyamina and Modiin, where dozens of unvaccinated children tested positive for the coronavirus. Both outbreaks are believed to stem from individuals returning from abroad, and the Health Ministry on Sunday reinstituted the mask mandate in schools in the two towns.

Media reports also said that Bennett and  Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz are weighing a further range of fresh measures, including returning the indoor mask mandate.

The Health Ministry is considering returning the mask mandate for schools, the airport, and potentially all public indoor spaces, according to Hebrew media reports on Sunday. The new government is also expected to reestablish the coronavirus cabinet that existed under the previous government.

On Friday thousands of arrivals at Ben Gurion were allowed to leave the airport and go home without taking the mandatory COVID-19 test because of an overload at the airport testing facilities.

Currently, vaccinated Israelis arriving from most countries are not required to quarantine when arriving in Israel. The exceptions are those who arrive from Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico and Russia, who are required to quarantine even if they are vaccinated, due to the dangerous illness rates in those countries.

Channel 13 reported that the United Kingdom could be added to the list of “red” countries.

Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on April 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Officials in the Health Ministry indicated on Sunday that the recent outbreaks in schools — largely linked to people who tested positive after returning from abroad — should lead to a greater push to vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds. New Health Ministry figures revealed by Channel 13 on Sunday indicate that 12 percent of youths who were recovered from COVID-19 still suffer from long-term symptoms and complications.

Gabi Barbash, a former director-general of the Health Ministry, told Channel 12 on Sunday that all children eligible to be vaccinated should do so.

Vaccinations for 12- to 15-year-olds in Israel began two weeks ago, but the Health Ministry did not issue a direct recommendation for teens to get vaccinated.

According to Kan news, the ministry is now leaning toward recommending that teenagers be vaccinated as soon as possible and is considering launching a public campaign aimed at convincing parents to do so. Hebrew media reports indicate that demand for vaccines for 12- to 15-year-olds has spiked over the past few days due to the outbreaks.

Barbash told Channel 12 that he would recommend parents not take any unvaccinated children abroad this summer, due to fears of the Delta variant. That mutation “is a game-changer. It is taking control the world over,” he said. “We’re going to have to live with it. It’s far more contagious… It also hits youths and children.”

An Israeli child receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Clalit vaccination center in Petah Tikva, on June 6, 2021. (Flash90)

Barbash said he backs the proposal to reinstate masks at Ben Gurion Airport as well as in schools: “We’ve got to go backwards.”

Israel officially lifted its indoor mask mandate on June 15, removing the requirement for masks virtually everywhere except on planes.

New Minister of Education Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks at a ceremony as she takes over from Yoav Gallant, at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

At the government’s first cabinet meeting on Sunday, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton clashed with Bennett and Horowitz, the health minister, over COVID-19 regulations. Shasha-Biton opposed extending the Coronavirus Law that provides the government with emergency powers to deal with the virus. The education minister accused the Health Ministry and other officials of acting out of political motives, something that both Bennett and Horowitz rejected.

Shasha-Biton opposed the notion that Israel is still in an emergency situation, and claimed that the figures and numbers of the past month back up her assertion. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar proposed a compromise that calls on the government to establish a new law within four months to replace the current law, and Shasha-Biton reportedly accepted that arrangement.

On Sunday morning, the Health Ministry ordered all those who were present at a show in Beit She’an Thursday night — even if vaccinated — to enter quarantine after a member of the audience tested positive for the Delta COVID variant. But later on Sunday, the Health Ministry walked back the decision, saying only those who are unvaccinated must quarantine, but others at the event should get tested and stay home until they receive their results.

As of Sunday evening, there were 287 active COVID cases in Israel, including 46 confirmed cases in the past 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry.

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