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Military to help locate all recent arrivals from continent

Israel bars travel from most of Africa to curb new COVID variant, Omicron

Bennett says government ‘preparing for every scenario’ after 4 four possible cases of highly mutated B.1.1.529 variant detected in country, but no current plans for lockdown

Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport on October 31, 2021. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90)
Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport on October 31, 2021. (Nati Shohat/ Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Friday ordered most of Africa labeled “red,” heavily restricting entry from the region, following the emergence of a new, highly mutated coronavirus variant in South Africa that has already made its way to Israel.

The government’s coronavirus cabinet will also hold an emergency meeting on Saturday evening to discuss possible new restrictions, including in the education system where health officials fear the outbreak could be most prominent.

Bennett, at a press conference, said the country will bar travel from all Subsaharan African countries for now. He said the government was “preparing for every scenario” concerning the new strain, and recommended Israelis generally avoid travel abroad. But he said there were no immediate plans for a lockdown.

By Friday afternoon health officials said they believed four cases of the new B.1.1.529 variant had been found in Israel. The variant was later named as Omicron by the WHO.

The list of “red” countries had been empty for some six weeks, as no country had fallen into the Health Ministry’s criteria. But on Thursday evening, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini were added to the list.

“All African countries… with the exception of North Africa are red-listed, and all Israelis returning from these countries must adhere to a scrupulous quarantine,” including those who arrived in the past two weeks, Bennett added.

Returning Israelis — including those who are fully vaccinated — from any of the countries now considered “red” will be required to isolate at a state-run quarantine hotel for a week and will be released after receiving two negative PCR virus tests, Bennett said. Returnees who refuse to be tested will be required to isolate for two weeks at a state-run quarantine hotel.

In a Channel 12 interview later on Friday, the government’s coronavirus czar Salman Zarka said he recommended expanding the no-fly list to additional countries outside of Africa.

“We will look at other countries, especially countries that serve as connection hubs for passengers coming from Africa, such as Turkey, perhaps,” he said.

Read: What is the new COVID variant in Africa, and why are scientists so concerned?

Zarka went even further urging Israelis to remain at home, in a remark reminiscent of the earlier waves of the virus.

“I recommend that Israelis remain at home, be sure to wear a mask, not go into crowded spaces and most importantly go and get vaccinated,” he said.

The government has instructed the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command to locate all those who arrived from relevant African countries over the past week, and to instruct them to immediately self-isolate. Home Front Command soldiers will also conduct home virus tests, the prime minister said.

Bennett said he ordered the government to purchase 10 million PCR test kits designed to better detect the variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discusses the new COVID variant, in a press conference at the Health Ministry. Seated (from left): Corona czar Salman Zarka; Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis; Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, and Health Ministry Director General Nahman Ash (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

He also instructed authorities to accelerate the process of sampling sewage throughout the country to detect if the new strain is widely spreading in Israel.

“We are at a worrying point,” Bennett said at the press conference on Friday after announcing the government’s plan to combat the new variant. The variant “is so concerning that after dozens or hundreds of strains under examination, it led the Health Ministry and epidemiologists in Israel and around the world to raise red flags.”

At the press conference, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz called on Israelis who had recently returned from countries now on the “red” list to immediately get tested.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press conference on November 9, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“We’ve been on the lookout for such variants and took into account that another one could arise,” Horowitz said. He said samples from incoming travelers at Ben Gurion Airport would be tested for the new variant.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of public services, noted that vaccinated individuals who have contracted the new variant appear to generally have a mild illness only.

Earlier on Friday, at a meeting with Horowitz and experts, Bennett said that the government’s “overriding principle at the moment is to take quick and strong action, now, especially regarding entry to – and exit from – Israel, until the situation becomes clearer.”

“When it does, we will decide what we are doing,” he added.

“We are currently at the threshold of an emergency situation. I ask everyone to be prepared and to fully join in the work around the clock,” Bennett told the meeting’s participants, in comments released to the media by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The new variant is more contagious, at a much quicker pace than the Delta strain,” Bennett said, adding that authorities are following data from South Africa to learn more about it, including whether it is resistant to existing vaccines.

“The good news is that the State of Israel has woken up early. The first in the world [to do so], and all of our systems are ready,” Bennett said.

The premier acknowledged that there might be an economic price to some of the steps the government could take to curb the new variant, but that authorities will help those impacted by the restrictions.

Health Ministry officials asked Bennett during the meeting to impose new restrictions on all arrivals to Israel, requiring them to take an additional COVID test on the third day of their stay in the country, according to the Walla news site.

The first case of the strain was detected in Israel after a person arrived from Malawi, the Health Ministry announced earlier on Friday.

Three others are suspected of also being infected with the new strain, Bennett said. He added that there are likely more cases that are undetected in the country.

A medic tests Israelis in a drive-through testing center to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus, in Modi’in, on November 10, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

A woman suspected of being infected with the variant took a bus from central Israel to the southern city of Eilat, where she works at a hotel, law enforcement officials said. Police located her there and sent her to be tested further and questioned by medical officials.

The new COVID-19 variant was said Thursday by scientists in South Africa to have “a very high number of mutations,” and it was blamed for an “exponential” surge in infections there. The number of daily infections in Africa’s hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month.

In Israel, Health Ministry data on Friday showed that 524 people had been diagnosed the previous day, with the number representing 0.69 percent of the over 82,000 tests conducted.

There were 166 hospitalized individuals, of whom 120 were in serious condition. Data showed nearly 85 percent of serious cases are among unvaccinated individuals.

AFP contributed to this report.

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