Israel to keep indoor mask mandate as it warily watches COVID resurgence elsewhere

Government decides to maintain cautious approach as Passover approaches, while not announcing any new restrictions after Bennett, Horowitz huddle with health experts

People read from Megillat Esther (the Story of Esther) during the Jewish holiday of Purim, at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, on March 16, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
People read from Megillat Esther (the Story of Esther) during the Jewish holiday of Purim, at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, on March 16, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel will keep its indoor mask mandate in place for at least another month amid growing fears of a resurgence in coronavirus cases, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Wednesday after a meeting with health officials.

Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz were presented with the latest figures in Israel as well as from countries around the world, with particular focus placed on China, which has seen a significant spike in cases in recent weeks, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Authorities will conduct an inventory check of vaccines and drugs “ahead of the possibility of a serious coronavirus strain, should one be found,” according to the PMO statement. They will also accelerate the distribution of air filters for classrooms and maintain the “Magen Avot” program aimed at protecting nursing homes and other at-risk populations.

Bennett’s cautious approach may partly be a result of upcoming Jewish holidays that feature large gatherings and have led to mass infections in the past.

This week brings the holiday of Purim, often celebrated with large parties and celebrations. A month later is Passover, which is generally observed with extended family gatherings. Two years ago, Passover was celebrated under a strict lockdown, with families ordered to not host any relatives from outside their household.

Earlier Wednesday, the Health Ministry announced that two cases of a new, previously unknown COVID variant were recently diagnosed in Israel.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a press conference at the Health Ministry, on November 26, 2021. 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)

The novel variant — a combination of Omicron’s dominant subvariant BA.1 and another subvariant, BA.2 — caused light symptoms, including low fever, muscle aches, and headaches, and did not require special treatment.

“This variant is still unknown around the world,” the Health Ministry said, adding that the cases were diagnosed in PCR tests taken from arriving Israeli passengers at Ben Gurion Airport.

The ministry said it will continue to closely monitor the situation.

BA.2 has been documented to have re-infected some people after an initial case of Omicron. There’s mixed research on whether it causes more severe disease than Omicron, but vaccines appear just as effective against it.

While the number of people getting tested in Israel has fallen, all international arrivals at the airport are checked upon landing.

A medical technician tests a traveler for COVID-19 at Ben Gurion Airport, on June 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The R number — the reproduction rate of the novel coronavirus — hit 0.9 on Wednesday, based on data from 10 days earlier, rising steadily from 0.66 over two weeks. The figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number over one signifies that the pandemic is growing.

New daily COVID cases have dropped fairly steadily over the past month, from more than 30,000 in mid-February to just over 6,300 on Tuesday.

As of Wednesday evening, there were 40,051 active COVID cases in the country, with 6,332 new cases confirmed on Tuesday. Among the active cases, 709 are hospitalized, with 308 in serious condition, and 142 on ventilators. The death toll since the beginning of the pandemic stands at 10,405.

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