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Health Ministry says new COVID variant not raising alarms yet

Knesset committee told officials will meet in coming weeks to discuss lifting further restrictions, including quarantine for positive cases

A medical technician tests a traveler for COVID-19 at Ben Gurion Airport, on June 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
A medical technician tests a traveler for COVID-19 at Ben Gurion Airport, on June 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A Health Ministry official told a Knesset committee hearing on Tuesday that it was not overly concerned with the appearance of a new COVID subvariant, following the discovery of three such cases on Monday.

“The new variant is being tracked, and we are not seeing any dramatic impact in hospitalizations,” Ilana Gans, chief of staff of the public health services department at the Health Ministry, told a hearing of the Knesset Health Committee.

Gans also told the committee that Health Ministry officials will be meeting in the coming weeks to discuss the remaining COVID restrictions still in effect, including mandatory PCR tests for anyone who lands at Ben Gurion Airport, and quarantine for all those who test positive.

On Saturday evening, Israel’s indoor mask mandate came to an end after almost two full years in effect. Currently, masks are only required in hospitals, old age homes and aboard flights, and ministry officials are also weighing the continuation of such requirements.

As of Tuesday morning, there were 27,570 active confirmed COVID cases in Israel, with 4,440 new cases diagnosed a day earlier. Currently, 595 COVID-positive patients are hospitalized, with 212 in serious condition and 74 of those on ventilators. The R reproduction rate has trended slightly upward in recent days, reaching 0.9 after hitting 0.7 a week ago.

On Monday, the Health Ministry announced that three recent arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport tested positive for the new BA.4 Omicron subvariant. One of the passengers came from South Africa, where the subvariant has been spreading, while the other two came from Singapore and Italy.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on February 14, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz downplayed concerns on Monday about BA.4.

“There are several such cases that we discovered during testing at Ben Gurion Airport. So far we have no details on its dangerousness or any other characteristics. We are following this development. For now, there is no cause for worry,” he told Kan radio.

“There are places the vaccines have not reached yet. Unfortunately, we have not gotten rid of COVID… If new measures are required, we will take them. There is no need to intimidate the public.”

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization said scientists in Botswana and South Africa had detected the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, but are not yet sure whether they are more transmissible or dangerous than previous versions of Omicron.

WHO said there was no evidence thus far that the new subvariants spread any differently from the original Omicron variant.

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