Gov't mulls ending quarantine exemptions for vaccinated returnees

Gov’t to weigh extending lockdown again or reopening economy.

Travelers at Ben-Gurion Airport in March - to bring tourists back to Israel is not an act of lunacy. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Travelers at Ben-Gurion Airport in March - to bring tourists back to Israel is not an act of lunacy.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
The Health Ministry is examining whether to abolish the exemption from isolation for vaccinated people returning from abroad.
“We see cases of people who returned from abroad and became infected after being vaccinated,” Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of the Health Ministry’s Public Health Services, said Monday during a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. “So we are reevaluating the whole matter.”
“We do not want mutations that are more contagious to enter” the country, she said.
Seven days after receiving a second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, people can receive a vaccination certificate that gives them two privileges: an exemption from quarantine if they come in contact with an infected person; and the same exemption if they are returning from abroad.
Earlier in the week, it was reported that the ministry might consider abolishing the first exemption as well. But coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash said Monday he does not envision that there will be any change on that front.
The country should take “drastic preventative measures” to keep further variants from entering or spreading in Israel, especially through Ben-Gurion Airport, the Coronavirus Knowledge and Information Center said Monday in a report.
“We estimate that about 70% of new daily cases are infected with the British mutation,” Ash said during a Monday briefing. Later, the Health Ministry said some 16 pregnant women out of 20 screened were infected with the variant.
So far, 80 cases of the South African mutation have been revealed through genetic sequencing, and health experts are working to locate those infected with this or the British mutation, including those who return from abroad and those who are diagnosed in Israel, Ash said.
“We have started the process of mapping a statistical sample of the tests in the country,” he said. “I hope we will complete it within the next week. The mapping could indicate the prevalence of these mutations in Israel more accurately.”
The airport will remain closed until at least February 7. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz agreed to extend the lockdown by another five days at around midnight on Sunday night.
The cabinet also voted to continue with its ban on international flights until Sunday, Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. Until then, there will be no entry to or exit from Israel, with the exception of special cases.
Both sets of measures were set to expire on Sunday at midnight. The lockdown is now set to end on Friday at 7 a.m. and the flight ban on Sunday, February 7 at midnight.
To help halt what has become an increasingly acute humanitarian crisis, with Israelis stranded abroad, the cabinet also voted to establish a committee to approve applications for arrival into Israel. It will be headed by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. The committee will also be composed of representatives from other ministries, including Interior, Foreign, Health, Transportation and Diaspora and Aliyah.
Beginning Monday, all returnees who do enter the country will be required to isolate in state-run coronavirus hotels, with few exceptions. That regulation will be in place through the expected opening of the airport.
The government agreed to reconvene on Wednesday to discuss whether to further extend the lockdown and, if not, to vote on the first steps of an exit strategy.
“We are preparing these days for the end of the closure,” Ash said. “We are holding discussions on how to end it, what will be opened, both in terms of the economy and in terms of the education system.”
It is likely that preschools will open across the country. But there is expected to be disagreement between some ministers and the Health Ministry regarding which elementary school classrooms will open and if any of them can open in areas of high infection.
“We really want to strengthen the activity in the education system to renew the studies, out of an understanding of the importance this has for the education of students,” Ash said. “We are currently examining the exact outline.”
The Health and Education ministries were working to find the right balance between the need to return to school and the health of the students, he said, adding that the British variant appears to infect younger people more.
Around 50% of eligible educators have been vaccinated, and another 8% to 10% were infected and have recovered, Ash said.
“This is a good percentage, but it could be more,” he added.
On Monday night, the Education Ministry reported that 19,080 students were currently infected with coronavirus as well as 2,202 teachers and staff.
“The closure of educational institutions causes severe damage to the normal development of children,” the Israeli Pediatric Society said in a statement on Monday. School closures lead to mental distress, anxiety, a decrease in physical activity and potentially obesity, it said. It encouraged the government to start opening schools on Sunday.
THE DECISION to open the country would come against the backdrop of continually high infection.
The decrease in infection has effectively ceased, Ash said.
“In recent days, we see that the [R] infection rate stands at more than 0.9 and even rose to 0.95 and 0.96,” he said. “There is a very moderate decrease in the number of serious patients. We are seeing a decrease in the number of new serious patients coming to the hospitals and a very moderate decrease in the total number of serious patients.”
“The burden on the hospitals is still immense,” Ash said.
The Health Ministry reported 5,171 new cases on Sunday and another 5,815 between midnight and press time on Monday. There were 1,139 patients in serious condition, including 411 in critical condition, among them 325 who were intubated. The death toll rose to 4,813.
 
Every additional day of lockdown should help lower infection, Ash said, but Israel is not expected to exit from the closure with many fewer cases per day than now.
He called on people to keep the rules through the end of the lockdown.
“Yesterday there were two mass funeral events,” Ash said, referring to the burial ceremonies of two haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis that drew thousands of mourners, many without masks.
“I strongly condemn these mass violations,” he said. “I call on leaders to prevent such incidents. I call on the police to act to prevent such gatherings.”
On Monday, the police said they had issued 3,543 tickets on Sunday, mostly to people who had traveled more than a kilometer from their homes for forbidden purposes.
Israel is continuing to vaccinate. Some 3.1 million Israelis have already received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and of those, more than 1.8 million have received two.
According to the Knowledge Center report, 83% of all citizens over the age of 60 have been vaccinated.