As Omicron spreads, gov’t set to reduce quarantine for those exposed

“No one will escape this wave,” Bennett said, as morbidity in the country continued to increase.

 Women show their negative rapid test results after using COVID-19 self-test kits, in Malaga (photo credit: REUTERS/JON NAZCA)
Women show their negative rapid test results after using COVID-19 self-test kits, in Malaga
(photo credit: REUTERS/JON NAZCA)

The government is expected to reduce quarantine requirements for vaccinated individuals exposed to Omicron on Tuesday, as the variant spread in the country and cases skyrocketed.

“We are reviewing the quarantine policy in order to not hurt the business sector and the education system,” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said during the Meretz faction meeting on Monday.

Under the current policy, fully vaccinated individuals are required to quarantine for at least a week if they are exposed to Omicron.

However, in the upcoming days and in light of the infectiousness of the variant, the number of Israelis who must self-isolate might reach hundreds of thousands, up from the current 90,000 and impairing the ability of the country to function.

For this reason, Horowitz and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held consultations with relevant officials on the matter. Among the policies being considered are requiring fully vaccinated individuals to isolate only if a member of their household was found infected or to shorten the period from seven to three days.

 People some with facemasks shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 24, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) People some with facemasks shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 24, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

In the meantime, the Health Ministry’s committee for classifying states according to infectiousness recommended that the list of countries to which Israelis are banned from traveling be reduced. But it added Mexico and left the United States and Canada on it.

The decision to change the list would take effect at midnight between Wednesday, December 29, and Thursday, December 30, pending approval by the government and the Knesset.

If passed, the list of “red” states would contain Mexico, the US, Canada, Ethiopia, France, Hungary, Nigeria, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Tanzania, the United Arab Emirates and the UK.

At the same time, the ministry removed the rest of the 69 countries that were on the list, including the majority of African nations and Italy, Ireland, Germany. These countries join a list of orange countries to which there is a severe traveling warning but no ban.

Israelis who return to Israel from red countries are required to be quarantined for a full seven days and must take two PCR tests – one on the first day and one on the seventh day. Vaccinated Israelis can be isolated at home from the first day. But unvaccinated individuals must first check in to a coronavirus hotel and can only leave when they receive a negative PCR test result.

Returning from an orange country requires three days of isolation for people who are fully vaccinated or recovered within the last six months, including two negative test results on days one and three.

Unvaccinated Israelis still require seven days no matter where they go.

All foreigners remain banned from entering Israel, although Horowitz on Monday said the restrictions might soon become unhelpful and therefore lifted once Omicron is dominant and spreading in the country.

On Sunday, 12% of the new virus carriers had recently returned from abroad, the Health Ministry reported. During the previous week, the rate was 20%.

As of Monday, experts estimated that half of the coronavirus cases in Israel have been caused  by Omicron. The new variant has been detected in waste water in 19 different locations in the country, Health Ministry data showed.

In general, cases in Israel have been on a sharp rise for several days. Over the past week, almost 10,000 new cases have been reported, marking an 81% increase compared with the previous week.

By print time, more than 2,000 new cases had been recorded on Monday. On the previous Monday, there were 1,329.

The average number of daily cases on a weekly basis from December 19-25 was 1,295, compared with 698 during the previous week.

Among the Israelis suspected of having contracted the variant was Bennett’s 14-year-old daughter. Confirmation is supposed to come in two days. In the meantime, the prime minister said he was going to continue to isolate.

“No one, and especially those who have children in the education system, will escape this wave in one way or another,” Bennett said.

About half of the 1,760 cases recorded on Sunday were students or teachers.

In the meantime, serious morbidity appears mostly stable. As of Monday night, there were 84 patients in serious condition, slightly higher than in previous days, when there were 80-82. However, Health Ministry data also showed a rise of 108% in the number of patients in serious condition over the previous seven days compared with the seven days before that.

More than 85% of patients in serious condition have not been vaccinated, the Health Ministry reported.

As long as the number of patients in serious condition is low, the country will be able to avoid major restrictions, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said Monday.

“It all depends on the behavior and responsibility of the citizens of Israel,” he told his Yisrael Beytenu faction. “Currently, there are fewer than 90 critically ill patients and fewer than 40 who are intubated. These numbers allow us to maintain an open economy.”

Also on Monday, Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer administered the first fourth shots in the country to members of its staff who are participating in the world’s first clinical trial to prove the safety and efficacy of a fourth dose. Around 80 of the 150 participants were inoculated.

While the Pandemic Response Committee advising the Health Ministry recommended that all individuals over 60 and medical personnel receive a fourth shot beginning four months after the third, Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash has yet to officially approve the recommendation or send out specific guidelines.

The ministry’s data showed that 40% of the new virus carriers identified on Sunday were vaccinated with a third shot.

Later in the day, Ash approved that individuals vaccinated with two shots can receive a booster after three months instead of five, which was another recommendation issued by the committee.

Also on Monday, the Knesset Education Committee decided that the outline for the education system approved by the government will be valid for a few days and asked the ministries to provide an alternative.

Under the current policy, students in middle and high schools in orange or red areas must learn from home or outdoors if 70% of their classmates are not vaccinated, while grades one through six will run under a policy of “reducing contact.”

The regulation for younger students will expire on Tuesday and for older students on Sunday, the committee decided.