Will Passover cause a rise in COVID-19 cases in Israel?

A sharp rise in tourism for the holiday and the traditional Passover Seders raise fears that coronavirus cases could spread with extended families.

 Passover Seder (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Passover Seder
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

After two years of partial or complete closures and limited international travel, Ben-Gurion Airport is set to see more foot traffic over Passover week than it has since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, with as many as 75,000 passengers expected to pass through its halls in just one day.

What does this mean for the spread of COVID-19 in Israel?

Over the past seven days, 329 new coronavirus cases in Israel were traced to people who entered the country from abroad within the five days prior to infection. Of those, 42 came from Germany, 31 from France, 29 from the United Kingdom, 24 from Greece, 21 from America, and nine from the UAE. The remainder of infected travelers entered Israel from various other countries on the European continent

One week prior, on April 4, the number of coronavirus cases traced to those entering Israel from abroad was almost double, with 614 carriers thought to have been infected with the virus abroad before entering Israel.

Is tourism to blame?

While it is hard to know how many new cases will be brought into the country over the coming days as tourism ramps up, it does appear that cases entering Israel from abroad are on the decline, and so the increase in tourism may not bring with it such an increase in international COVID-19 cases.

 SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY) SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY)

However, the efforts in place at Ben-Gurion to keep out COVID-19 have left airport workers overworked and understaffed, a problem that the government is working to resolve without damaging the procedures that keep the spread of the virus to a minimum.

On Sunday, the Knesset Economy Committee approved amendments to the regulations at Ben-Gurion in an effort to alleviate some of the current overload. These include canceling the ban on non-essential people entering the airport, thereby allowing attendants to help deal with passengers and speed up the check-in process.

These amendments have not yet come into effect, with airport travelers taking to social media with photos of densely packed lines at the check-in counters and reports of little-to-no movement.

The "threat" of large Seders

One aspect of Passover that is cause for concern is the Seder, with extended families gathering across the country that could cause an increase in cases.

To prevent this, the Health Ministry has issued a directive in several languages on precautions that people can take to ensure that they stay healthy and safe while spending time with family.

Included in the directive was the advice for those 60 and over to receive a fourth dose of the vaccine before the holiday if they have not yet done so. Beyond that, the Health Ministry advised that people perform an at-home antigen test ahead of the Seder, stressing the importance of staying home if unwell.

“For us to have a truly happy holiday, it is important to remember that COVID is still here, and that we must be careful and protect those most vulnerable from the Omicron variant,” reads the statement. “This is what it means to live alongside COVID.”

On Sunday, 4,178 new COVID-19 cases were recorded in Israel, a large decrease from just a week prior when over 10,000 new cases were recorded on April 3.

The number of positive tests has also decreased, with 8.82% of 47,377 PCR and antigen tests returning a positive result. The R-rate has dropped to 0.72, after briefly rising above one at the end of last month, indicating that cases are steadily decreasing.