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IDF cancels reservist exercises, limits combat troops’ leave amid Omicron outbreak

With thousands of soldiers diagnosed with COVID-19, including two generals, military issues tighter restrictions, but anticipates case numbers will rise anyway in coming weeks

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF soldiers wear masks on a base in northern Israel on October 27, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
IDF soldiers wear masks on a base in northern Israel on October 27, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces canceled all exercises for reservists through the end of the month on Tuesday as it rolled out a number of fresh restrictions amid a major outbreak of the coronavirus in recent days that was expected to continue into the coming weeks, a senior IDF officer said.

As of Tuesday, there were more than 6,000 soldiers, officers and civilian employees of the military diagnosed with the disease, an increase of more than 1,000 cases in 24 hours.

In addition to canceling exercises for reservists, the military will limit leave time for combat soldiers over the next two weeks in order to ensure that it has sufficient troops at its disposal, the senior officer told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Soldiers serving in so-called “closed units,” who sleep on base, will be required to quarantine at a military facility if they come into contact with an infected person, instead of quarantining at home as they have been permitted to until now. Soldiers who do not typically sleep on base will still be allowed to quarantine at home, the military said.

The IDF is also tightening its restrictions on gatherings, limiting the number of ceremonies that will be held over the next month to a bare minimum and barring civilians from attending them entirely.

In general, civilians will not be allowed to enter military bases, save for those “providing critical services,” the IDF said.

The officer said the military anticipated a meteoric rise in COVID-19 cases to continue in the coming weeks despite the new restrictions. The IDF is working to “lower the flames” of the outbreak and ensure the military can continue functioning as needed, he said.

He said the IDF has purchased hundreds of thousands of testing kits in order to better track and prevent the disease’s spread through the military.

In total, 6,380 service members were diagnosed with the coronavirus as of Tuesday, all of them with mild or no symptoms, according to the IDF. They includes two major generals, Yaniv Assur and Ghassan Alian, who were diagnosed on Monday.

Nearly 7,000 soldiers were in quarantine as of Monday, the IDF said.

In light of the growing outbreak within the IDF, the military has rolled out a number of initiatives — some of them used in previous waves, some of them new — to combat the spread of the disease.

Beginning last Friday, the IDF returned to the pod system it used in previous waves, which is designed to ensure an outfit can function even if a soldier within it contracts the coronavirus. Under this model, units were divided into separate groups, theoretically with no direct physical contact between them, to decrease the likelihood that one infected soldier can spread the disease to an entire unit.

This restriction was put into force within companies for ground troops, on ships for the navy, in departments for Military Intelligence and for squadrons in the air force, the IDF said.

The military is also reportedly considering shortening the length of time that soldiers who test positive for the coronavirus need to remain in quarantine, out of concern that the Omicron variant may spread so quickly that within a few weeks there may be no unit within the IDF that is not affected by the outbreak.

According to the Maariv daily, which first reported on the proposed policy, soldiers who test positive but do not have symptoms would be able to return within just a few days, in place of the current policy in which a quarantine of at least 10 days is required, in most cases.

The military was also considering offering fourth vaccine shots to all service members, regardless of age, in an effort to prevent serious illness within the IDF, the report said. Currently only people 60 years old and above or with significant health issues are eligible for a fourth vaccine dose.

Such moves would require approval from the Health Ministry, which the IDF has yet to receive.

Israel hit a new nationwide record high of daily coronavirus cases, according to Health Ministry data released Tuesday morning, with 37,887 new cases recorded the previous day. The past seven days have each shattered the daily record, which had stood at 11,335 before the current outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron strain.

Almost 5,000 additional cases were diagnosed on Tuesday by 9 a.m., the figures showed. The number of serious cases rose to 247, an increase of 25 from the previous day, and the death toll grew by two to 8,271. The total number of active COVID-19 cases stood at 185,753 on Tuesday morning. That number was around 15,000 two weeks ago.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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