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Virus czar tells MKs there may need to be restrictions on gatherings

Salman Zarka says traces of Omicron found in sewage systems, while Sharon Alroy-Preis emphasizes need for vaccines as health officials address joint panel at Knesset

Illustrative -- People at the cinema on May 27, 2021 in Jerusalem (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative -- People at the cinema on May 27, 2021 in Jerusalem (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka told lawmakers on Monday that there may need to be restrictions on gatherings as Israel tries to slow the wave of coronavirus infections accelerated by the Omicron strain.

“We need to look at the next steps, beyond vaccinating the population and protecting the elderly, and to prepare for [regulations] related to gatherings,” Zarka told a joint meeting of the Knesset’s Health and Constitution, Law and Justice committees.

“We are seeing an increase in morbidity among children,” Zarka said, noting that intensive care units were already peaking in capacity.

“There is complexity and uncertainty here, but within that, decisions have to be made,” he warned.

Zarka, who is spearheading the national response to the pandemic, also said that traces of the Omicron variant were identified last week in the sewage systems of Netanya, Ashdod and Harish.

The presence of the variant in sewer water could signify previously unidentified outbreaks in those locations.

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

Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, also addressed the committees, emphasizing the need for vaccination with a focus on the inoculation of children.

“There is no doubt that the vaccinated are less likely to be infected, even if [the vaccine] is less effective against Omicron” than against earlier strains of the virus, Alroy-Preis said.

She further said it was of the utmost importance that those who have recovered from the coronavirus get vaccinated.

“From the data we are seeing all over the world, the antibodies of those who have recovered are not good enough to protect against this variant, so it is very worthwhile to get vaccinated,” she said.

Alroy-Preis also addressed possible concerns of potential long-term side effects from the vaccine.

“Vaccines have no long-term side effects after a number of years — this is not something that happens. There is no biological reason why they could have long-term effects,” she said, noting that millions of children in the United States have been vaccinated and there have been no reports of significant side effects.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at the Health Ministry, addresses a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on November 28, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told the panel that parents must take responsibility and vaccinate their children.

“We are facing a new situation. What we know from the Delta wave [of infections] is now different. We can see all over the world that Omicron is gaining momentum,” Horowitz said.

“The responsibility to vaccinate the children is first and foremost that of the the parents. The state cannot replace the responsibility of the parent. We cannot make the decision for them,” he said.

Horowitz noted that COVID-19 can be dangerous for kids, while over six million young children have now been vaccinated in the US with no evidence of significant side effects.

Israel’s rate of virus cases has continued to rise, with 1,004 new infections diagnosed on Sunday, according to Health Ministry data, the highest level since October.

A child is vaccinated against the coronavirus at an elementary school in Tzur Hadassah, December 19, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

There were 81 people in serious condition, with 51 of them categorized as critical. The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 8,232.

The virus reproduction number, R, was given as 1.22, having steadily climbed from 1 over the past few days. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the pandemic is growing.

Since the start of the pandemic, 5.8 million people in Israel — out of the total population of approximately 9.3 million — have received two vaccine doses, and over 4.1 million have gotten a third, booster shot.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday that the highly infectious Omicron variant is driving Israel’s fifth wave of coronavirus infections. So far, at least 175 Omicron cases have been confirmed in Israel, including 40 on Sunday alone.

The prime minister also urged business owners who can have employees work from home do so, in order to reduce public interactions, saying that the same measure would be taken in the public sector. He called for diligence in wearing face masks and avoiding public gatherings.

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