Officials mulling cap on crowds if renewed COVID mask mandate fails — report

Education Minister accuses Health Ministry of exaggerating latest outbreak to cause hysteria; coronavirus czar says indoor face-covering requirement could return before Sunday

Israelis shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on June 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on June 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Ministry officials reportedly plan to push for a return of limits on gatherings if a recent uptick in coronavirus cases does not subside, a report said Thursday evening.

The officials plan to monitor the effects of the indoor mask mandate that will likely be reintroduced on Sunday, the Kan public broadcaster reported, adding that they plan to set a benchmark in the coming days to measure progress and that if it is not met, they will back curbs on gatherings as well.

While they recognize that the impact of the current outbreak spurred by the Delta variant of the coronavirus is less severe than previous waves of the pandemic, given that the majority of Israeli adults are vaccinated, the health officials told Kan that they prefer to act early while cases are still relatively low, rather than wait until the problem is more widespread.

Caps on gatherings were among the first measures taken by Israel’s government at the start of the pandemic, and among the last restrictions lifted as the country almost completely opened up earlier this month after bringing case numbers down to near zero.

The coronavirus cabinet is scheduled to convene on Sunday for the first time since the new government was sworn in on June 13, the public broadcaster reported. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who sits on the ministerial panel, plans to take an approach in favor of restrictions targeting specific communities experiencing outbreaks rather than more widespread measures in order to prevent harming the economy, according to the network.

Earlier Thursday, the Health Ministry announced that it will return the indoor mask mandate on Sunday, but the government’s coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told Channel 13 that the directive may be enforced even earlier, given that its return was dependent on the average number of daily cases crossing 100, which has already been the case this week.

Both Ash and Health Ministry director Chezy Levy noted Thursday that while case numbers have been on the rise, the number of seriously ill patients remained low.

According to Health Ministry figures published Thursday evening, 183 COVID-19 cases were diagnosed since the start of the day — 45 more than Wednesday’s figure.

New Minister of Education Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks at a ceremony as she takes over from Yoav Gallant, at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

There were 803 active cases in total, with 27 of them leading to serious illness among patients. Over 43,000 tests were carried out on Wednesday with 0.3% of them coming back positive.

Separately, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton tore into senior Health Ministry officials over their stance on the ongoing outbreak in private comments leaked to Channel 12 on Thursday. “There are officials in the healthcare system who are deliberately spreading hysteria and intimidation,” she is quoted as having said.

Shasha-Biton also reportedly said that the Health Ministry is exaggerating the scope of the latest outbreak caused by the Delta variant due to a desire to pressure parents to vaccinate children before thousands of doses expire in July. She made the comments during a meeting with education officials at her office this week, claiming that the recent uptick in cases is a result of a Health Ministry “blitz” in testing.

“We all know the individual in the healthcare system who is driving this entire approach,” Channel 12 quoted Shasha-Biton as having said, without specifying further. She claimed the Health Ministry was shutting her out of discussions on the matter.

Shasha-Biton, a former Likud MK who is now part of the New Hope party, previously sparred with health officials last year as head of a Knesset committee meant to audit the government’s coronavirus policies, contending that many restrictions were unnecessary and not backed by data.

In a response reported by the network, Health Ministry director Chezy Levy said that he respects Shasha-Biton but that she does not own the education system. Moreover, he insisted that Shasha-Biton’s office has been looped into discussions in the Health Ministry and that her comments were unfortunate.

Also on Thursday, the Finance Ministry announced that it would provide compensation to vaccinated parents forced to stay home if one of their children is forced to quarantine upon exposure to the coronavirus. If approved by the cabinet, the measure will be retroactively effective from the beginning of 2021.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greets a woman conducting COVID tests at Ben-Gurion Airport on June 22, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

At a press conference earlier Thursday, Ash 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 it did for several months earlier this year, and is seen as unlikely to happen again.

The fast-spreading Delta variant is believed to be responsible for 70% of the new cases in the country in recent weeks.

At a press conference at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett 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 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 Monday, and the number of vaccinations among teenagers in general has remained low.

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