Bennett doesn't rule out lockdown, says Israel on eve of COVID-19 infection storm

The prime minister said a fourth shot for the elderly is likely, called on parents to vaccinate their kids and accused Netanyahu of “dragging me” to the Knesset on Monday.

 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)

Refusing to rule out a possible nationwide lockdown, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned Israelis on Tuesday that the country was about to see an unprecedented “storm of coronavirus infection, on a scale that we have not seen in Israel before.”

“The storm will happen – we cannot prevent it,” Bennett said. “What we can do is give every human being protection.”

He spoke to Army Radio and KAN News on Tuesday morning, amid reports of nearly 3,000 new COVID cases, ahead of a decision to shift the country’s Omicron isolation policy and only hours before the country’s first Omicron patient died.

Bennett discussed what tactics – including a lockdown – might be used to keep infection rates in check.

“My goal from the beginning of the pandemic was to avoid closures as much as possible,” he said, something for which he received “quite a bit of criticism” during the Delta wave.

 Israeli school  students receive Covid-19 vaccine injection, at Hadassim primary school in Tzur Hadassah, December 19, 2021.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Israeli school students receive Covid-19 vaccine injection, at Hadassim primary school in Tzur Hadassah, December 19, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

“I was told that the fact that I do not impose transverse limits is a mistake, and I withstood this pressure. I’m not afraid to do what’s right,” Bennett told KAN.

But he admitted that in the case of Omicron, he does not know what the next day will bring and therefore, “I do not want to make statements, because it is really complicated.

“The Omicron is different from everything we knew,” he said. “It is very contagious. It is breaking world records in almost all places.”

On Tuesday, however, he made a decision that at least for now, should keep Israelis out of a de facto lockdown by altering the Omicron isolation rules. Those rules stated that anyone who comes in contact with someone carrying the variant must isolate for seven days whether they are vaccinated or not.

Instead, Bennett decided that vaccinated individuals who come in contact with someone infected with the Omicron variant will be able to isolate themselves only until the results of a negative coronavirus are obtained.

During the 10 days after that, the person may go about his or her daily life but will be instructed to stay away from crowded areas, including places of leisure and recreation. He or she will also be asked to refrain from being in contact with high-risk populations.

The decision, Bennett’s office said, is in line with recommendations by top health officials and will apply to all people over the age of five.

“If even people who are vaccinated and are exposed [to COVID-19] are put into isolation, it will be a de facto national lockdown with one or two million people in lockdown – and not just once; you could be exposed again,” Bennett said. “Simplification is good and will help the public.”

He called on the public to “live your life, but be a bit more careful to try to protect those who are more vulnerable... I still expect personal responsibility from the citizens.”

The government’s goal is to leave the economy as open as possible, Bennett said.

“A person with a Green Pass [someone who is fully vaccinated or recently recovered] is someone who is relatively protected from severe illness, but we take into account that they can be infected,” he said, adding, “Vaccines reduce the pace of infection, but they are not hermetic.”

Anyone unvaccinated will still require isolation and two tests – one on the first day and one on day seven.

“I recommend to anyone who wants to continue with their routine – at work, at school – just get vaccinated,” the prime minister said.

“Vaccinated” will be defined as someone who has received all doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for which the individual is eligible.

The decision will take effect on Wednesday. Directives will be signed by Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash and will be approved by the Knesset.

COVID cases are continuing to climb, including Omicron cases.

An 84-year-old woman infected with the Omicron variant died, the Health Ministry said Tuesday night, while it announced another 623 Omicron cases, bringing the country’s total to 1,741.

The woman became the first person to fall victim to Omicron.

Last week, Soroka Medical Center reported that an individual had died who was carrying the variant, but it turned out that the person had the Delta variant.

Only eight people with Omicron are in the hospital – four in mild condition, two in moderate condition, one in severe condition and one in critical condition. Half of the patients are unvaccinated, including the two in more severe condition.

Moreover, the variant has been found in 19 areas through wastewater testing.

There were 2,971 new cases diagnosed on Monday, more than any time in the last three months, the Health Ministry said Tuesday. There were more than 2,000 additional cases already diagnosed between midnight and press time on Tuesday.

Some 2.35% of the roughly 140,000 people who were screened tested positive.

For perspective, there were only 1,799 new cases the day before and only 1,329 last Tuesday.

The only number that has remained steady is serious cases, which stood at 85 on Tuesday morning, including 38 people who were intubated.

Some 161 people were being treated for COVID in the hospital. More than 70% of them were completely unvaccinated and nearly 85% were unvaccinated, did not have fresh vaccinations or were only partially vaccinated.

Among the infected are nearly 7,000 students. Of the students who were tested on Monday, 2.6% tested positive. Some 49,000 students are in isolation.

The government accepted the proposal of Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and will not send children to distance learning based on the color of their city but on outbreaks at their schools.

Finally, the Pfizer COVID oral antiviral pills that Israel ordered will arrive in the country on Wednesday, Bennett said.

The Health Ministry gave emergency use approval to the pills, called Paxlovid, on Sunday.

The drug received approval by the US Food and Drug Administration last Wednesday. It is the world’s first at-home treatment for the virus. A Phase II/III clinical trial showed that it reduces severe disease, hospitalization and death by 89% when patients are treated early.