Israel pushes vaccines for teens as fast-spreading Delta variant stokes fears

Health Ministry also plans crackdown at airport, with Minister Horowitz threatening heavy fines on Israelis who travel to forbidden ‘red countries’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

An Israeli youth receives a Covid-19 vaccine, at the Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Petah Tikva, on June 6, 2021. (Flash90)
An Israeli youth receives a Covid-19 vaccine, at the Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Petah Tikva, on June 6, 2021. (Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Monday urged rapid vaccination for teens and began working on measures to curb COVID-19 infections linked to international arrivals, amid signs that the extra-contagious Delta variant is spreading in Israel.

Ministry officials strongly recommended that 12- to 15-year-olds get vaccinated against COVID as soon as possible. The vaccine has been available to that age group for several weeks, but until now the ministry stopped short of recommending teens receive the shot.

Health Ministry Director General Chezi Levi ordered Israel’s health maintenance organizations to prepare for a ramped-up vaccination drive among teenagers.

Levi told Channel 12 on Monday evening that about 20,000 12- to 15-year-olds have already been vaccinated, and the Health Ministry will accelerate its efforts in the coming days.

“We will call people to come, we will explain to them, we will recommend they get it and reassure them the vaccine is safe,” he said, noting that half of the new cases in Israel in recent days are among under children under the age of 16.

According to Health Ministry data publicized by Channel 12 on Monday, 70 percent of new COVID cases in Israel are traced to the Delta variant, which originated in India and is believed to be the most contagious form of the virus so far.

“The Indian variant is significantly strengthening in Israel,” a senior health official told Channel 12. “The assumption is that the Indian strain is dominant in more than 70% of the newly infected.”

Travelers at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on June 21, 2021. (FLASH90)

The biggest concern in Israel is unvaccinated children, who represent most of the new COVID cases in the country over the past week. Two recent outbreaks in schools in Modi’in and Binyamina have been tied to people who tested positive after returning from abroad.

Thus, the Health Ministry is also working to halt the virus entering the country by cracking down further on restrictions. Currently, Israelis are forbidden from traveling to Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico, and Russia. Anyone who enters the country from those countries — even if they are vaccinated — must enter home quarantine for 14 days or 10 days with two negative tests.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz vowed on Monday to hand heavy fines to Israelis who travel to “red countries” against the law.

“Within a few days, we will impose strict enforcement at the airport on those who fly to forbidden countries, dangerous countries with high COVID morbidity,” he said. “There will also be heavy fines on those who ignore the instructions and endanger the health of the citizens of Israel.”

The list of countries in the “dangerous” COVID level, but where travel is not currently forbidden, include the United Arab Emirates, Uganda, Uruguay, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Maldives, Namibia, Nepal, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Tunisia. If the situation in those countries does not improve, they could be added to the list of “red countries.”

Horowitz said the government is already working to expand the testing area at the Ben-Gurion Airport arrivals gate, “but it is not enough. We have to get ready for the crowds expected this summer.”

Head of the left-wing Meretz party Nitzan Horowitz leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Over the past few days, Israel has experienced an uptick in new COVID cases, due to the outbreaks in Binyamina and Modi’in, where dozens of unvaccinated children tested positive for the coronavirus. The Health Ministry on Sunday reinstituted the mask mandate in schools in the two towns.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton said Monday that she is closely monitoring the numbers of COVID cases in educational institutions.

She said her ministry has targeted responses to “outbreaks that are identified by the school, grade, and class level.” She added that the ministry plans to draw up a plan to prepare for COVID in summer educational institutions, as well as to look ahead to the coming school year.

The Health Ministry is also weighing a range of fresh COVID measures, including considering returning the indoor mask mandate. According to Hebrew media reports, the ministry is contemplating reinstituting the mask mandate — which was just lifted on June 15 — in the airport and in schools.

The government decided Sunday evening to establish a new, enlarged testing area at Ben-Gurion Airport and to boost the enforcement of quarantine for those who require it — mostly unvaccinated children and those returning from “red countries” — with the assistance of Border Authority employees. Thousands of arrivals were sent home without taking the mandatory COVID test on Friday because of an overload at the airport testing facilities.

Bennett agreed to approve calling up 250 police officers to assist in enforcing quarantine measures. The government is also considering handing out fines to parents of unvaccinated children who do not properly observe quarantine.

As of Monday afternoon, there were 387 active COVID cases in Israel, with 48 new cases confirmed on Sunday.

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