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Health minister issues warning to those who won't have shots

Vaccine refusers will be kept to ‘supermarkets, pharmacies’ when Israel opens up

Crackdown planned for businesses that serve those without vaccines; PM says refusers ‘endanger us all,’ risk health system; fewer than 1,000 seriously ill for first time in a month

Police and inspectors of the Bat Yam municipality enforce a COVID-19 lockdown at a mall in Bat Yam that was partially opened against government regulations, on February 11, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Police and inspectors of the Bat Yam municipality enforce a COVID-19 lockdown at a mall in Bat Yam that was partially opened against government regulations, on February 11, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry is reportedly planning to clamp down on Israelis who refuse to vaccinate against the coronavirus and impose severe sanctions on businesses that accept unvaccinated customers and on individuals who forge a document that says they have been vaccinated.

According to a Channel 12 news report Thursday night, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein wants to encourage widespread vaccination by offering advantages to those who take the shot, and also by limiting the options of those who don’t.

“Whoever doesn’t vaccinate will only go out to supermarkets or pharmacies, while the vaccinated will go to stadiums and gyms,” Edelstein was quoted as saying.

The warnings come as virus infections dropped Thursday to their lowest rate since late December and the number of seriously ill patients in Israeli hospitals dipped to below 1,000 for the first time since early January, but also as the county’s vaccination drive has begun to slow.

Edelstein said on Wednesday that he was considering proposing legislation that would enable employers to prevent workers who aren’t vaccinated against the coronavirus from coming in to work, and warned the rule would also apply to those in the education system.

He said that education workers who refuse the vaccine may have to pay for a virus test every 48 hours if they want to keep teaching.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein during a visit to a COVID-19 vaccination center in northern Israel, February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted Thursday as telling cabinet ministers: “Whoever doesn’t vaccinate endangers us all, because they can cause the health system to collapse.”

The issue of vaccine hesitancy and skepticism is a growing concern as Israel’s world-leading inoculation campaign has slowed in recent weeks.

Officials are making moves to encourage people to get vaccines, including by combating online misinformation and planning incentives.

However, earlier Thursday, Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri warned local authorities that they aren’t allowed to bar unvaccinated teachers, staff and students from entering education institutions, regardless of whether it is a private or state-affiliated institution.

“According to the current legal situation, local councils aren’t allowed to take the law into their hands and independently establish rules to limit the entry of education workers into education institutions,” Nizri said in a letter to municipalities’ legal advisers.

Channel 12 reported Wednesday that officials are looking to limit access to gyms, hotels, restaurants and cultural and sports events for those who refuse to be vaccinated, while the inoculated will be able to enter freely.

A woman exercises at the Mati gym club in the Malha neighborhood of Jerusalem, on May 11, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

As it is legally problematic to completely ban those who do not want to take the shots, a path will be available to those with fresh negative coronavirus test results from the previous 48 hours.

But health officials hope to find ways to make getting tested more difficult — thereby further encouraging more people to go for the vaccine — including charging for tests, limiting their numbers and cutting back on testing locations, the report said.

So far, 3,734,894 people have had at least the first shot of the two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine Israel is using, and 2,376,138 have had the second as well — nearly a quarter of the entire population.

But in the last four days, only about 65,000 Israelis a day have been vaccinated with their first shots, even though vaccinations are now available to all Israelis aged 16 and over.

Nonetheless, data released by the Health Ministry on Thursday showed that the number of serious COVID-19 patients in Israel has gone below 1,000 for the first time since January 10, underscoring the effect the vaccines are seemingly starting to have on serious illness.

The ministry said that 5,635 cases were identified on Wednesday, with 7.5% of tests returning a positive result, and another 3,258 by Thursday afternoon.

The total cases since the pandemic started reached 714,056, including 65,730 active cases. They include 992 serious cases, including 384 in critical condition and 313 on ventilators.

The death toll reached 5,272.

On Thursday morning, some 20 percent of Israel’s students went back to school in areas with low to medium coronavirus infection levels.

Though some lockdown restrictions were rolled back at the beginning of the month, much of the education system remains shuttered along with most nonessential businesses.

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