COVID-19: Outdoor mask mandate for over 50 comes into effect - Ash

Outdoor mask mandate for gatherings of over 50 people * Daily infection rates have tripled since last week

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

As health officials and researchers warn of mass infections chaos in the coming month, the Health Ministry passed preventative measures such as mandatory masks outdoors and the approval to administer the fourth vaccine for those with an immune system.

Health Ministry Dir.-Gen. Nachman Ash decided to hold off approving the fourth vaccine for people over 60 and for medical staff, contrary to the Management Team of Epidemics (MTE) recommendation on December 21 to do so. The eligible groups include those with heart, kidney and liver transplants, those with rheumatological diseases, those with sclerosis.

The vaccine rollout depends on Ash’s approval. This is his first official approval of a fourth vaccine.

Kan News reported on Thursday that Hebrew University researchers are predicting that in less than two weeks, the new corona daily cases will hit 15,000-20,000. According to the report, by the end of January there will be 1,000-2,500 serious cases throughout the country.

As part of efforts to prepare for the new wave of infections, Israel’s order of Pfizer’s COVID oral antiviral pills – the world’s first at-home treatment for the virus – arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport on Thursday. The drug inhibits the activity of the protease enzyme, which is necessary for the virus’s replication process in the body.

First shipment of Pfizer's oral COVID medicine arrives at Teva's storage facility. (credit: TEVA-SLE)First shipment of Pfizer's oral COVID medicine arrives at Teva's storage facility. (credit: TEVA-SLE)

Ash also announced at the news conference attended by Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Coronavirus Commissioner Prof. Salman Zarka, and Public Health Services head Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, that an outdoor mask mandate for gatherings of over 50 people had gone into effect at midnight between Wednesday and Thursday. The public was not made aware of this until Ash’s comments.

Approximately 4,000 new cases of corona were reported in Israel on Wednesday, the highest number of daily infections since September and nearly triple the number of daily infections compared with last week.

The number of infected soldiers in the IDF has nearly tripled in the past week, rising from 140 on December 23 to 391 on Thursday.

Of those infected throughout Israel, 94 patients were in serious condition and 38 were on ventilators. The reproduction rate, or “R” number, rose to 1.62 on Thursday, and the death toll since the beginning of the pandemic stood at 8,243.

In the news conference on Thursday evening, Horowitz tried to project calm, saying that a lockdown was not on the table.

“The situation is under control,” he said. “We prepared, practiced and trained in advance and therefore the situation in Israel is much better compared with the world. We gained valuable time thanks to quick and considered actions.

“Our perception needs to change. There are no sticks or carrots here, we work with citizens and look at the data and the reality on the ground. We are prepared for all possibilities and do not improvise or act out of hysteria. In the coming weeks we will know more about how Omicron behaves, what its dangers are, and what we are required to do in order to get through this wave successfully as well.”

In anticipation of the New Year celebrations this weekend, Horowitz called on citizens to “take care of themselves,” and that infecting other people is a personal responsibility. “We will not send a policeman and an inspector to check every person,” he said. “Act responsibly toward yourself and those around you.”

Elroy-Preis stressed the importance of vaccinating children immediately.

“Omicron is breaking records in the world, where most of the cases are in young people, and most of the hospitalizations are of children age 5-11 who are not vaccinated,” she said. “There is an understanding that a wave is going to arrive with a highly contagious strain. With the infection coefficient (R) reaching 4, the principle that should lead citizens is to reach this wave as vaccinated as they can.”

In an interview with Yediot Aharonot on Thursday, Brig.-Col. Reli Margalit, outgoing head of the IDF Home Front Command’s Alon Command Center, warned that he was “very, very disturbed” by the new variant. The center works on epidemiological investigations, contact tracing, testing, labs and quarantining.

While the variant seems to cause less severe illness, it is much more infectious, even for vaccinated people, he said. “There is almost no chance that you will meet a person who is sick with Omicron and not be infected by it.”

Margalit warned that there would be tens of thousands of new infections every day in the coming weeks, meaning that even though the percentage of infected people becoming severely ill may be smaller, the numbers will be “insane.”

“The health care system will collapse,” Margalit told Yediot. “There will be people who will not be able to be hospitalized even though their condition will require hospitalization. Our hospitals will reach a reality that has never existed in the State of Israel.”

Despite Margalit’s warnings, Joshua (Shuki) Shemer, chairman of the board of Assuta Medical Centers, told Maariv on Thursday that he does not believe the healthcare system will collapse.

“We have a strong and good healthcare system,” Shemer said. “It is true that there is a relative manpower shortage, but if, God forbid, the same scenario described occurs and there will be a large number of patients, some of the resources will be diverted to deal with the emergency.”

Projections that hospitals will be unable to treat all patients are relevant in “very extreme situations,” he said, adding that he hopes “we do not get to that.”

“It is an estimate – what can we do with this estimate? Will we build another 20 hospitals and put in another 20,000 beds and train another 30,000 caregivers?” Shemer asked.

On Wednesday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted to allow dual citizens who work abroad or have first- or second-degree relatives outside the country to get an exemption to travel in certain cases, even if the country of destination is red and on Israel’s no-fly list.

Israel’s new isolation policy went into effect on Thursday.

Vaccinated people who come in contact with a sick person should take a rapid antigen test. If the result is negative, they can go on with their routine.

If the person tests positive, he or she should take a PCR test. If a negative result is obtained, the person can carry on with their routine. If they test positive, then they must be isolated for 10 days or until they have recovered according to their doctor.