Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and other government and health officials met Monday night to discuss the next steps in the strategy to fight the pandemic in Israel, as the country registered over 1,000 new daily coronavirus cases in 24 hours, the highest number since October.
Among the measures considered by the ministers were limiting gatherings at events and performances, and applying the Green Pass outline to commercial malls, both indoors and outdoors.
Earlier in the day, Coronavirus Commissioner Prof. Salman Zarka said that the country might need to place restrictions on gatherings.
“We understand that an infectious epidemic is here, and we are detecting underground circulation of Omicron, so we need to examine the upcoming steps,” he told a joint session of the Knesset Health and Constitution committees. “Besides for the vaccination of the population and the Magen Avot program [to protect the elderly in nursing homes], we need to prepare for measures concerning gatherings.”
Currently, Israel does not have any cap on outdoor gatherings of fewer than 1,000 people. If more than 1,000 people attend, the event or venue has to be operated under the Green Pass system, which grants access only to those who are fully vaccinated, recently recovered or have undergone an officially administered coronavirus test.
Venues and indoor activities already are required to operate under the Green Pass system if there are more than 50 participants.
Over the past few days, the country has registered a significant rise in morbidity, even though the vast majority of cases are still caused by the Delta variant and not Omicron.
On Sunday, 1,004 new virus carriers were identified, more than double a week earlier.
In the week of December 12-18, an average of 694 new cases per day were recorded. The previous week there were 613, and the week before that there were 519.
In addition, the coronavirus reproduction rate, or R number, hit 1.22 on Monday, the highest since August.
The R represents how many people each virus carrier has infected on average, and it mirrors the situation of about 10 days before.
When the R is above 1, the disease is considered to be spreading because every case generates more than one case. When it is below 1, it is a sign that the number of cases is decreasing.
Meanwhile, serious morbidity has remained stable, with the number of serious patients holding at around 80 for several days.
The authorities have warned that the numbers of both general and serious morbidity will likely go up drastically in the upcoming week, so they are trying to take advantage of the time before it happens to promote vaccination in the hope of curbing the trend.
On Monday, Bennett met with Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton to discuss the vaccination drive in schools. The campaign to inoculate five- to 11-year-olds is proceeding slowly, with fewer than 150,000 children jabbed out of an eligible population of more than a million.
The Health Ministry has organized about 50 vaccinating stations to visit schools, but Horowitz said the number would increase to 500 in the upcoming days.
“In the coming weeks, the main national mission of the State of Israel, of the government of Israel and of the education system is to quickly vaccinate and protect the children of Israel before the main part of the Omicron wave arrives,” Bennett said.
“I expect every district manager, inspector, principal and teacher to understand that in the next two weeks, this is the supreme mission, above all others,” he said.
In the past, Shasha-Biton had expressed skepticism regarding vaccinating children in schools, but she has recently accepted it.
“The more medical manpower there is, the more the vaccination campaign can be extended to the entire system in a short time, and the number of vaccinators will increase,” she said. “It should be remembered: The drive depends on two factors – parental consent and the availability of a medical workforce that is provided by the Health Ministry.”
“The education system fully cooperates with the Health Ministry, Home Front Command and all parties involved,” Shasha-Biton said.