Ash: We want herd immunity via vaccinations, not infections

Health chiefs warn of restrictions and ‘price of herd immunity’ amid COVID surge

Health Ministry director says expanding 4th vaccine shot possible, ‘complex’ decision to be made on schools; virus czar says Omicron outbreak renders Israel’s travel bans obsolete

People shop at a market in the central town of Ramle, December 31, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
People shop at a market in the central town of Ramle, December 31, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel could soon impose new restrictions amid soaring COVID-19 infections that could be accelerated by New Year’s festivities, but they may prove ineffective against the highly infectious Omicron strain, senior health officials said Sunday morning.

And Israel’s remaining travel bans on 15 countries are likely to be lifted later this week, an official said, as they were imposed to slow the arrival of the new variant, and that logic was quickly becoming irrelevant amid mass community spread.

Daily infections in Israel have spiked from under 1,000 some 10 days ago to almost 5,500 on Friday, and active cases have almost tripled in a week to 31,958.

However, serious cases have seen a far more moderate increase, from 77 on December 22 to 110 on Sunday.

Health Ministry figures showed that 4,197 new cases were confirmed on Saturday. While that is a lower figure than on Friday, it represented reduced testing on weekends as the rate of positive tests rose further to 4.57 percent.

The death toll remained at 8,244. There have been four COVID-related deaths in the country since December 21.

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash speaks during a meeting at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on October 24, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On Sunday morning, Health Ministry director-general Prof. Nachman Ash said that footage of widescale New Year’s celebrations over the weekend was “worrying,” although the government did not place significant restrictions to curb them.

Speaking with Army Radio, Ash said that if a sharp increase will be seen in the number of patients hospitalized with the coronavirus, “we will have to think about more severe measures.”

In a separate interview with Radio 103FM, Ash said the government could this week okay a fourth vaccine shot for more Israelis, after Israel last week became one of the first countries in the world to begin administering the fourth dose for the immunocompromised.

However, Ash admitted that “there isn’t enough knowledge to say the fourth vaccine will really prevent the mass infections.” He said Israel could end up reaching herd immunity as the fast-spreading Omicron variant takes hold.

Medical staff administer COVID-19 tests at a Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The trend is upwards — there will definitely be a surge,” Ash said. “We will see bigger numbers. Where will it stop? It’s hard to know. The price of herd immunity is very many infections, and that may end up happening. The numbers need to be high to reach herd immunity, it’s something that is possible. But we don’t want to reach it by means of infections, we want it to happen as a result of many people vaccinating.”

Asked about the education system, Ash said: “We don’t want to stop studies, this is a complex decision. We need to think about whether to enable attendance with daily [COVID-19] tests and vaccines, or switch to a policy of studies via Zoom. These things are currently being discussed.”

He added that “we are currently seeing the damages of [schoolchildren] sitting at home last year.”

Meanwhile, Prof. Salman Zarka, the official tasked with coordinating the government’s pandemic response, told the Kan public broadcaster that “we all need to do what we can to avoid a lockdown.” However, he added, “it isn’t certain that restrictions would be effective against the pace of infections.”

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Zarka added that the major outbreak meant that a previous decision to limit incoming travel from countries with high Omicron infections was now “professionally illogical.”

Israel initially barred citizens from traveling to 69 “red” countries and imposed a ban on non-Israelis traveling from those countries. Last week, Jerusalem cut that down to 15 countries, but they include key destinations like the US, Canada and the UK.

Apart from those three, the current list also includes France, UAE, Switzerland, South Africa, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Mexico.

“Over the coming week, we will have to weigh opening the skies,” Zarka told Kan.

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