Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Sunday that the Health Ministry has approved the distribution of a fourth coronavirus vaccine dose to Israelis over the age of 60, and to medical workers, who have gone at least four months since receiving their booster shot.
The premier made the declaration during a primetime press conference, amid growing concern over the government’s handling of the ongoing Omicron wave, which has seen extremely long lines at testing centers across the country.
Bennett used the opportunity to justify his government’s decision-making thus far, including the early closing of the skies at the end of November.
“We’ve been first in the world [with the] booster shots and that policy has protected Israel’s citizens well,” the premier said, adding that Israel’s death rate of late has been among the lowest in the world — 50 times lower than the UK’s, 100 times lower than Germany’s and 130 times lower than that of the United States.
He argued that the economy was still functioning well, even while the government was taking steps to protect the most vulnerable.
Israel is currently seeing over 5,000 new cases a day, will likely reach 20,000 new daily cases by the end of the week, and could hit 50,000 daily cases at the height of the wave, Bennett warned, adding that the only effective antidote to the spike was the vaccine.
“Here’s what we need you to do: Get vaccinated; get boosted; get the children vaccinated,” he said.
Bennett also encouraged Israelis to wear masks in crowded spaces, particularly indoors, and for elderly populations to avoid crowds entirely.
“The vaccination protects you from serious illness… and from quarantine,” he said, acknowledging the vast number of Israelis who have been forced to isolate due to exposure to COVID carriers.
In an effort to address the problem of tens of thousands of Israelis who have been forced into quarantine, Bennett announced that all vaccinated Israelis above the age of 5 — once they receive a negative COVID test — do not have to isolate upon exposure to a COVID carrier.
The premier suggested that long lines at testing centers were an unavoidable reality of the current wave that countries around the world have been battling, and that there simply weren’t enough resources to cope with such large numbers of active cases all at once.
However, he indicated that the government would weigh changing testing requirements in the coming days.
Separately Sunday evening, the Magen David Adom emergency service announced that it would be extending its hours at testing sites, expanding the number of medical staff at the centers and adding new testing stations across the country.
“Be patient,” Bennett said. “We know there are lines at the testing centers…We’re preparing to change the criteria for tests in order to reduce the crowding.”
According to Channel 12, one of the options being considered would be to not require Israelis exposed to a COVID carrier to get tested unless they are experiencing symptoms.
When a reporter accused Bennett’s government of flip-flopping in its response to the pandemic, the premier responded, “We could have just imposed a lockdown like the last government did,” with all the dire economic consequences that such a step would have brought with it.
In comments likely to please foreigners abroad, Bennett also said travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus would soon likely be lifted.
“I closed the skies five weeks ago when everything was fine, and in the coming week, it is likely that we will reopen the skies,” he said.
Bennett acknowledged that such a move may seem counterintuitive, but explained that when there are fewer active infections, the spread of the virus from abroad has a much more significant effect on morbidity in the country. However, when there are already tens of thousands of cases in Israel, another 50 infections among travelers from overseas are “meaningless.”
Earlier Sunday, the ministerial forum guiding the government’s COVID-19 response approved granting a temporary Green Pass to anyone who gets a vaccine shot.
The temporary certificates will be valid for 30 days after someone gets a first vaccine dose and will allow entry to all venues and events that require proof of immunization.
The passes will begin to be issued on January 6.