Will Israel ban travel to the United States due to Omicron fears?

The Health Ministry has set new criteria for determining if a country is red.

A passenger at Ben Gurion Airport  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REURERS)
A passenger at Ben Gurion Airport
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REURERS)

Reports that the United States was on a list of countries that could soon be labeled “red” likely caused high blood pressure among many American-Israelis.

Currently, with few exceptions, no foreigners are allowed into the country until December 29. However, Israelis may come and go – except to red countries. Those countries are banned unless special permission to travel is approved. And all returnees are forced to enter quarantine for seven days.

Unvaccinated travelers have to be isolated in a coronavirus hotel.

Should Americans hit the panic button?

The Health Ministry has set new criteria for determining if a country is red. A country must meet all of the first three criteria to make the list:

1) If the country has a minimum of two or more confirmed Omicron cases. However, when a whole family, for example, tests positive, that is considered only one case because they were together.

2) If 10% or more of sequenced cases in a country test positive for Omicron.

3) If 10% or more of the cases that enter Israel from a certain specific country test positive for Omicron, or if five of 10,000 entrants test positive for the variant.

 A SIGN at Ben-Gurion Airport directs passengers to the COVID-19 testing area. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) A SIGN at Ben-Gurion Airport directs passengers to the COVID-19 testing area. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The reason for No. 2 and No. 3 is because not every country genetically sequences enough. Therefore, rather than the Health Ministry relying only on foreign reports, it creates its own.

There are a small number of countries – including Denmark and the United Kingdom – that meet the above criteria.

But there is also another way that a country can be added to the list: If a country is geographically close to another country that meets the criteria. This is the reason, for example, that all 50 African states were labeled red at the same time despite the lack of data.

When looking at the United States, in the last 10 days, some 17 individuals who entered Israel from the US tested positive for coronavirus, the Health Ministry reported. However, it did not specify if those cases were Omicron positive.

America brought the fourth-highest number of COVID cases into Israel in the last 10 days, less only than the United Kingdom, France and the United Arab Emirates.

Moreover, cases are rising quickly in the US, and health officials believe that the Omicron variant is starting to spread at least in some states.

The most recently reported seven-day average of daily new cases in the US is 118,515, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an increase of more than 37% compared to the previous seven-day moving average.

Health officials worry that if one state has a massive Omicron outbreak, it could spread throughout America because there are no domestic travel restrictions. However, since the start of the pandemic, the Health Ministry has considered all of America one country despite its size. Therefore, it would not make a ruling based on one specific state.

The CDC reported earlier this week that the Omicron variant makes up around 3% of cases sequenced in the US, and that the Delta variant remains the dominant strain. However, the CDC also said that the Omicron is spreading quickly – jumping from just 0.04% of cases the week before.

Already, more than two dozen states have reported cases.

The US does not currently meet the criteria to be labeled red, but health officials are following it closely.

A team of health experts monitors the Omicron rates on a daily basis, and a committee meets every other day to make a determination if countries should be added or taken off the red list. When a country is added to the list, there is usually a prior warning of several days to allow travelers to change their plans.

So, should you cancel your travel plans?

Every country in the world is orange already, meaning the Health Ministry advises against travel in general.

But if you have to fly to the US – well, it seems you would be taking a calculated risk.