IDF troops allowed to go maskless outdoors in new pilot program

Health Ministry-backed trial comes as military sees coronavirus cases plummet; program eligible for combat, training units with high numbers of immune soldiers

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

An IDF soldier at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem to check that Israelis are not violating restrictions meant to contain the coronavirus, April 2, 2020. (Nati Shohat//Flash90)
An IDF soldier at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem to check that Israelis are not violating restrictions meant to contain the coronavirus, April 2, 2020. (Nati Shohat//Flash90)

Israeli combat troops and soldiers in training will no longer have to wear face masks when they are in open areas beginning this week, as part of a new Health Ministry-approved pilot program, the Israel Defense Forces said Sunday.

This trial was scheduled to last three months and comes as the military boasts of a more than 80 percent vaccination rate and a precipitous drop in the number of active coronavirus cases in its ranks.

The IDF said after three months, the mask exemption will be reviewed and may then be extended. The pilot program appears to be a first step in ending the government’s requirement for all citizens to wear masks at all times in public.

In a statement, the Health Ministry said the trial would only be offered to units that have at least a 90% rate of soldiers who have either had the disease and recovered or who received their second dose of the vaccine more than one week ago.

The ministry added that the IDF is required to track the health of all those taking part in the program and submit weekly reports on any illnesses or outbreaks in the units.

This mask exemption, which was scheduled to begin Monday, will only be in place when soldiers are taking part in training exercises or are otherwise outside. When the troops are indoors they will again have to don face masks and maintain social distancing, the military said.

An IDF soldier receives a coronavirus vaccine in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Earlier on Sunday, the IDF said that there were 32 soldiers, officers or military employees who were currently diagnosed with the coronavirus, all of them with light symptoms. In addition, 255 troops were in quarantine. These figures represented a nearly tenfold drop in the past month and were the lowest numbers of active cases in the IDF in almost a year. This dramatic improvement in the number of active cases came weeks after the military declared that it had achieved “herd immunity” after upwards of 85% of troops had either been vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus, giving them the antibodies needed to prevent further infections.

Herd immunity or community immunity is achieved when a sufficiently large portion of a given population is protected against a disease that it is no longer able to spread widely within that group. The IDF’s claim that this had been achieved could not be independently verified. It was not immediately clear how the military’s significant interaction with Israeli civilians would potentially impact this herd immunity.

Since the outbreak of the virus last year, the IDF has maintained that its operational capabilities have not been significantly affected by the disease. However, the pandemic has impacted the military’s ability to hold exercises normally, forcing units to scale back or even cancel some of their drills in some cases.

The military launched its vaccination campaign in early January, and after five weeks three-quarters of all IDF soldiers had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Soldiers were not explicitly compelled to receive the vaccine — this was found to be legally problematic — but were heavily encouraged and incentivized to be immunized. In order to vaccinate troops throughout the country, the IDF set up vaccination centers at various bases and traveled directly to specific units in some cases.

According to the IDF, a small percentage of troops have refused to be inoculated. Some of those are women in the early stages of pregnancy, while others are acting out of ideological or political motivations, according to the IDF’s chief medical officer, Brig. Gen. Alon Glasberg.

“But the number of people who refuse or don’t want to get vaccinated is getting smaller every day,” he said last month.

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