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More than 1,000 Israelis test positive for COVID

The effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine against the Delta variant is “weaker” than health officials had hoped, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Friday,

as over 1,000 people tested positive for coronavirus and more countries were added to the list of places to which Israelis will be banned from traveling.

“We do not know exactly to what degree the vaccine helps, but it is significantly less,” Bennett said.

The prime minister held a meeting of top health officials and ministers to discuss the next steps for managing the virus in light of the numbers in Israel and what Bennett described as “the Delta mutation leaping forward around the world, including in vaccinated countries such as Britain, Israel and the US.”

He said that in “Britain, in recent days, we have seen a jump in the number of children who are being hospitalized on a daily basis. This is a development that we are aware of; we are dealing with it rationally and responsibly.”

With more than 5.7 million Israelis having received at least one shot of the Pfizer vaccine, the country continues to push for citizens – especially teenagers – to go out and get the jab.

The highest number of coronavirus “cases” in nearly four months was diagnosed on Friday – 1,118 people, according to the Health Ministry’s Saturday night report.

Of those screened, 1.58% tested positive.

The reproduction rate (R), the number of people a sick person infects, stood at 1.37 – meaning that “COVID-19 is spreading again”.

Among those who tested positive was an adviser to Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana. They had not been together since July 12, so he was told he did not need to enter isolation. Nonetheless, the minister and his staff were asked to take a coronavirus test.

While the spike in daily cases continues, the increase in serious morbidity has risen in a more limited way. Of those infected, some 58 were in serious condition, according to the ministry – an increase of six people over the weekend.

In April, with around 6,500 active “cases” like now, there were 370 patients in serious conditions.

The likely explanation is that among current virus carriers, about 2,000 are schoolchildren, and half of them were fully vaccinated.

Both groups are very unlikely to develop severe forms of the disease, even though it occasionally happens.

At the moment, around 60% of the patients in serious conditions have been vaccinated.

Moreover, according to Hebrew University researchers who advise the government, around 90% of newly infected people over the age of 50 are fully vaccinated.

The “percent of cases that turn critically ill is now 1.6%, compared to 4% at a similar stage in the third wave when there were no vaccines,” Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who advises the coronavirus cabinet, tweeted on Friday.

He said that even if the number of “cases” continues to increase, “many more cases will be needed than in the third wave to reach similarly high numbers of critically ill patients in the hospitals. This will contribute significantly to population-level immunity.”

The Hebrew University researchers predicted Saturday that more than 100 serious “cases” are expected by the first half of August.

The ministers met for several hours on Friday, only completing their meeting shortly before Shabbat, and agreed on several principles, the first of which was to ensure that Israel maintains a continuous inventory of vaccines and that vaccination efforts be stepped up.

According to Segal, only around 4,000 people were vaccinated last week – not enough to help move Israel back toward herd immunity.

The government also said it would evaluate the need for a third shot of the vaccine, at least for the elderly.

Next, the ministers said they would put an emphasis on rolling out rapid home testing as early as next week. Bennett said he wants to see these and other rapid tests accessible to everyone to enable life to go on during the pandemic.

Furthermore, the ministers agreed to prepare for enforcing the Happy Badge,” which gives access to weddings and similar events with more than 100 guests only to those who are vaccinated, recovered or holders of a recent negative coronavirus test.

The system applies to indoor gatherings where food and drinks are served and people mingle or stand, such as dancing at weddings or concerts. While there will be no cap on participants, people will be required to wear masks.

Establishments that do not follow the rules will be subject to a NIS 5,000 fine.

Several top health officials are pushing for the government to bring back the Green Pass within the next two weeks for all gatherings over 100 people, including at restaurants.

The coronavirus cabinet is expected to discuss the idea this week and insiders have said they are likely to accept it.

Already on Sunday, a team of 1,600 municipal inspectors will be charged with ensuring that the public is wearing masks, mostly in malls and larger grocery stores. The fine for not wearing a mask in closed public spaces is NIS 500.

Another action authorized at the meeting is that a joint team run by the Health and Transportation ministries will examine the policies at Ben-Gurion Airport – and the relevant authorities will begin preparations for the High Holy Days and the opening of the school year in the shadow of coronavirus.

Finally, the ministers also agreed that all of the staff hired by the hospitals to help during the coronavirus crisis will remain employed until the passing of a state budget.

This includes some 600 doctors and 1,600 nurses.

Last week, thousands of administrative and other support staff from 30 medical centers across the country went on strike over some 200 positions that were likewise hired during the pandemic and were under threat of cancellation.

The strike ended on Thursday and all of the employees agreed to go back to work after a deal was brokered between Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and the Histadrut Labor Union, which similarly said that until a state budget is formulated, all employees that were hired during the COVID-19 pandemic would remain in their jobs.

The doctors, nurses and support staff who were hired to help the hospitals during the crisis were supposed to lose their jobs at the end of the month.

In addition, it was agreed on Thursday that Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David would discuss a wage increase for these workers with the Finance Ministry.

The meeting came shortly after the Health Ministry announced its intention to add Spain and Kyrgyzstan to the list of banned countries, and Britain, Cyprus, Turkey, Georgia, Uganda, Myanmar, Fiji, Panama, Cambodia, Kenya and Liberia to the list of red countries beginning Friday, July 23 – meaning that if Israelis travel to these places, they will have to be isolated upon returning for seven to 14 days.

Other countries for which there is already a severe travel warning include the United Arab Emirates, Seychelles, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Tunisia.

Additional countries are also expected to be added soon, including Thailand, Greece and Holland, according to reports from Israeli media.

The list of banned countries includes Argentina, Brazil, India, Mexico, Russia and Belarus. Israelis are prohibited from visiting these countries unless they obtain permission from a special governmental exceptions committee.

The government is expected to approve the new list of countries this week.

“The government will continue to monitor all developments and convene frequently to discuss them and plan the next steps in advance,” Bennett concluded, “so that the public will understand where we are going and what we are doing, without the mishaps, without panic – and mainly, with advance planning, to anticipate the future.”

Source: Maayan Jaffe Hoffman, Rossella Tercatin – JPost