Officials mull testing tourists from nations with new virus strain every 2 days

Plan to be proposed by health officials at meeting with Bennett amid concerns over subvariant; 5 cases of AY4.2 discovered retroactively in Israel; CDC says 1st cases found in US

Travelers are seen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on September 20, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Travelers are seen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on September 20, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Amid fears of an outbreak of a new coronavirus subvariant and ahead of an expected easing of entry rules for tourists, the Health Ministry will recommend that visitors from countries where the strain has been found be tested every 48 hours for the duration of their stay, according to Thursday reports.

It was unclear how this intensive testing could be carried out on a practical level.

Currently, anyone who enters Israel — regardless of their citizenship or vaccination status — must undergo a PCR test before departing from a foreign country and after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Israel has been weighing reopening its borders to vaccinated tourists next month, a step it has delayed numerous times throughout the year, as COVID infections waxed and waned. Since March 2020, Israel has been effectively shut to general tourism, allowing in only non-citizens granted special permission to enter.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Wednesday night that the proposed tourism framework slated to be presented to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday would be “updated in accordance with the existing information of the new variant.” The proposed intensive testing framework will be discussed at that meeting, Channel 12 news reported.

Health officials said Thursday that five cases of AY4.2 had been retroactively diagnosed since the first known case in Israel was confirmed on Tuesday in a sample taken from a young boy who returned to Israel from Moldova.

Bennett this week instructed officials to boost epidemiological investigations and genetic testing of those who were diagnosed with the strain, as well as to maintain close cooperation and information-sharing with countries where the subvariant has been identified.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, October 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool)

Health officials are considering mandating quarantine for anyone who comes in contact with someone who tests positive for the AY4.2 subvariant, even if they are fully vaccinated and otherwise exempt from quarantine, Channel 12 said on Wednesday. The health authorities, however, only selectively perform genetic sequencing for those diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The new variant of the Delta strain, dubbed AY4.2, was identified recently in a number of Eastern European nations and the United Kingdom. On Wednesday, the Center for Diseases Control said the first cases had been found in the United States.

Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said this week the subvariant might be slightly more transmissible and was being “closely monitored.”

Worker takes a COVID-19 rapid antigen sample in Lod, on October 17, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel appears to be at the tail end of its fourth coronavirus wave, as new infections and serious cases have ticked down over the past few weeks.

On Tuesday, 20 people who entered the country tested positive for the coronavirus, as did 22 on Monday and 27 on Sunday, representing less than 0.1% of all those who entered Israel each day.

As of Thursday, there were 331 serious COVID-19 cases in Israel, down from close to 750 a month ago.

Just 1.05 percent of those tested on Wednesday came back positive, a rate that stands at its lowest point since the start of July.

There were 1,021 new diagnoses of the coronavirus on Tuesday, taking the total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 1,320,563.

Three deaths on Wednesday took the reported death toll to 8,030.

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