New rules easing COVID quarantine take effect

Health Ministry allows use of antigen tests to exit quarantine after exposure

Approval for rapid tests applies only to those considered vaccinated or recovered, as Israel seeks to ease isolation rules to avoid ‘de-facto lockdown’; infection numbers rising

Health care workers test Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2021.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Health care workers test Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Wednesday updated its guidelines to allow for vaccinated or recovered people in quarantine due to exposure to coronavirus carriers to exit after a negative antigen test.

The move is a further step after quarantine restrictions were eased on Tuesday as Israel looks to avoid having hundreds of thousands of people in isolation as the Omicron variant surges.

The new quarantine rules took effect on Thursday.

Until now, only PCR tests were eligible to shorten quarantine. Under the new guidelines, a negative rapid antigen test can also be used, but not a home test. If the antigen test is positive, a PCR test will be required.

The state would pay for the antigen tests for those exposed to a definitive case, the ministry said.

The new guideline only applies to those who are considered fully vaccinated (either with a booster or within six months of a second dose); the unvaccinated must conduct a PCR test.

Those who test positive with an antigen test will then need to follow up with a PCR test. If that is negative they can exit quarantine, if it’s positive they must self-isolate for 10 days until recovered, with authorization from a doctor.

People walk with face masks on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, December 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Those who are not vaccinated need to self-isolate for 14 days, with the possibility of shortening the period with a negative PCR test on day 7, the ministry said.

On  Tuesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced a change in the quarantine regulations for those exposed to a COVID patient, amid concerns that Omicron’s spread would require an increasingly high number of Israelis to self-isolate.

Under the new guidelines, fully vaccinated people exposed to any variant of the coronavirus will be required to quarantine only until they get negative results from a PCR test. Once released, they will not be allowed to enter mass events or places with high-risk populations, like nursing homes, for the following 10 days. Until now, fully-vaccinated Israelis did not have to quarantine following exposure to a COVID patient, but did if it was suspected to be Omicron.

Presenting the new rules, Bennett said that without the change, Israel would be put in a “de facto lockdown.”

“We saw what was happening abroad and understood that if we stuck to what we were doing with regards to quarantine policy… we would have been in a de facto lockdown of 1 to 2 million people,” he told reporters.

He claimed the controversial move to curtail travel by keeping Israelis in the country and foreign nationals from being able to visit bought five weeks of breathing room before the expected Omicron onslaught, and will allow the economy to keep humming.

“This gave us an advantage over other countries, which are fighting Omicron and Delta at the same time. The alternative was to act like the Netherlands, with a full lockdown,” Bennett said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 19, 2021. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

“Our goal is to leave the economy open and markets open and stores open as much as possible, while avoiding stretching hospitals beyond capacity. If we wanted, we could have locked down, but nobody wants to get to a de facto lockdown by calling it another name,” Bennett said.

Israel has seen a surge in infections since the emergence of Omicron, with new COVID cases hitting a three-month high on Monday.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday that over 2,500 more cases were confirmed since midnight, pushing active infections past 18,000. It also reported a further increase in the positive test rate, in another sign that the spread of the virus was accelerating.

Despite the rising morbidity figures, there has not been a major spike in hospitalizations and serious cases, which rose from 84 to 88 on Wednesday evening. The national death toll from the pandemic stood at 8,243.

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