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COVID in Israel may be over but border restrictions are here to stay

Next Tuesday will mark a very significant moment for all Israelis: some 15 months after the country entered its first lockdown to fight the coronavirus crisis, businesses, cultural and sport venues, tourist attractions and family celebrations will not be limited by any pandemic restriction any more: no more cap on number of accesses, no more need for unvaccinated people to get tested, no more special regulations on serving food.

Only one requirement will remain, wearing a mask indoors, and that might also be soon gone, as health officials and experts have said in the past few days. This, of course, provided that the data continues to be encouraging – for the past several days, only 25-30 new cases have been identified per day, compared to several thousands at the peak of the pandemic. Only 432 people in the country were infected with the virus as of Wednesday; in the worst days of last winter there were 88,000.

However, while life in Israel is rapidly going back to normal, many of the restrictions on traveling and borders are likely not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon. Because, as several experts explained, as much as the coronavirus really appears to be over now, it can come back.

“For now, the coronavirus really seems over, but we cannot be sure that new variants are not going to appear in the future. We have to be aware of what is going on in the world and we have to keep our airport monitored,” Hadassah-University Medical Center Prof. Dror Mevorah said.

“We have many reasons to be grateful but it is very hard to predict how things will develop in the future,” Prof. Gabriel Izbicki, director of the Pulmonary Institute at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, echoed.

“Nobody knows how variants could develop and spread.”

At the moment, Israelis who are vaccinated or recovered can travel abroad and are not required to enter isolation when they come back.

Foreign nationals can enter the country only in specific circumstances, and among others: those who are vaccinated can enter Israel if they have a first degree relative or are part of a group specifically authorized by the authorities. The borders are set to open for general groups of tourists later in June and to individual visitors in July.

In addition however, anyone who arrives in the country is required to undertake a corona PCR test before boarding the flight and after landing, and if they were vaccinated abroad also a serological test to prove their level of antibodies.

Experts believe that the policy is correct.

“Unvaccinated people carry a real risk to import the virus or variants, and also for vaccinated people it is important to undertake tests,” Dr. Eyal Leshem, the director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, said. “Other countries suffer from much more burdensome restrictions, while most travel is for leisure and it is not critical compared to the necessity to protect lives.”

According to Leshem though, the decision to allow in vaccinated tourists is correct.

“The risk is very low and we should not forget that tourism is a very important industry in Israel that supports hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.

In order to prevent variants from spreading, all experts agree that the quarantine for those unvaccinated and returning from abroad should be maintained as is.

While Leshem said that this is true also for the quarantine of those in Israel who are exposed to a verified case, Mevorah suggested that in this case the isolation period might be shortened to five days plus two tests, as it happens in other countries.

If all physicians expressed optimism that next winter Israel should still be safe from the virus, Izbicki said that the authorities should take advantage of the time to rethink the way the health system is managed.

“I think that the relationship between the government and the hospitals is something that should work within a long term vision,” he said. “Sadly, and as I say it because I never like to criticize the authorities, they seem to work only with a short term perspective: they see a fire and they try to put it out.”

When the pandemic hit, the Israeli health system was already strained, with a number of physicians and nurses per capita significantly lower than the OECD average.

Izbicki recalled the vicissitudes of the 600 doctors whom the government authorized to hire to fight the pandemic, whose budget is due to be canceled in the next few weeks if things do not change.

“If the government does not manage to have at least a medium term policy for its health system this will lead to a disaster,” he said.

Source: Rossella Tecatin – JPost