Top health official: Masks may offer more protection from virus than vaccines

Itamar Grotto, whose term ends this month, also criticizes government policy seeking to ban visits to other people’s homes during Hanukkah

Itamar Grotto at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)
Itamar Grotto at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

A top health official claimed on Thursday that masks may be more effective at preventing COVID-19 than vaccines.

Itamar Grotto, the outgoing deputy director general of the Health Ministry, was encouraging Israelis to uphold mask-wearing and social distancing ahead of the vaccination drive, which will begin on December 27.

“The masks offer perhaps better protection than the vaccine,” he told Army Radio.

The top vaccine candidates have touted over 90 percent protection from the virus. A meta-analysis of worldwide mask research in January said wearing face coverings cuts chances of COVID-19 infection by 85 percent upon encountering someone with the virus, though other studies differ on the effectiveness.

The World Health Organization, which revised its position on masks after initially refraining from recommending them, says “masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives; the use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection against COVID-19.”

People wearing face masks shop at the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem on December 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Grotto, who will step down from his position at the end of the year, also appeared to criticize the government’s proposed policy to prevent people from visiting others’ homes over Hanukkah.

“It’s not entirely clear to me whether according to the regulations my daughter, who lives in a rented apartment, can come for candle-lighting,” he told Army Radio.

Thursday is the first night of the eight-day holiday, which is often marked by extended family gettogethers in the evening for the traditional candle-lighting. The government has consistently attempted to impose restrictions over holidays throughout the pandemic, fearing that gatherings will bolster the spread of the coronavirus.

The cabinet was convening Thursday morning to approve a proposal banning such visits during the evening hours on Hanukkah, with exceptions made for essential visits, such as providing care. The ban would be in effect every night from 5:30 p.m. until midnight, with a NIS 500 fine ($153) for violators.

It’s unclear how police would enforce such an order, as they cannot legally enter homes without a warrant.

Israeli donuts sold at the Roladin bakery ahead of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, outside the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on December 7, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The limitations will only affect Jewish-majority towns, while communities with major Christian populations will go under similar limitations during the Christmas period.

Stores and other walk-in businesses will also be ordered to shut during those hours, and gatherings at synagogues will be banned.

The restrictions would not affect restaurants offering takeout and deliveries or other sectors of the economy.

Health officials have warned that another nationwide lockdown — the third since the start of the pandemic — could be unavoidable as the number of cases continues to rise. Israel imposed its second nationwide lockdown in mid-September over the High Holidays, and it remained fully in place until mid-October, when the government began to gradually lift the rules. It has yet to lift all of the restrictions imposed at that time.

The reported proposal comes after legal challenges sunk a planned nightly curfew that the cabinet had approved for December 9 to January 2. Representatives of the attorney general cautioned that they would not be able to defend the government’s decision to impose a curfew against possible legal challenges because senior Health Ministry officials were not on board with the move.

The curfew was challenged as ineffective by senior health officials including coronavirus czar Nachman Ash and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday night announced that Israel would begin its vaccination drive on December 27, with the country aiming to administer 60,000 shots a day. Israel received its first shipment of Pfizer vaccines on Wednesday and is poised to receive hundreds of thousands of additional doses by the weekend.

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