Israel Sets COVID-19 Record As Rule Changes Cause Whiplash: NPR

Israel Sets COVID-19 Record As Rule Changes Cause Whiplash: NPR

A man received his fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccine at a private nursing home in Petah Tikva, Israel on Tuesday.

Ariel Schalit / AP

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Ariel Schalit / AP

A man received his fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccine at a private nursing home in Petah Tikva, Israel on Tuesday.

Ariel Schalit / AP

TEL AVIV, Israel – Israel opened to tourists for the first time in nearly two years. It slammed shut after just a month. Now the Omicron variant has set a widely anticipated record for new infections in the country, which will break out again on Sunday – but only for travelers from certain nations.

The back and forth has left many Israelis whiplash. Even in the relatively small, affluent nation of the Middle East – an early global leader against the coronavirus pandemic – the Omikron variant outperforms the government’s ability to make and implement clear public pandemic policy. What was once a simple regime of vaccines, testing, contact tracing, and distancing for the nation of 9.4 million is fragmented into a zigzag of rules that seem to change every few days.

The confusion here, from tourism to testing, quarantines, masks and school policies, provides a glimpse into the pandemic puzzle governments around the world are facing as the omicron variant burns through the population. One day the World Health Organization will declare the pandemic over. But in the meantime, leaders are weighing how much illness, isolation and death people are willing to risk.

In Israel, as elsewhere, it is clear that the ultra-contagious variant of Omicron has pushed the fight against COVID-19 into a more chaotic phase of rules governed by one central assumption: Large sections of the public will be familiar with the more contagious Omicron. Infecting version, however, appears to cause less severe illness and death, especially in vaccinated individuals. But also vaccinated people start the variant, which leads to an increase, which is partly fed by meetings during the winter holidays.

On Wednesday, the government reported a record for the pandemic in Israel with 11,978 new infections the day before. This exceeds the previous high of 11,345 infections in a single day, which was set on September 2 during the delta variant wave.

“There is no control over the omicron wave,” said Sharon Alroy-Price, the chief public health officer for the Ministry of Health, on Israeli Channel 13 this week.

“Probably nobody is protected from infection,” said Jonathan Halevy, president of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

The new goal is to protect society’s most vulnerable people without another national lockdown – Red Line Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the country’s seven-month-old government are working hard to avoid it.

“It’s a very different ball game,” Bennett said during a press conference on Sunday as he warned that the number of daily infections is expected to rise to new records in the coming weeks.

“We have to keep an eye on the ball if we are to continue interacting and working with an open country as much as possible,” he added.

In everyday life, this creates a lot of confusion as Bennett and the coalition government he leads struggle to agree on rules and communicate their decisions to the public.

“The Ministry of Education leaves the school principals to fight the COVID-19 chaos,” headlined the daily Haaretz on Tuesday. A lack of national guidance, the story goes, forces some school principals to choose whether to teach in person, remotely, or in a combination.

Bennett argued at the press conference that the government would remain agile in view of the more difficult option. After some back and forth, this included the government’s decision to give immunocompromised people and people over the age of 60 a fourth vaccination. Israel is considered to be the first country in the world to offer a second booster vaccination to parts of its population.

On Tuesday, Bennett announced that a preliminary study at Sheba Medical Center found that the fourth injection caused a five-fold increase in antibodies in the blood. Israel is also on the verge of making drugs available that could help people in risk groups avoid serious infections.

“Most ministries work better together now than they did under the old government,” said Dr. Nadav Davidovich, who heads the Ben Gurion University School of Public Health and serves on the National Advisory Committee on Coronavirus.

For example, the government’s decision to close Israel’s borders in late November gave time to raise the country’s vaccination rates, which rose towards the middle and end of the month. It also enabled hospitals to prepare for a likely wave of illness.

The vaccinated population has grown steadily, but is limited in part by ultra-Orthodox Jews and some Arabs who are slow to roll up their sleeves. About 63% of the people in Israel have been vaccinated twice while about 46% have been vaccinated three times.

Our world in data ranks Israel 17th in vaccination rates worldwide, behind other wealthy nations like the United Arab Emirates and the United States – and just ahead of arch-rival Iran. In June, Israel was number 1 on the list.

But for days it has been clear that a new wave has arrived. Government data showed that new infections in Israel rose to 10,815 on Monday, around 7,000 more than a week earlier. Serious illnesses have remained largely constant for several months, and the daily number of deaths from coronavirus has not exceeded two since December 13, according to government records.

Still, given the rapid spread of the variant, the process remains chaotic and confusing.

Quarantines, which were required two weeks ago for anyone who might have been exposed to the virus, are being scaled back to keep the economy from stalling.

Contact tracking has gotten more complicated due to the lack of testing. The government also plans to tighten test requirements to relieve congested test stations where people had to wait hours for the check. New rules are expected shortly that will focus test requirements on high-risk groups such as the elderly.

Israel’s list of countries whose tourists are banned has been scaled back, with the Ministry of Health recommending on Monday that Canada, France, South Africa, Hungary, Nigeria, Spain and Portugal be removed.

Travel to and from the United States and the United Kingdom continues to be prohibited.

Any evidence of “herd immunity” was fiercely contested – if enough people were either vaccinated or recovered from a previous infection to stop the uncontrolled spread of the virus.

Israel’s health chief Nachman Ash said the fourth shot could be offered to more Israelis but it is not certain that it could be introduced quickly enough.

“The price of herd immunity is very many infections, and that can happen,” Ash told Radio 103FM on Sunday. “But we don’t want to reach him through infections.”

Challenged at Sunday’s press conference on flip-flop allegations, Bennett said he understood the frustration and confusion but suggested that the virus offered limited choices.

“We could have gone with the strategy other countries have chosen, which is to impose a lockdown … that happened last year with enormous damage,” he replied. Or: “We could have gone with it and done nothing.”

Instead, he said: “We choose to take responsibility, to make decisions even when they are difficult.”

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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