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With Schools to Open, Israel Marks Highest Number of New COVID Cases
A child undergoes a COVID-19 antibody test ahead of a new school year in Modiin, Israel, on Aug. 23, 2021. (Gil Cohen Magen/Xinhua via Getty Images)

With Schools to Open, Israel Marks Highest Number of New COVID Cases

A slew of measures have been introduced to curb the country’s fourth wave of infection

With less than 24 hours before the school year begins, Israel is in the midst of a record-breaking fourth wave of the coronavirus outbreak. On Monday, 10,947 people were diagnosed with COVID-19, the highest number of daily cases since the beginning of the pandemic. A full 7.65% of the tests conducted came back positive. At the same time, the number of serious cases went down and no new deaths were registered.

In an attempt to combat the spread of the virus, the government on Sunday began allowing everyone aged 12 and older to get a third dose of vaccine, as long as five months have passed since they received the second. Some 2.15 million Israelis (out of the total of 9.3 million) have so far received the booster shot.

Fifty-four percent of those diagnosed with COVID-19 on Monday were not vaccinated at all, mostly young people.

The government has also approved new regulations. Starting on October 1, to be eligible for the country’s Green Pass, which is necessary for entry to some closed spaces such as restaurants and gyms, people will need to either be recently vaccinated with their second jab – less than six months ago – or receive a third dose. Recovered patients will be eligible for the Green Pass in the first six months after their recovery unless they receive a dose of the vaccine, and then the countdown begins on the day of inoculation.

Critically, a Green Pass, or a negative virus test performed within the last 72 hours, is required for teachers and staff to enter schools. Accordingly, teachers who aren’t vaccinated will have to be tested twice a week, at their expense.

Students in grades eight to 12 in communities where the spread of the virus is especially high, and less than 70% of their grade level has received at least one dose of vaccine, will learn online.

In addition to these regulations, a large-scale effort to test 1.6 million students for antibodies has been ongoing, and parents are asked to test their kids at home before the first day of school, using kits supplied by the state.

At present, however, forbidding large gatherings appears not to be on the agenda, despite the Health Ministry’s recommendations.

Adir, a Jerusalem resident in his 30s and a father of three, told The Media Line he is happy to be able to send his children to school, “but on the other hand, it’s scary.” In accordance with government regulations, they picked up home tests for their children. “We will test them today [Tuesday]. Hopefully, they come out negative and we’ll send them” to school on Wednesday, he said.

Speaking of the government’s plan for the education system, Prof. Manfred Green, head of the international program at the University of Haifa’s School of Public Health, told The Media Line “they’re doing what they can. [However], I think that not enough has been invested in making sure that the classrooms are properly ventilated and have filters installed.”

He is also worried that children will be forced to sit with masks on for hours on end, which will inevitably lead to the masks coming off. Green urges schools to make sure that students are given time outside without masks, saying that otherwise, the measure will prove ineffective.

In response to the epidemiological spiral that has Israel in its hold, the US and EU have changed Israel’s COVID rating. This week, the EU removed Israel from its list of safe countries and recommended that member countries place limitations on Israeli citizens. Earlier this month, the US government designated Israel as a risk country and recommended American citizens avoid traveling to the country if possible.

Israel has also changed its regulations regarding entry to the country. Less than two weeks after 14 day’s quarantine – or a week’s quarantine provided one was tested negative on the seventh day of isolation – became obligatory for all those entering the country, the government decided that those who have received their third dose would be exempt from the measure.

The decision “seems reasonable to me because I think that this regulation in its entirety is problematic,” Green said. The government should be very careful about limiting mobility in and out of the country, he explained, and virus variants are bound to enter Israel. However, a critical measure that should be strictly enforced is the testing before and after a flight, he said.

With the Jewish High Holidays and their large family meals beginning next week, Green said that these gatherings could turn out to be a greater risk than the reopening of the education system. “It could be more dangerous than the schools because there will be elderly people sitting together” with their families, he said, and people should consider limiting the size of their gatherings.

Speaking about the imposition of additional, possibly harsher measures to fight the pandemic, Green explains that Israelis “have what’s called COVID-fatigue.” They’ve adjusted to the situation and their patience for sacrifices has lessened accordingly.

Indeed, “COVID-fatigue” could be felt on Tuesday in the streets of Jerusalem, which were bustling despite the fourth wave.

Binyamin, a young seller in a phone shop downtown, told The Media Line that “the government isn’t in control” of the outbreak, but it isn’t at fault for this. The pandemic is an uncontrollable global event that needs to be allowed to run its course, he explained.

“The virus is extremely contagious and there’s not much you can do to stop it apart from closing people in their homes, and that is something we can’t and won’t do. So we need to coexist with it,” he said.

For that to happen, Green calls for people to make sure to wear masks and reduce large gatherings. The government, in turn, should focus on encouraging vaccination and ensuring easier access to testing, he said.

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