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WORLD | 24-06-2021 09:21

Israel’s return to normal hits bump with virus surge

Israelis can expect to start donning masks again after its bid to return to a post-Covid normal was hobbled by a surge in infections linked to the highly transmissible delta variant.

Israel can expect to start donning masks again and has put off the reopening of its borders to foreign tourists, its bid to return to a post-Covid normal hobbled by a surge in infections linked to the highly transmissible 'Delta' variant.

“A decision was taken that once we had more than 100 new cases on average a week that we would reinstate the wearing of masks in closed spaces,” public health chief Sharon Alroy-Preis said, according to the Ynet website. “I imagine this will happen as soon as Sunday given the very rapid trend we’re seeing.” Mask-wearing had been scrapped earlier this month.

New cases were down to the single digits in mid-June, but this week topped 100 for three days straight. Most of the new cases have been unvaccinated children and people returning from abroad. Some of the sick had been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

While the delta Covid strain, first reported in India, is the most infectious to date, almost all cases in Israel have been asymptomatic or mild, and the number of critically ill has remained around two dozen. Businesses have remained open.

Late Wednesday, Israel postponed the reopening of its borders to foreign tourism until August 1, a monthlong delay.

“We have decided to treat this as a new outbreak. We intend to cut it off here, take a pail of water and douse the flames while they are still small,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday at the national airport, which throughout the pandemic has been a vector of the disease.

Other measures the government took this week include more stringent quarantine regulations, more daily testing and a 5,000-shekel (US$1,535) fine on parents whose children flout quarantine. Mask wearing has already been reimposed at airports, border crossings and medical facilities.

Bennett’s swift action pointed to a lesson learned from Israel’s devastating reopening of the economy after its first lockdown, under then-premier Benjamin Netanyahu. A low caseload led to an abandonment of caution then, and new infections ballooned to more than 11,000 a day, tamed only by further lockdowns and the world’s most aggressive vaccination campaign.

More than half of Israel’s population has been inoculated. Israel approved vaccines for 12- to 15 year-olds early this month, but only several thousands have been immunised.

Still, hospitals that were previously overrun are now treating only a few dozen Covid patients.

Eran Segal, a Weizmann Institute scientist, told 103FM radio that while there was no immediate need for panic, Israel did need to monitor developments. On his Twitter page, Segal said that despite the uptick in infections, “there are still practically no cases of severe illness.”

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by Gwen Ackerman, Bloomberg

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