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Israel bans entry due to Omicron variant

Becoming the first country to completely seal its borders in response to the new and potentially more contagious coronavirus variant, Israel has barred all non-citizens for 2 weeks.

By Erin Viner

After convening the ministerial committee known as the ‘Corona Cabinet’ of experts on the virus Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced the latest restriction would take effect at midnight between Sunday and Monday and remain in place until 13 December. A previous travel ban on foreigners coming from most African states was imposed on Friday.

Officials hope that within that during the period, research will indicate how effective COVID-19 vaccines are against Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa and has been labeled as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization.

According to a government statement obtained by TV7, entry of all foreign nationals into Israel will be prohibited for 14 days aside from cases specifically approved by the exceptions committee.

“The key here is caution and minimal risks. Until we know more, we want to maintain the great achievement of ours with the Delta strain – An open Israel with a functioning economy and an active education system, with children going to school. This is the highest preference,” said Prime Minister Bennett at the start of the Corona Cabinet meeting.

“To this end we need to maintain tight control of the country’s borders. Every day we will learn more and know more. We are ahead of the world in gathering information and in making quick decisions,” he added, revealing that over the weekend the ministers held multiple discussions with the Health Ministry, groups of experts and the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna.

Per the latest guidelines, all returning Israelis must undergo PCR tests upon arrival at the airport and then self-isolate at home. Those who have been recognized by Health Ministry as either vaccinated or recovered from the virus will can end quarantine if there are negative results of a second PCR test on the 3rd day.  Non-vaccinated Israelis must remain at home until negative results of a second PCR test on the 7th day.

Any citizens returning from “red countries” must quarantine at designated hotel until the results are received, after which they can isolate within their own homes until undergoing an additional PCR test on the 7th day.

The Corona Cabinet stressed that the COVID-19 vaccine” is more important than ever in order to protect the health of the public against severe morbidity,” said Bennett, underscoring that, “To this end, the members of the call on the citizens of Israel who have yet to be inoculated with the third dose of the vaccine to do so as soon as possible. Parents in Israel are also called on to get their children vaccinated.”

“The vaccine prevents severe morbidity and the booster is very significant in providing defense against severe illness, meaning even if you are infected, the booster will guard you against severe illness. Therefore, especially now, before the variant spreads, this is precisely the time to get vaccinated. This is the precise window of opportunity in which to protect your family, your children and yourselves. Whoever is not inoculated with the booster is simply giving up on a vital layer of defense at a critical time,” stressed Bennet, before wishing the country a “happy and safe Hanukah.”

Celebration of the annual 8-day holiday began yesterday evening at sundown.

The Prime Minister also announced that the Israeli Security Agency (ISA, also known as the Shin Bet) will “activate cell phone monitoring in order to track verified cases of the new ‘Omicron’ strain, locate them and cut the chains of infections,” in accordance with “approval of emergency regulations” by government ministers and advancement of legislation on the issue.

Israel has used counter-terrorism phone-tracking surveillance technology to contain the spread of the coronavirus off and on since March 2020 to determine with whom infected people have come into contact.

Bennet stressed that “The ISA has defined the restraints and restrictions on use of the monitoring in coordination with the Attorney General and the political echelon.” Earlier this year, the Supreme Court limited the scope of the program after civil rights groups submitted appeals related to privacy concerns.

Meanwhile, the country’s Green Pass system will now be enforced in closed spaces where there are more than 50 participants (as opposed to the current 100). Performances and activities over the ongoing Hanukah holiday will remain unchanged per approval of a plan last week.

There have so far been only 2 confirmed cases of Omicron in Israel. It was announced this morning that a female resident of the central city of Ra’anana who has been isolating at a hotel after a recent trip to South Africa was found to be carrying the new strain. The first case of a foreign worker arriving from Malawi was reported on Friday.

At least 14 other people are currently suspected of being infected with the variant and are at a designated hotel in Jerusalem. 2 of the travelers had reportedly received all 3 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine and another pair had been administered the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca shots over the past 6 months. The group includes those who returned to Israel from South Africa, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates; while 3 said they had not recently left the country.

In addition, 506 Israelis tested positive for the coronavirus since yesterday. There are currently 122 people who are hospitalized for treatment, of whom 70 are listed in critical serious condition with 72 on ventilators.

Since outbreak of the pandemic in Israel, there have been 8,189 fatalities – 75 of which occurred this month; and a total of 1.3 million confirmed cases.

Around 57% of Israel’s 9.4 million population is fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry, which means they have either received a third shot of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine or it has not yet been five months since they received their second dose.