Officials said weighing indoor mask mandate, offering COVID shots for youngest kids

As new variant BA.5 gains ground, 158 patients in serious condition, up from 106 last week

Israelis wear protective face masks in Dizengoff Center, Tel Aviv, on September 13, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israelis wear protective face masks in Dizengoff Center, Tel Aviv, on September 13, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

With coronavirus infection rates rising, health officials are reportedly set to discuss a return to indoor masking and the possibility of authorizing COVID-19 vaccines for infants and preschoolers.

Israel officially lifted the indoor mask mandate on April 24, scrapping one of the few remaining coronavirus restrictions that were still in place more than two years into the pandemic.

According to an unnamed Health Ministry official cited by the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday, a return to the measure will be examined and a decision will be made next week.

Since masking rules were first imposed in April 2020 and before it was lifted a couple of months ago, Israelis were required to wear face coverings indoors for all but 10 days in June last year, when the mandate was briefly lifted before being swiftly brought back amid burgeoning cases at the time.

Additionally, officials will also consider authorizing COVID-19 vaccines for the youngest children after US regulators on Friday gave their approval for the first shots for infants and preschoolers.

According to the Ynet news site, Israel’s Health Ministry will discuss the matter at a meeting on Tuesday.

“As there’s already an FDA recommendation, I don’t see why we shouldn’t do the same here,” said pediatrician Dr. Doron Dushnitsky from Clalit Health Services, according to the report.

A six-year-old receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Hartford, Connecticut, November 2, 2021. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

The potential policy changes come as health experts have warned that a new wave of infections appears to be underway.

As of Sunday morning, there were 158 patients in serious condition, with 48 of them classified as critical.

A week ago, there were 106 patients in serious condition.

The reproduction number (R) saw a small drop, reaching 1.3 on Sunday — a decrease from 1.31 on Saturday. Earlier in the month it stood at 1.52. The R figure is based on rates from ten days earlier, and it measures how many people each coronavirus carrier infects on average, with any number above 1 meaning the spread of COVID-19 is increasing.

It first began to rise above 1 in mid-May, having stayed below that threshold for nearly two months.

The Health Ministry said Sunday that 4,931 people tested positive for the virus a day earlier, compared with 3,339 new cases diagnosed a week earlier and 1,575 cases diagnosed two weeks ago. Testing rates tend to decrease on weekends.

The country’s death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 10,896.

A medical worker at Kaplan Hospital at the coronavirus ward on January 18, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

While Israel has seen rising infection numbers for a few weeks, a rise in seriously ill patients marks a real concern as the country deals with the spread of the new variant BA.5, with experts warning that hospitals may need to reopen COVID wards if the situation continues.

“The real indication is the number of patients in serious condition because we know much of the morbidity is not detected as people don’t go and get tested, and that should also be taken into account,” immune system expert Prof. Cyrille Cohen of Bar Ilan University said last week.

Cohen advised wearing masks in crowded places like on buses and at shopping centers to avoid more cases of infection.

Last week, coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka said the new variant BA.5 is quickly gaining traction and is more resistant to vaccines than previous strains.

He said BA.5 was replacing Omicron as the dominant variant, and that it will continue to gain ground.

But other experts have said that everything should be taken into consideration — including the possibility of offering a fifth vaccine shot for the elderly and immunocompromised.

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