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Virus czar warns against easing COVID restrictions too quickly, fearing 5th wave

Salman Zarka says he is still optimistic, as 734 new cases are recorded Saturday; reports say ministers to approve removal of some remaining virus rules anyway

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

National coronavirus czar Salman Zarka said on Sunday that he doesn’t plan to recommend easing any significant remaining COVID-19 restrictions yet, fearing a potential fifth virus wave.

“We are optimistic and we see the downward trend [of cases] is continuing, but the fourth wave is still here,” Salman Zarka told Kan public radio.

“We also have a lesson to learn, to remind everyone: We exited too quickly from the third wave. We thought we beat the coronavirus, and then the Delta variant came in the fourth wave,” he said. “We need to do it slowly, carefully, keeping in mind [a potential] fifth wave, God forbid.”

But the ministerial coronavirus cabinet is expected to approve easing a number of remaining restrictions in the coming days, according to Hebrew-language media reports.

Among the recommendations, officials are reportedly considering abolishing the restrictions on large outdoor gatherings that set limits of between 1,000 and 5,000 participants, and limits on event halls of 400 people in closed spaces and 500 in open spaces, once the average daily new case rate drops to below 1,000.

Separately, the reported moves being considered could include removing the Green Pass requirement from gyms.

Illustration of the new Green Pass, in Jerusalem, on October 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Starting Sunday, venues and businesses that require a Green Pass for entry must scan the permits’ QR codes before granting access to their holders, following weeks of technical difficulties with getting the new rules off the ground.

Each Green Pass holder’s QR code must now be scanned using a Health Ministry app and compared to their IDs to verify they can enter. The code is intended to make the passes harder to fake. Though QR codes have existed on the Green Pass since the inception of the system, which is designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, most businesses have forgone scanning them for verification and often simply wave people through with a cursory glance.

The scanning requirement was supposed to start earlier this month, but due to technical difficulties with issuing new passes, after a policy change dictated that a COVID-19 booster shot is required six months after receiving the first two doses, a grace period was granted by the Health Ministry.

Individuals who have not been vaccinated or who have not recovered from COVID-19 can also obtain a temporary Green Pass with a negative virus test (valid for 72 hours). Such a test must be paid for privately unless the person in question is not eligible for vaccination.

Children are eligible for a Green Pass if they have tested negative for coronavirus in the last 24 hours. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Ministry figures published Sunday morning showed that 734 new cases were identified nationwide during the previous day, down from more than 10,000 a day at the height of the wave in August and September. The rate of positive tests was 1.63 percent out of nearly 50,000 tests.

The number of serious cases was 388, including 157 on ventilators. The overall death toll reached 7,983 as of Sunday morning.

There were just two localities with more than 500 active cases, both of them large cities — Jerusalem with 2,058, and Tel Aviv with 643 — while a month ago, there were 16 cities with over 1,000 cases. Total active cases fell to 19,587.

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