Israel will be fully reopened in a month if there is no new sudden rise in contagion as the country moves to return the education system toward full operation, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Thursday.
“We want to see that the return to studies does not cause a rise in contagion,” Ash told Channel 13 news after government ministers voted to further ease coronavirus restrictions at schools.
“We are talking about a few weeks only if the current rates are maintained,” he said. “We want to get past the [recently completed] Passover holidays and see that there are no infections in the schools.”
“If there is no rise in contagion, everything will be open in a month,” he said.
It was not clear if Ash’s comments also referred to completely reopening Ben Gurion airport to international travel. Israel currently limits the number of people who can enter and exit each day, fearing the spread of variants that could undermine the effective vaccination program.
Channel 13 reported that airport authorities plan to test arriving passengers on the airplanes to prevent overcrowding in testing tents at the airport.
Ash said so far the vaccines were proving effective.
“At the moment, there is no need to update the vaccine. We are following infections among the vaccinated in order to see that the vaccine is effective,” he said. “We hope that we can stop all the variants that could undermine the vaccine effort.”
Ministers on Thursday relaxed several requirements for schools, including scrapping the requirement that fourth graders learn in smaller class sizes. They also ended the requirement for students to present a health declaration signed by their parents to enter the classroom, while allowing universities and colleges to hold all tests in-person.
Other changes included lowering the percentage of 11th and 12th graders who must be vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 to hold full classes from 90% to 65%; allowing for the mixing of “capsules” during physical education courses and extracurricular activities outdoors; and permitting more students at vocational schools to attend in-person classes.
The updated rules will be in effect until April 13.
When not attending classes in person, students have been learning via video interface. At one point, lockdown measures had shuttered the entire education system with the exception of special education institutes.
Before ministers approved the changes, Health Ministry data cited by the Ynet news site showed 99% of children who have so far received a COVID-19 vaccine have only experienced mild side effects.
“There is reason for optimism, to smile, there is a reason for hope. Even when there is criticism, we are opening activities in the education system,” Chezy Levy, director-general of the Health Ministry, said earlier Thursday during a briefing.
He also cheered the continued decline in morbidity, while noting there were still some 2.5 million kids and around 900,000 Israelis older than 50 who are still unvaccinated.
“Despite the high vaccinate rate, we are still liable to morbidity and infection,” Levy was quoted saying by Channel 12 news.
On Wednesday, ministers approved increasing the number of people allowed to gather in public and removing some Memorial Day restrictions.
In a further sign of the declining virus numbers, the IDF on Thursday ended its mission in the worst-hit city of Bnei Brak.
While at one point there were some 26,000 active cases in the ultra-Orthodox city outside of Tel Aviv, the number now stands at just 28, according to Channel 12 news.
That is thanks to the widespread vaccination campaign and likely aided by the many residents who were previously infected and are therefore immune.
Home Front Command troops had been sent to Bnei Brak over the last year to coordinate and run test facilities as well as epidemiological investigations and more, and have been running a facility there since the second wave of infections last September.
The IDF held a ceremony to mark the occasion.
According to the latest Health Ministry data, 274 new cases were recorded Wednesday and another 157 since midnight across Israel, raising the number of infections since the pandemic began to 835,486.
The death toll stood at 6,279, with nine fatalities on Wednesday.
The number of active cases further fell to 4,459. There were 280 serious cases, including 152 people on ventilators.
The positive test rate on Wednesday was 0.5%. An identical rate was recorded Tuesday, the lowest since last May, when Israel was emerging from the initial wave of the pandemic, though significantly more tests are now performed each day.
The ministry said more than 5.3 million Israelis have gotten at least one vaccine shot and over 4.9 million have received both doses.