Virus czar ‘optimistic’ about COVID-19 decline, but says restrictions to remain

Salman Zarka warns against too rapid lifting of health rules, hopes eased quarantine plans for school students will also be applied to kindergartens

People with face masks in Jerusalem city center on October 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People with face masks in Jerusalem city center on October 3, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Falling coronavirus infection rates are an encouraging sign that a recent wave is coming to an end, national virus czar Salman Zarka said Monday, but warned against the country dropping its guard too soon.

Zarka held a video press briefing in which he reviewed the declining coronavirus infections and plans to ease the quarantine regime for school children who are exposed to virus carriers.

He said health officials are “optimistic that we are exiting the fourth wave” but cautioned, “we are not there yet.”

“We will not exit the fourth wave quickly,” he said. “The danger is still there, the virus is still among us and we need to be very careful and protect ourselves.”

“We need to learn the lesson of the third wave and be cautious,” he said, referring to the situation in June when daily infections had dropped to little more than a few dozen a day and the country appeared to have put the pandemic behind it. However, as health restrictions were lifted, infections surged, driven by a spread of the highly infectious Delta variant, at the time a relatively new mutation of the virus.

“Our working assumption is that all over the world the virus is still running amok and there are still new variants,” Zarka said. “We need to be careful and see how we run our everyday lives so that, Heaven forbid, there isn’t a fifth wave.”

There is no plan, for the time being, to end use of the so-called Green Pass system under which those who are vaccinated against COVID-19, or have recovered from the disease, are entitled to a permit that grants access to public venues, such as restaurants, attractions and gymnasiums, that are off-limits to those who don’t qualify. A temporary Green Pass can also be gained by taking a PCR virus test.

“Canceling the Green Pass is not on the table,” he said. “The Green Pass is there to protect us and it will be part of daily life for weeks if not for months to come.”

Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus in Jerusalem on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Though daily infections are falling, there has been a slower slide in the number of patients who are seriously ill. Zarka said he hopes that in two weeks or so there will also be a significant drop in those patient numbers.

Health Ministry figures released Monday showed there were 1,467 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed the day before. A month earlier, the number was nearly 10,000.

There are 435 patients in a serious condition out of 24,763 active virus sufferers, the ministry said. With an additional 13 deaths the day before, the toll by Monday since the start of the pandemic was 7,937.

The government has made vaccination a key strategy in curbing the virus spread. So far 6,184,395 have had a least one dose of the vaccine, of which 5,684,666 have had two shots and 3,756,638 have also had a third booster injection.

Regarding a troubled plan to change the quarantine rules of school children, enabling those who are exposed to a known virus carrier to continue attending lessons while adhering to daily virus testing for seven days, Zarka said a decision will be made next week on the success of an ongoing pilot of the scheme.

“The more we decide that it is right, certainly we will want to broaden it also to additional classes and kindergartens,” he said.

Zarka said the health and education ministries, together with local authorities, are working on a plan based on the hope that the pilot is a success.  Another possibility will be allowing children to attend some out-of-school activities in addition to classes.

However, he stressed that will not include children participating in events attended by large numbers of people.

The government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has clashed with health officials over the quarantine plan, with the prime minister pushing to move ahead with it before the pilot ends later this month. Health officials had called for waiting until the results of the trial, being conducted in dozens of municipalities, are in.

Nonetheless, the government approved the new rules in locations with low morbidity from the beginning of this week. But at the last minute, the Education Ministry on Saturday said it was slowing down the implementation of the plan, confirming reports it was not prepared logistically and that many parents had not yet received antigen test kits that they were supposed to use on their kids.

Young Israeli students arrive for their first day of school after the holidays, at Gabrieli school, in Tel Aviv. September 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The new rules will instead be rolled out gradually over the next few days, the Education Ministry said at the time.

Under the new quarantine system, students exposed to someone infected with COVID-19 will be allowed back at school once they take a PCR test and receive a negative result. The students, though back in class, will have to undergo rapid antigen tests every day for a week, at the end of which they will take another PCR test, which, if negative, will give them the all-clear.

In his briefing, Zarka said there will be no shortage of home testing kits and millions have been purchased. The kits will be distributed this week to schools, he said.

But it remains unclear if the tests will be administered at home or at school. It was also not clear whether the plan applied only to children who came into contact with a carrier at an educational institution, or whether it would also include other situations.

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