Health minister: Lockdown over holidays is a last resort

Nitzan Horowitz says keeping ‘quarantine, masks and restrictions at Ben Gurion Airport’ are the only things that can prevent a new lockdown

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during his visit to the Beilinson Medical Center on July 27, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during his visit to the Beilinson Medical Center on July 27, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Wednesday that a lockdown over the coming Jewish holidays is “a last resort” but could be implemented if coronavirus cases continue to rise.

“The mask, as simple as it is, is the most effective thing we have,” Horowitz said while escorting his parents to receive their third vaccine shots. “The vaccines, the quarantine, the masks, the restrictions at Ben Gurion Airport — these are the things that can prevent more difficult steps. A lockdown is the last resort.”

The health minister noted that “if we seem to be getting to a point where there is no choice left, we will have to do it. But this is not a matter of fate. If we follow the guidelines, then we may be able to avoid lockdowns.”

Rosh Hashanah begins on the evening of September 6, kicking off three weeks of holidays often marked by large family gatherings. Last year, Israel instituted its third lockdown on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and tightened it further during the holiday period.

Horowitz said that the government currently plans “to properly open” schools as scheduled on September 1. However, health officials indicated to Channel 13 news that, if cases continue to rise dramatically, a new lockdown could already be instated in Israel in mid-August — a move they say could enable a shorter lockdown period.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked echoed those sentiments during an interview on Channel 12 news on Wednesday evening. “If we don’t manage to give a third shot to all the elderly population within a week, cases will keep rising… and there’s a good chance that we’ll get to a lockdown,” she said, noting that the government was also considering administering booster shots to those over 50.

People, some wearing face masks, walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on August 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Ministry figures showed Wednesday that more than 205,567 Israelis have received a third coronavirus vaccine shot since the start of the campaign this week, with 5,385,062 people having received two vaccine shots and 5,794,741 people having received just one.

Israel began administering COVID vaccine booster doses to the immunosuppressed last month, and rolled them out to all Israelis over age 60 on Sunday. Due to the high demand for booster shots this week, there could be a brief shortage in available doses, Channel 12 news reported on Wednesday. According to the report, Pfizer has agreed to sent another shipment of vaccines to Israel within a few days.

Shaked also called on unvaccinated 12- to 15-year-olds to get the COVID vaccine in order to protect their parents and grandparents and avoid further restrictions.

During the coronavirus cabinet meeting Tuesday evening, ministers approved a slew of new restrictions to curb the uptick in COVID cases fueled by the ultra-contagious Delta variant.

Under the new rules, which the ministers adopted on the advice of Health Ministry officials, masks are to be required outdoors for gatherings of 100 people or more; in-office work for public servants is to be scaled back to 50 percent, with the private sector encouraged to allow employees to work from home; and vaccinated caretakers of infected children under 12 years old are to be required to self-isolate.

In its effort to contain the renewed COVID-19 outbreak, which has been blamed on the fast-spreading Delta variant, the government also agreed to expand the Green Pass system to all gatherings from August 20 — not merely those with over 100 people, as is currently the case — and restrict access to public venues to unvaccinated children.

An Israeli man receives a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Clalit health care maintenance organization, on August 1, 2021, in Jerusalem. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Also Tuesday, 18 more countries were added to the list of destinations from which returning Israelis — including the fully vaccinated — are required to quarantine for seven days with two negative tests.

Channel 12 news reported on Wednesday evening that 90% of Israelis who return from abroad do not show up to get the second COVID PCR test to shorten the quarantine period, as do 70% of Israelis required to quarantine due to COVID exposure. The numbers imply that most Israelis are not following the restrictions and exiting quarantine regardless, or not keeping it at all.

The network also reported that Health Ministry officials are currently weighing instituting new restrictions, including limiting the sizes of both indoor and outdoor gatherings. Health Ministry officials are also working on ramping up the campaign to convince the one million or so vaccine refusers to finally get the shot.

As of Wednesday evening, there were 24,268 active COVID cases in Israel, with 434 hospitalized, 234 in serious condition and 51 on ventilators. One month ago there were just 28 Israelis in serious condition.

Twenty-six Israelis have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of August, with 10 people dying on Sunday, the highest one-day figure since early April. The death toll since the start of the pandemic is 6,503.

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