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PM warns of lockdown if immediate steps not taken to curb Omicron

Echoing discourse during previous pandemic waves, officials express concern over impact of new variant along with low vaccine rate

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 12, 2021.  (Emil Salman/POOL)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 12, 2021. (Emil Salman/POOL)

In a return to the warnings that became a staple of previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said during a cabinet meeting Sunday that “if we do not take immediate and difficult steps now, we will reach a lockdown.”

“Right now our immunization rate is horrible,” Bennett added as the government pushed for higher vaccine numbers, particularly the booster shot, to curb the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

But the prime minister said that “our overarching goal is to keep the Israeli economy as open as possible, without a lockdown, and to do so without reaching hospitals’ limits.”

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said that he, too, was “very troubled by Omicron.

“There are all sorts of indications that it could cause serious illness. We have decided on a series of measures and an extension of existing regulations. The more enforcement there is, the faster we can get past this.”

One such measure Bennett is reportedly eyeing is requiring a Green Pass — proof of valid vaccination of recovery from the virus — to enter malls. According to the Ynet news site, Bennett noted that there is much transmission of infection in malls, but the regulation would be aimed more at encouraging vaccination.

Police at a temporary checkpoint outside Jerusalem’s Old City, on September 19, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown on Rosh Hashana. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett said that in order to increase vaccination rates, particularly among children, the Health Ministry together with the Education Ministry would begin on Sunday to administer vaccinations in schools across the country. Fifty schools are set to take part in the pilot program Sunday, with more to be added throughout the week.

Echoing comments made last week by Horowitz, Bennett said that Israel was “preparing for the need” to administer fourth shots in the new year, starting with the immunocompromised.

Also Sunday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved requiring travelers returning from “red” countries to quarantine for at least 10 days at state-run facilities. Israelis are barred from visiting nations that the Health Ministry lists as “red” due to coronavirus concerns.

The Knesset panel also okayed allowing returning travelers who test negative for Omicron to be released from the facilities to their own homes to complete the required quarantine period.

The decision came a day after coalition party leaders agreed to update the list of banned countries daily — a move that could reduce flights abroad by making it difficult to plan trips in advance — and as the government has tightened travel restrictions and quarantine rules amid concerns over Omicron.

Israel has so far recorded 55 Omicron cases, including 20 infections from the variant that were confirmed on Saturday.

According to the Health Ministry, 36 Omicron cases were found among people returning from South Africa, England, France, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Hungary, Italy and Namibia. It said 11 people were infected after exposure to travelers coming from South Africa and England, while eight cases were the result of community spread.

The ministry said Saturday night that 42 people infected with Omicron were “protected,” which it defines as those who had received a booster shot, or who received their first two vaccine doses or recovered from COVID-19 within the past six months. The other 13 cases were listed as “unprotected.”

Arriving travelers at Ben Gurion Airport, November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The ministry also said it was waiting on the test results of another 51 cases in which there was a “high suspicion” of Omicron.

In a first, the Health Ministry announced someone was hospitalized in serious condition from Omicron — an unvaccinated man. The ministry said he was one of 40 people with Omicron who were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. No details were given on the vaccination status of the other symptomatic cases.

The latest Health Ministry figures showed 223 coronavirus infections were confirmed in Israel on Saturday, with 0.63 percent of tests coming back positive. The number of serious cases has recently ticked back above 100, days after dropping below that mark for the first time in four months.

The death toll remained at 8,210, with no fatalities since last Monday.

A total of 6,400,940 Israeli have received a first coronavirus vaccine, with 5,789,014 of them having also received a second shot and 4,120,329 of them having received a third.

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