Health minister warns ‘long months’ ahead in battling Delta variant

Nitzan Horowitz predicts rise in serious cases, but aims to reopen schools in fall; ministers to meet Thursday, but reportedly won’t mandate isolation for all returning travelers

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press briefing on July 21, 2021. (Screen capture: Facebook)
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press briefing on July 21, 2021. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Wednesday that Israel faces “long months” ahead in fighting the Delta variant, a more contagious coronavirus strain that is being blamed for a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Israel.

Horowitz said it is expected that the number of cases, including those in serious condition, will rise in the coming weeks.

“We expect long months of struggle with the Delta variant. A joint effort of all will be required,” he told reporters in a press briefing. “Only one consideration guides us in managing this crisis — the public’s health.”

Israel has seen coronavirus cases rise sharply over the last month, after nearly eradicating the disease and removing nearly all restrictions in May and June.

Horowitz said that since his office understands the pandemic will not end soon, the measures it plans to implement will allow the country “to live alongside the coronavirus.”

Laying out what he said was a “very clear formula,” he said the public must “follow the guidelines now to prevent strict restrictions later.”

“We understand the coronavirus won’t soon pass from the world. After the Delta variant it is likely that another variant will emerge in the world and therefore our strategy is clear: Life alongside the coronavirus.”

Israelis wear protective face masks as they walk through the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, on July 20, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The high-level coronavirus cabinet was set to convene Thursday afternoon to discuss additional measures to stem the continued rise in coronavirus cases, after some renewed restrictions took effect at midnight.

Ministers are set to discuss a plan “that will provide a response to the outbreak of the Delta variant in Israel, including a proposed Green Pass and a proposal for the issue of entering and exiting the country,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.

It added that the meeting comes after the ministers spent a week doing an “in-depth study” of the current virus figures and speaking with experts in Israel and abroad.

Israeli students at the Orot Etzion school in Efrat wear protective face masks, as they return to school on May 3, 2020. (Gershon Elinon/Flash90)

Explaining that the measures introduced by the government would be aimed at cutting infection rates while allowing normal life to continue “as much as possible,” Horowitz said the government’s goal was for schools to fully reopen at the beginning of September.

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, the Health Ministry is said to have dropped its demand for the government to require all incoming travelers — regardless of vaccine status or infection levels in the countries they’re arriving from — to quarantine for a week, after encountering political opposition to such a move, Hebrew-language media reports said Wednesday.

Currently, the vaccinated and recovered only need to enter quarantine if they have returned from a location designated high-risk by the Health Ministry. But Channel 12 said officials believe virus carriers have also been entering Israel from supposedly low-risk countries.

The ministry could also recommend significantly increasing the number of countries to and from which Israelis are barred from traveling, the Kan public broadcaster reported Monday.

Health officials have linked the recent spike in infections in Israel to travelers who brought back new variants of the virus from abroad and did not properly quarantine after arriving.

A police officer enforces COVID-19 regulations at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 19, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Under the new orders that took effect at midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, the so-called Green Pass system, first used earlier this year, will be reinstated for indoor events attended by more than 100 people. Police and inspectors from local authorities will check up on venues hosting events that fall under the rules to make sure they are complying.

Authorities were said to also be mulling more moves, with case numbers continuing to climb. That could include applying the Green Pass system to all indoor venues, regardless of size, including businesses and restaurants, Channel 12 reported Tuesday.

“We want to allow events to take place, but without them becoming an epicenter of infection,” Horowitz said.

There were 1,400 new virus cases diagnosed Tuesday, the highest daily caseload since mid-March, according to Health Ministry figures. There were 8,993 active virus patients in the country, 59 of them in serious condition — up two from the day before, the ministry said Wednesday.

The resurgence of coronavirus in Israel has been largely attributed to the spread of the Delta variant, which was first detected in India and is believed to be twice as contagious as the original COVID strain.

Since the start of the pandemic last year, 854,981 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Israel and 6,452 have died of the virus, according to Health Ministry figures.

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