Gov’t slaps on new COVID restrictions as Omicron cases surge

Israeli infected with Omicron dies in hospital.

Hadassah Ein Kerem coronavirus unit (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Hadassah Ein Kerem coronavirus unit
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

After a three-and-a-half hour meeting on Tuesday night, the coronavirus cabinet slapped a series of new restrictions on Israelis to help combat rising cases of coronavirus in Israel.

However, new strict rules that would have limited gathering failed to pass due to opposition by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other cabinet members to the request of the Health Ministry.

Beginning as soon as the Knesset approves the regulations, malls will operate according to a strict Purple Ribbon outline, limiting shoppers to one person for every 15 sq.m.

Moreover, entry into stores, including in malls, of more than 100 sq.m. will require a Green Pass. Food courts will be closed to diners and takeaway only available for people with Green Passes.

Restaurants in malls will continue to operate as usual, but diners will need to present a Green Pass, too.

Only places that provide essential goods and services will not require a Green Pass.

  Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen removing his face mask at a special press conference on COVID-19 in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen removing his face mask at a special press conference on COVID-19 in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The school system will also take a hit. In areas labeled as red and orange, classrooms where fewer than 70% of the students are vaccinated, they will have to learn from home.

The decision will take effect immediately for grades seven through 12 and be rolled out in another three weeks in younger classrooms.

Moreover, state funding of antigen tests for Green Passes will cease, except for people who are immunosuppressed and cannot be vaccinated or those who are under the age of five and not eligible for a vaccine. However, as soon as the Health Ministry can update its computer system, anyone who has had one shot will be able to receive a temporary Green Pass.

Also on Tuesday night, the Pandemic Response team ruled on Tuesday night that anyone over the age of 60 and medical workers could receive a fourth shot of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.“This is a wonderful move that will help us overcome the Omicron wave that is sweeping the world,” Bennett said.

The fourth vaccine campaign will kick off immediately, according to the Prime Minister’s Office. Bennett called on the Home Front Command, senior health officials and all of the health funds to prepare for it.

“Our goal is to enable the State of Israel to overcome the Omicron wave, while preserving the functioning of the economy as much as possible,” Bennett said at the start of the meeting.

Israel could not prevent the Omicron wave, he said, but it can give citizens the tools they need to protect themselves from serious disease, even if they do become infected.

Bennett said the government was going to be forced to make difficult decisions – either to put slightly more restrictions and other preventative measures in place now or to have to take much more severe steps later.

Israel had its first Omicron death. A man in his 60s who had been infected with Omicron died Monday at Soroka-University Medical Center in Beersheba, the hospital said Tuesday.

However, the individual suffered from several underlying medical conditions, which were the key causes of his death, and not the virus, the hospital said.

An initial PCR test raised suspicion of the presence of the variant, and genetic sequencing was performed. He received confirmation that he had the variant on Monday afternoon, shortly before his death.

The death was revealed following an announcement by the Health Ministry that another 170 Omicron cases had been discovered in Israel, bringing the total to 341.

Of the 341 Omicron cases, 234 entered Israel from abroad, the Health Ministry reported. In addition, 29 are individuals who were in contact with returnees, and 66 were infected in the community at three different events. The ministry said it was checking the origin of infection of 12 people.

Another 807 individuals in Israel are highly suspected of having contracted the variant: 432 inbound travelers, 64 through contacts with them and 119 in the community. The chain of infection of another 192 people was being investigated, the ministry said.

Of the total 1,148 cases are either verified or suspected, 600 virus carriers are asymptomatic, 528 are experiencing symptoms, and the status of 20 is unknown.

“The public should be aware that a dramatic increase in infection is expected,” Bennett said Tuesday night. “That is not an exaggeration. This is the expectation, and I estimate it will come very quickly.”

According to Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science who advises the coronavirus cabinet, in the last week, the number of Omicron cases has been doubling every two to three days.

By early January, Israel will have surged to an all-time peak of more than 10,000 new cases per day, he wrote on Twitter.

“The analysis shows that there is a likelihood that there has already been a rapid spread of the Omicron strain and the infection rate of those over 60 is particularly high,” researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in a report provided Tuesday evening to the cabinet. “It seems impossible at this stage to prevent the rise of the next wave.”

The burden on the country’s hospitals is expected to surpass previous waves by next month, they wrote.

General morbidity in the country has been increasing rapidly. More than 1,300 new cases of the virus were diagnosed on Monday, the highest number since October, the ministry said Tuesday evening.

There were 1,356 new cases on Monday; on the previous Monday, there were 771, and there were 739 a week earlier.

The R rate, which indicates whether the disease is spreading or retreating, since it shows how many people each virus carrier infects, is also rising and was 1.28 on Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, the number of active coronavirus cases in the country stood at 8,307, compared with 5,000 a few weeks ago. At the peak of the fourth wave, there were more than 80,000 cases.

Meanwhile, serious morbidity remains stable, with an estimated 82 patients in serious conditions, similar to the figure on previous days.

Also on Tuesday, the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee approved the addition of the United States, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Canada, Switzerland and Turkey to the list of “red” countries, as requested by the Health Ministry.

Starting from midnight, the countries were to be placed under a travel ban. Israelis are not allowed to travel to red nations unless they receive special permission from a governmental Exception Committee. In addition, if they return to Israel, they need to be quarantined for a minimum of seven days, even if they are fully vaccinated. Foreign nationals are not allowed to enter Israel from any country, with very limited exceptions.

The group of red countries already included the UK, Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Finland, France, Sweden, South Africa and several dozen other African nations.

“About three and a half weeks ago, we made a courageous and farsighted decision to close Israel to foreigners,” Bennett said. “It has brought us an advantage of almost a month over our friends in Europe and the United States.”

Some 12,600 travelers entered Israel on Tuesday to beat the seven-day isolation requirement. About 12,400 left the country on more 103 flights, many of them to places that turned red at midnight.

All of the recent travel restrictions, decided upon by the government at the end of November after Omicron emerged as a potential highly infectious new variant, are due to expire on December 29. But they might be extended, as has already happened twice in recent weeks.