Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash announced Thursday that the indoor mask mandate, obligating people to cover their mouths and noses to prevent infections, will return early next week in an effort to stem the rise in COVID-19 cases.
In a briefing with journalists Thursday evening, Ash said the outbreak had spread to Kfar Saba, Ramla, Herzliya and other cities, as Health Ministry data showed 169 had been diagnosed Thursday by 6 p.m., the highest daily tally in months.
Ash recommended avoiding flights abroad, especially for people who have not been vaccinated.
“I call on the public to consider whether traveling abroad is essential. It is highly advisable to avoid non-essential travel abroad,” he said, echoing a similar call from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday.
“This is not the right time to fly with children who are not vaccinated,” Ash said.
Ash urged those who have come in contact with a COVID-19 carrier to get tested immediately, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not. He also called on Israelis to abide by quarantine requirements.
“If a child has been abroad and arrives at school the next day, this is wrong. And everyone should say that to him and to his parents,” he said.
While a majority of adults in Israel have been vaccinated and the country has one of the highest inoculation rates in the world, Ash said the numbers were still far from the 80% figure he said would mark herd immunity.
The coronavirus czar was pressed on why case numbers have suddenly risen and was unable to answer. He admitted that it would be impossible to prevent the entry of new coronavirus variants into the country unless the government chose to close its borders completely, which is unlikely to happen again.
Ash assured reporters that the government would not return to using the Shin Bet security service for tracking those who have been exposed to the virus — a policy that was criticized as an invasion of privacy.
He added that the Health Ministry was not recommending bringing back restrictions on gatherings at this stage, either.
On Wednesday alone, 138 new cases were diagnosed. Thursday will be the fourth day in a row in which the number of cases surpassed 100. The town with the most active cases is Binyamina, with 122, thanks to an outbreak at a school leading the locale to be designated as a “red” zone, requiring additional restrictions.
The town with the second most cases was Modiin with 71, followed by Tel Aviv and Kfar Saba with 36, Jerusalem with 33, Kochav Yair with 31, and Herzliya with 21.
In hospitals across the country, 26 patients were in critical condition, among them an unvaccinated child, the Health Ministry said. Over 84% of seriously ill patients were not vaccinated.
Concerns are rising in Israel over the spread of the new Delta variant, which is believed to be responsible for 70% of the new cases in the country in recent weeks. There were 125 new COVID cases confirmed on Monday, a figure more than double the number detected the day before.
Also on Thursday, the Health Ministry announced that significant traces of the Delta variant came up in testing of the sewage water from Ashkelon. It urged residents of the coastal city to get tested immediately if they are experiencing symptoms, but noted that case numbers remain low, relative to the traces found in the sewage.
The Health Ministry informed the public that follow-up tests to detect latent disease in Ashkelon had revealed signs of the presence of an Indian variant of the coronavirus. This result raised concerns that city residents have been infected with the virus.
Anyone who suffers from one or more symptoms, such as fever, cough, difficulty breathing or weakness — or anyone who is suspected for any reason of contracting the disease — was asked to come and be tested as soon as possible in order to prevent an outbreak in the city.
At a press conference at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday, Bennett said the new government will reestablish the coronavirus cabinet, which will assist in making future COVID-related decisions. The prime minister said the government was working “to cut off” the extra-contagious Delta variant “early and decisively.”
He also reiterated that every person who enters Israel would have to undergo a PCR test, and said the number of testing sites at the airport had recently been increased from 30 to 70.
He also warned of possible “significant changes in entering and exiting Israel” once the coronavirus cabinet has reconvened and studied the current situation.
Israel lifted its indoor mask mandate on June 15, but the mayors of Modiin and Binyamina reimposed the mandate in schools in the two cities, after local outbreaks. Kfar Saba also reinstated masks in schools on Tuesday, after several positive COVID cases among students.
On Monday, the Health Ministry said it would begin a greater push to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds and officially recommended that they do so. While that particular age group has been eligible for several weeks, the ministry stopped short of issuing an official recommendation until now, and the number of vaccinations among teenagers in general has remained low.
In his statement on Monday, Bennett called on anyone over the age of 12 to get vaccinated as soon as possible, and noted that Israel’s stockpile of vaccines will be expiring in the coming months, and, therefore, teenagers should make appointments soon. The prime minister warned teenagers to get their first shots before July 9.