Israel bans foreigners from entering country to stop Omicron variant

New restrictions go into effect on Sunday night * One case of Omicron confirmed, seven under investigation

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, November 27, 2021. (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, November 27, 2021.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)

The government voted to ban all foreigners from entering Israel as part of an effort to stem the spread of the new South African "Omicron" variant, one case of which has been confirmed in the country and seven others which are under investigation.

The coronavirus cabinet met for nearly three hours on Saturday night agreeing on a series of new restrictions.

For the time being, all individuals returning from any country – vaccinated Israelis included – will need to be isolated for three days upon entry into Israel. Travelers would be tested at the airport and then be required to take a PCR test on day three, and only leave isolation once a negative result is obtained.

Unvaccinated Israelis would be required to be isolated for seven days subject to a negative test. 

And any foreigners who do manage to get permission to enter Israel would have to quarantine in a state-run coronavirus hotel.

This undated transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus parti (credit: NIAID-RML/FILE PHOTO/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)This undated transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus parti (credit: NIAID-RML/FILE PHOTO/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The government had ruled earlier Saturday that some 50 countries in the African continent would be labeled red. The cabinet agreed that before leaving Israel, travelers would be asked to declare on the Health Ministry website that they are not traveling to one of these banned countries. Traveling to them without permission could result in a NIS 5,000 fine.

Israelis returning from red countries will be sent directly to a coronavirus hotel until a negative result is obtained. Travelers who test negative at the hotel will be sent home to complete a week of isolation pending a second negative test. Those who test positive will need to stay in the hotel.

This requirement has already gone into effect for anyone returning from Ethiopia, Botswana, South Africa or Malawi. It will apply to the rest of the list of countries beginning at midnight between Sunday and Monday on November 29.

The cabinet also decided that Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance for anyone who tests positive upon return to Israel from a banned African country would be reinstated. 

Finally, the government reduced the minimum number of people that can be at an event without requiring a Green Pass from 100 to 50 people. All other Hanukkah events will go on as planned, according to the Green Pass outline. 

All decisions are subject to final approval by the larger cabinet and, unless otherwise mentioned, are expected to go into effect at midnight between November 28 and 29.

The Festival of Lights begins Sunday at sundown.

“The indications are that a vaccine prevents serious illness and the booster is very significant for protection against serious illness,” said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the start of the cabinet meeting. “That is, even if you become infected, the booster protects you from serious illness.

“Those who have not yet been vaccinated with a booster simply voluntarily give up an essential layer of protection, at a critical time,” he continued. “In preparation for Hanukkah events, so that the children can go out and celebrate safely, take them to get vaccinated.”

State of emergency

On Friday, Bennett held an emergency meeting and then addressed the nation about the South African variant B.1.1.529, now known as Omicron, saying that it is “extremely concerning” and that Israel is “raising a red flag” and “on the verge of a state of emergency.”

He charged the Home Front Command with locating anyone who returned to Israel from Africa within the last week and instructing these individuals to take PCR tests and to isolate until a negative coronavirus result is obtained.

The Home Front Command has already spurred into action, it said, reaching out to hundreds of citizens. On Saturday, Deputy Defense Minister Alon Schuster said during a talk in Mevaseret Zion that around 800 Israelis that could have been exposed to the new strain still needed to be contacted, which he estimated would take another 24 hours.

The command also said that it has doubled the number of team members responsible for meeting returnees at the airport and taking them to hotels. Flights from banned countries are landing at Terminal 1 instead of Terminal 3 to make the process easier.

“We understand there is a good chance that the new variant has already arrived here, so we are doing all we can to cut off the chains of infection,” said Reli Margalit, commander of Alon Headquarters. “Fortunately, at this time, the number of cases verified in Israel is low and we have enough manpower to deal with them.”

“We are not taking any chances,” Bennett said. “We want to stop this early… We want to prevent or delay the entrance of this variant into Israel.”

Bennett discouraged people from traveling abroad until more is known.

 Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021.  (credit: FLASH90) Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (credit: FLASH90)

Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis said that all PCR-positive tests taken in recent days from people entering the country through the airport have already been sent for genetic sequencing.

“We are in a good place,” she said, “but we need to keep it that way.”

A message from Femi Premium, which conducts PCR tests for incoming passengers, said that the Health Ministry had requested that all samples be sent to one laboratory that knows how to identify the variant instead of the normal three labs that the company normally works with. As such, there could be delays in obtaining test results.

National drill prepared nation for this moment

Bennett said that “several weeks ago, when we had the ‘Omega’ national drill for the scenario of a deadly new variant, it seemed a little detached. It would be unnecessary to point out that this was one of the most significant actions that prepared us precisely for the situation we may now find ourselves in.”

The Omega exercise was held earlier this month and included representation from senior-level officials and teams from across ministries and sectors. It was meant to evaluate preparedness in the health, legal, economic, internal security, travel and communication realms in the event of another mass COVID-19 outbreak. Bennett said that the government is reviewing the exercise findings and already applying the relevant ones.

The South African variant was first discovered in Israel late Thursday night, according to reports released Friday morning by the Health Ministry. It was first detected in an individual who returned to Israel from Malawi.

As of Saturday night, seven other cases were being evaluated – four who returned from abroad and three who did not.

The verified case was fully vaccinated. Of the suspicious cases, three of them were fully vaccinated but four others were not – meaning they either recovered or received their second dose more than six months ago.

Omicron is of particular concern because it has more than 30 mutations on the spike protein, explained Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, head of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s School of Public Health.

Davidovitch said that the variant spread very quickly in South Africa, even faster than the Delta variant, and that there are concerns that it could cause a more severe disease. In South Africa, infections had been on the decline before the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Bennett also warned that the variant appears to spread at a much quicker pace than the Delta strain.

“We are currently drawing on the health system in South Africa, which is doing very impressive work, but we still do not have all of the information,” he said. “Our knowledge will expand very quickly in the coming days. We will know if the variant is really breaking through the vaccines, how fast, if it is deadlier or not, how it affects children, etc.”He called the new mutation a “super variant.”

The prime minister said that Israel will “act fast, early, hard and strong” to keep citizens safe.

 Children aged 5-11 receive their first first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, at a Clallit i vaccine center in Jerusalem on November 23, 2021.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Children aged 5-11 receive their first first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, at a Clallit i vaccine center in Jerusalem on November 23, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

On Friday, Bennett agreed to purchase 10 million PCR testing kits tailored to closely identify the new variant. He also noted that the country will be piloting a program in about two weeks to install special HEPA air filters in 100 preschools. If the pilot works, he explained, it will be expanded to the rest of the country.

Bennett also said that sewage sampling would be stepped up in order to detect latent cases of the new variant.

He is also reportedly expanding the country’s purchase of Pfizer’s oral antiviral coronavirus treatment, which has shown promise for treating patients in the initial stages of the disease.

So far, the majority of cases confirmed worldwide have been in South Africa. Others have been located in Botswana, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and, of course, Israel.

Health officials have stressed that even with the chances that this new variant could be more vaccine-resistant than previous mutations, the best advice remains to get the jab – including a booster shot, if eligible.