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Government set to impose fresh restrictions as COVID cases rise

Ministers to reportedly mull caps on gatherings, reintroducing ‘Green Pass’ in limited format, requiring parents of infected kids to enter quarantine

Israelis wear protective face masks as they shop in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, on June 29, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israelis wear protective face masks as they shop in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, on June 29, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The Israeli government is expected to reimpose some new restrictions to curb the COVID-19 outbreak in the country this week, including limiting some gatherings and restricting access for the unvaccinated to some venues, according to reports on Sunday.

The high-level coronavirus cabinet will meet Tuesday to discuss the resurgence of the virus in the country due to the fast-spreading Delta variant. During the meeting, ministers will be presented with proposals to drive down morbidity, which has climbed considerably in recent weeks, hitting around 300 cases per day. Experts have warned that the daily caseload could soar to 1,000 cases a day in two weeks if no steps to rein in the infections are taken.

With case numbers rising, Israel has thus far reimposed an indoor mask mandate, cracked down on travelers arriving from countries with high infection rates, and enforced quarantine for new arrivals more strictly, but has sought to avoid a return to the restrictions it had largely emerged from over the last two months.

According to Channel 12, the government was considering a limited “Green Pass” plan, which would prevent those who are not immunized from accessing some venues, though the measures would primarily be directed at reducing crowds at sites that attract the elderly and children.

The government is also expected to begin enforcing mask-wearing indoors, after restoring the mandate that had been lifted last month, the network said.

The Health Ministry is also considering mandating vaccinated parents of children who test positive for COVID to remain in quarantine until they receive a negative test, Channel 13 reported on Sunday, though the health minister expressed reservations about the economic toll of such a step.

More than 60,000 people are currently in quarantine in Israel, according to Health Ministry figures.

An Israeli teenager receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a vaccination center of the Tel Aviv municipality and Magen David Adom, in Tel Aviv, July 4, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Outgoing Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy said on Sunday that Israel may need to once again limit large gatherings, particularly among children and the unvaccinated.

In an interview with Channel 12, Levy said the rise in those hospitalized with COVID is continuing, but still remains at low levels.

“We’re not close to what we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “It’s nothing like the caseload we had earlier.”

Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Chezy Levy speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Flash90/File)

There are currently 2,438 active COVID-19 cases in the country, with 34 people in serious condition, according to Health Ministry data on Sunday night.

Following Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s comments earlier Sunday that Israel is weighing returning to the “Green Pass” system, Levy backed limiting large gatherings, particularly of unvaccinated children.

The Health Ministry director general, who will soon be departing his post to be replaced by Nahman Ash, also said that a third booster shot for the general population will not happen before the end of the year, while an additional dose for those with compromised immune systems may happen sooner.

Channel 12, however, reported Sunday night that the Health Ministry would soon offer a third shot to all Israelis who wanted it — although Pfizer-BioNTech has yet to endorse such a booster. Earlier, Hebrew media reports said the Health Ministry would recommend a third dose for the immunocompromised.

Prime Minister Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz attend a press conference at a Maccabi vaccine center in Holon on June 29 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

The shifting vaccine policies come as the country races to inoculate preteens and teenagers ahead of the July expiration date on its vaccine supply.

Israel is seeking to swap its stockpile of Pfizer vaccines, which are slated to expire at the end of the month, in exchange for a future delivery that was destined for another country.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Sunday that Israel is in advanced talks with another country to broker a COVID vaccine swap deal.

“We have contacts with another country that I hope will come to fruition in the next few days,” Horowitz told Channel 13. The health minister declined to name the country, since the talks are still ongoing.

Earlier, Bennett spoke to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla on the supply of additional vaccines to Israel,

“The two discussed strategies for dealing with the virus, with an emphasis on existing and future variants, as well as the possibilities for supplying additional Pfizer vaccines to Israel,” Bennett’s office said.

“In addition, the prime minister and CEO of Pfizer discussed possible deals to exchange vaccines between Israel and various countries,” the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who leads the Meretz party, seen during a visit at the Abarbanel Mental Health Medical Center, on June 22, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

A swap deal would see Israel provide the doses now to a recipient nation and in return receive one of that nation’s future shipments from Pfizer. If Israel fails to find buyers, vaccine doses worth hundreds of millions of dollars could be thrown away within weeks.

According to a Channel 12 report Wednesday night, to prevent vaccines from being tossed, Israel engaged in advanced talks with the UK to provide millions of Pfizer vaccines within days in return for London supplying it with one of its future shipments from Pfizer at a later date. That agreement appeared to have fallen through, but Jerusalem is now in contact with two other countries regarding a possible swap, according to reports on Friday.

Israel purchased millions of vaccines from Pfizer and was among the first countries to receive them late last year, for an undisclosed amount. Despite having millions of unused doses, it inked a deal in April under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 18 million more doses, in case they are needed for booster shots. Those doses have yet to arrive.

Israel has a reported 1.4 million doses set to expire at the end of July and Bennett is hoping to use as many of them as possible by getting 300,000 kids age 12-15 vaccinated by July 9, leaving enough time for a second dose.

Over 5.62 million people — out of Israel’s population of more than 9.3 million — have gotten at least one vaccine shot. Of those, close to 5.2 million received a second dose.

People, some with face masks, ride the light train in Jerusalem on July 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Delta variant of the virus, first identified in India, is more contagious than other variants and may be better able to bypass vaccines, but is believed to not generally cause serious infection among the vaccinated.

The variant is thought to be around 40 percent more contagious than the original strain, according to the United Kingdom’s public health agency. The effectiveness of two vaccine doses for protection from hospitalization is at 96%, according to the agency.

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