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No plans to close airport, Israeli officials say, amid fear of renewed COVID spike

Officials said concerned of outbreak during Passover holiday; daily cases on course to surpass 30,000 next week; first case of BA.3 Omicron strain identified in country

Travellers wearing protective face masks arrive at the Ben Gurion Airport, on Sunday, November 28, 2021, soon after Israel approved barring entry to foreign nationals to clamp down on a new coronavirus variant. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Travellers wearing protective face masks arrive at the Ben Gurion Airport, on Sunday, November 28, 2021, soon after Israel approved barring entry to foreign nationals to clamp down on a new coronavirus variant. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israeli officials clarified on Thursday that a high-level discussion held earlier in the day on closing Ben Gurion Airport in the case of a renewed virus outbreak does not mean that officials are actually planning on curbing flights in and out of the country anytime soon.

During a meeting with health officials on Thursday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz were presented with a comprehensive plan for dealing with a potential new coronavirus variant that would involve canceling air travel to and from the country and sealing its borders, among other measures. A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the plan’s aim is “preventing the future strain from entering the country.”

However, talk of closing the airport during the meeting, which coincided with rising Omicron infection rates and the discovery of a new subvariant in the country, led some to believe such a move could soon be in the offering.

“The prime minister wanted to make sure Israel is prepared in case of a very dangerous variant, in terms of equipment and regarding closing the skies,” Sigal Regev Rosenberg, head of the Meuhedet HMO, told Army Radio.

Health officials have in part attributed the current rise in cases to the BA.2 variant, a subvariant of Omicron. BA.2 is believed to be more infectious than Omicron, but not necessarily more severe.

A woman receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Clalit health care center in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka told Channel 13 that the BA.2 variant is swiftly spreading and the number of new daily infections could double to 30,000 within a week.

According to the latest Health Ministry data, the reproduction rate, or R number, has risen to 1.42. The figure represents how many people each coronavirus carrier infects, with any reading above 1 indicating the virus is spreading. The R number was less than 1 a week ago.

The ministry said 13,603 new infections were confirmed Wednesday, with 19.08 percent of tests coming back positive.

Active cases stood at 66,821, including 786 people hospitalized for COVID complications. The number of serious cases remained steady at 301, among them 130 on ventilators.

The death toll was 10,455, with the Health Ministry reporting 27 fatalities from coronavirus over the past week.

Channel 13 reported that officials are worried the current trajectory of the virus could lead to a massive outbreak during the upcoming Passover festivities, which for the first time in two years will take place unrestricted.

Officials are most concerned with the portion of the population that has not been fully vaccinated — those who have not completed their three-dose regimen or those over the age of 60 who had not received their fourth jab — who could spur a renewed outbreak, the report said.

The Health Ministry announced on Thursday a new campaign to vaccinate citizens aged 60 and over who have not had a fourth dose.

Zarka said there are no plans to impose rules that would keep families from spending Passover together next month.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka seen during a press conference near Tel Aviv, on November 9, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“There’s no reason to mark the holiday on Zoom, we’re not there anymore. We’ll celebrate together, without it ending with illnesses,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.

He also maintained that the vaccine remains the most potent tool against the virus, and urged those who have yet to receive their jab to do so.

Zarka also announced that a case of Omicron subvariant BA.3 has been discovered in Israel for the first time.

He told Army Radio that only one such case has been confirmed so far.

Little is known about the strain, which has joined Omicron subvariants BA.1 and BA.2. The WHO said earlier this month it was tracking BA.3, first identified in South Africa in January.

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