Will a fifth COVID-19 wave enter Israel with the two-shot tourists? - analysis

The Health and Tourism ministries announced a new policy that will allow entry to small tour groups even if the travelers do not qualify as fully vaccinated.

 TRAVELERS WALK through Ben-Gurion Airport earlier this year.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
TRAVELERS WALK through Ben-Gurion Airport earlier this year.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

COVID-19 variants enter Israel from Ben-Gurion Airport, so allowing tourists with only two vaccinations into the country could spark a fifth wave of the pandemic, according to some health experts.

The Health and Tourism ministries announced on Monday a new policy that will allow small tour groups of between four and 50 people into Israel, even if the travelers do not qualify as fully vaccinated according to the standards of the Health Ministry.

Israelis are only considered fully vaccinated if they were double-inoculated within the last six months or received a booster shot since then.

The head of Public Health Services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, said the decision was made in collaboration with health officials and that these tourists would have sufficient restrictions, including only being allowed to travel in capsules, daily antigen testing and more.

However, “From all aspects it is not a good decision,” stressed Prof. Yehuda Adler, a specialist in cardiology internal medicine and health management and a coronavirus consultant to local authorities.

The move would likely cause a variant to enter Israel; could cause Israelis who require quarantine to skip it; because why should they isolate if tourists don’t have to; and will increase frustration among the population with the government, which is essentially delivering the message that they trust tourists more than their own people, he said.

 Medical staff receive their third COVID-19 vaccine shot at Meir Medical Center in Kefar Sava, August 13, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) Medical staff receive their third COVID-19 vaccine shot at Meir Medical Center in Kefar Sava, August 13, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Let’s start with the variant: Is there a chance that tourists will bring a potentially dangerous mutation into the country? The answer is yes.

All of Israel’s previous waves were sparked by a variant that was brought in through the airport, including the Delta wave, which was specifically caused by unvaccinated children who failed to isolate.

Multiple studies in Israel and abroad have shown that mRNA vaccines wane after around four to six months, making individuals more susceptible to contracting the virus. In Western Europe, where countries were slow to promote the third jab and yet fully opened, cases are rapidly rising.

“From the moment you open your borders, you are at the mercy of a variant,” said Prof. Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunology lab at Bar-Ilan University. Tourism is important to the country, and knowing these travelers will be frequently tested is “to some extent reassuring,” he said.

Nonetheless, allowing people who could be carrying a variant into Israel, even if it is caught early, could cause another outbreak.

Though Cohen did say even in countries that had a strict policy of keeping their borders shut, COVID-19 made it through.

Therefore, the larger issue is the message that this sends to the public.

In Israel, the government has stressed that Green Passes are only available to people who have received the booster. Letting in people who don’t have it is contradictory and will feel unfair to many citizens. After all, Israelis who do not have the third shot must enter quarantine upon returning from abroad.

“I am not fully convinced of the epidemiological validity of this decision,” Cohen said.

He and Adler stressed it is likely that when Israelis realize tourists are having an easier time than they are, some of them may revert to their old practice of skipping the required isolation period.

In previous waves, the Health Ministry reported that as many as two-thirds of Israelis did not quarantine on return from abroad and at different stages of the pandemic were responsible for a high percentage of new cases.

Israelis who break quarantine would not have the same rules as these tourist capsules, and therefore infection would be less likely to be caught.

Finally, while infection is low in the country – so low that the government announced on Tuesday it is lifting all restrictions, including the masking requirement in open areas beginning on Thursday – the reproduction rate or “R” is on the rise.

Cohen said it was too early to tell if the rate, which is at 0.89 and indicates how many people one sick person infects, is dangerously rising or if the higher number is a result of random and small outbreaks.

“We should not talk about a fifth wave until the R is 1.2 or more for at least a week,” he said.

However, what is riskier is that the fourth wave is not really over, he added.

There are still more than 500 new cases per day and close to 200 patients in serious condition in Israel’s hospitals

“The fourth wave is on the decline, but COVID-19 is not really over,” Cohen stressed. “We are running a marathon and have to learn to live alongside the virus. But at the same time, we must maintain vigilance and be very careful.”