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'I fear morbidity could rise again in the winter'

Health Ministry chief says COVID curbs to be eased, but mask mandate to continue

Nachman Ash estimates booster vaccine will offer longer protection than first 2 doses, as outbreak continues to wane; positive test rate lowest in almost 3 months

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash at press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash at press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said Friday that as COVID-19 numbers continue to wane, Israel can allow itself to ease more and more restrictions — but at the same time urged caution ahead of the winter and said people won’t be removing their masks indoors anytime soon.

“As morbidity declines, we can ease [restrictions]. We are thinking of lifting more Green Pass restrictions,” Ash told Radio 103FM, appearing to confirm a Thursday report that said the government was planning to push for a significant easing of COVID-19 limits as a wave of infections traced to the Delta variant ebbs to morbidity lows not seen in months.

Health Ministry figures published Friday morning showed 1,325 new cases were identified nationwide the previous day, down from more than 10,000 a day at the height of the wave in August and September. The rate of positive tests — 1.4 percent out of nearly 90,000 tests — is the lowest seen in almost three months.

The number of serious cases was 385, including 164 on ventilators. The death toll is nearing 8,000, reaching 7,976 as of Friday morning.

There were just two localities with more than 500 active cases — Jerusalem with 2,122 and Tel Aviv with 689 — while a month ago there were 16 cities with over 1,000 cases. Total active cases stood at 20,891.

Despite the encouraging trend, Ash cautioned that “morbidity is still here, we won’t take off masks soon.”

“The more people get vaccinated, the calmer we can be regarding fears of another outbreak,” he said, but added: “I fear morbidity could rise again in the winter.”

He estimated that the protection offered by the third vaccine shot, given to almost four million Israelis, will be more long-lasting than the first two doses. But he said authorities will have to be quicker this time in identifying waning protection, in order to avoid another major wave.

Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, on October 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Channel 12 news reported Thursday that a package of steps to roll back restrictions will be brought before the coronavirus cabinet, which is scheduled to convene on Monday.

The measures include expanding the “Green Classroom” pilot program, which is currently only being implemented in grades 1 through 12, to daycares as well. The pilot allows for students who were exposed to a COVID-19 carrier to return to school once they receive a negative test, rather than requiring the entire class to quarantine for a week.

Another measure will see an end to so-called “afternoon quarantine”: cases in which a student exposed to a carrier but cleared to return to class would still need to isolate while outside school.

The relaxed measures would also reportedly see a reduction of the criteria requiring the Green Pass for children under the age of 12 who cannot be vaccinated. The pass, which is required for entry to many indoor venues and some outdoor ones, is only given to those who are fully vaccinated or who have had the virus in the past. The new rules would also see gyms allowed to operate without Green Pass requirements.

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