Health officials warn: Israel’s closures may last longer

Top officials caution Ben Gurion Airport may need closure until mid-February, Israel could see a fourth national lockdown as British mutation spreads.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel news

Two of Israel’s top health officials warned Monday that with new mutations of the coronavirus spreading in the country, it is possible the total closure on passenger air travel in and out of Israel may have to be extended and there is no guarantee a fourth national lockdown won’t happen.

The head of the Health Ministry’s public health service, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, told a Knesset committee that the six-day closure of Ben Gurion Airport would not be enough.

“We will have to extend the closure by at least a few weeks to buy time for the vaccination campaign,” Alroy-Preis said, adding that despite a drop in infections from the national lockdown, the numbers were still too high.

“We are in a problematic situation in terms of morbidity. Although the infection rate is declining, we are still under a great deal of pressure,” Alroy-Preis said. “We arrived at this [situation] because of the British mutation.”

Health officials last week identified several Israelis who arrived from abroad infected with the mutated coronavirus that is rapidly spreading, as well as some cases with the highly contagious South African mutation of the virus.

The head of Israel’s national coronavirus task force, Prof. Nachman Ash, told Radio FM103 in Tel Aviv that up to 50% of new infections are now being caused by British mutation and that unless checked, Israel could face a fourth national lockdown.

Asked if the current lockdown would be Israel’s last, the former head of medicine in the IDF said he wasn’t so sure.

“When I was asked two or three weeks ago, I probably said yes,” Ash said. “Today I am much more careful. The various variants and especially the spread of the British variant require us to leave this lockdown very carefully.”

Alroy-Preis cautioned that while the rapidly spreading British mutation has hit the ultra-Orthodox sector, the mutation is not yet common in the Arab sector, “which means that the rise in morbidity is still ahead of us.”

“The [Pfizer] vaccine works against the British mutation but the virus rate is much faster than the vaccination rate,” Alroy-Preis said, adding that it was hard for her to believe that the country would be able to get out of the lockdown next Monday as the government had planned.

Health Ministry statistics Monday showed another 4,869 Israelis tested positive for coronavirus in the past day, with the number of current active cases dropping to 70,859 after peaking at just over 82,000 last week.

Of the 1,861 Israelis currently hospitalized with the virus, 1,180 were listed in serious or critical condition, down from a high of 1,237, but the number of Israelis in critical condition connected to respirators rose to a new high of 369.

As of Monday, 2.6 million of Israel’s 9.3 million citizens had received at least one shot of the American Pfizer vaccine, with 1.1 million being fully vaccinated with the second shot.

The death toll continues to accelerate with over 1,000 Israelis already succumbing to the disease this month, almost one quarter of the entire 4,437 who have died since the beginning of the pandemic.