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Is COVID surging again in Israel already? And how will this affect tourism?

With travel picking up, airports overloaded with testing – and tourism minister declares that no unvaccinated tourists getting into the Holy Land

COVID-19 testing area at Ben-Gurion International Airport, June 20, 2021. (Photo: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel’s new tourism minister dispelled any thoughts of loosening COVID restrictions when he said in an interview with Channel 12 this morning that “no unvaccinated tourists will enter Israel.”

This may come as a disappointment to prospective visitors as the country prepares to open up on July 1 to individual tourists who are vaccinated plus children up to six years old who do not yet need to be vaccinated. This past month, vaccinated groups were allowed in as part of a pilot program. 

Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov of Yesh Atid said while he hopes to fully open the tourism sector, he said only people with proper vaccine paperwork can be allowed into the country – and he gave no timeframe for how long that requirement would last.

His statement comes as Israel stands on the brink of what the Health Ministry is monitoring what it says could be another outbreak of the virus. Some 246 people have tested positive for COVID in the last month and 112 of them are citizens who were traveling abroad, accounting for 40% of all positive cases. 

There are only 30 patients in serious condition in Israel.

Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov (Photo: Moshe Hermon/Benovich Communications)

This comes after the latest rollback last week when the indoor mask mandate was lifted as Israel was enjoying extremely low infection levels and most traces of COVID seemed to have disappeared. 

Just this week, some 500 students in three different cities were sent into quarantine and the indoor mask mandate was reinstated in schools where outbreaks were reported.

More than a third of the new infections are children ages 12 to 15. With only 4% of this age group vaccinated, the Ministry of Health formally recommended the injection for this age group. 

The Israeli Public Emergency Council for the COVID-19 Crisis issued a statement that “in light of the lowest risk data from COVID-19 … and considering the concerning data emerging about the vaccine’s side effects, notably myocarditis, there must be an immediate suspension of the vaccination campaign for all individuals up to the age of 30 including of course the children aged 12 to 15 who appear to be at even greater risk.”

“Any attempt to underestimate the importance of myocardial severity as if it was a morning cold is a serious breach of ethics,” the group of physicians, lawyers and public health officials said.

Though the news programs are rife with speculation that a new outbreak is imminent, medical experts are cautiously optimistic.

“We may now see an increase in the number of infections in young people who are not vaccinated,” Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute told Channel 12. “But I do not think we are facing a new outbreak.”

“The critical question before us is whether the vaccines are effective against the new variant and currently, the research information coming from the world indicates that Pfizer’s vaccine is effective against the Indian strain,” Segal said.

Tomer Lotan was not expecting a change in any policies yet.

“If we see more and more schools joining the situation and get more evidence of the Delta variant, then we would need to be more concerned,” Lotan said. “But this is not the case now. For now, let’s keep cool and calm.”

Prof. Nadav Davidovich, head of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University, said that the Health Ministry should focus its efforts on the remaining 200,000 Israelis 50 years old and up who are not vaccinated. 

“The right thing now is to promote the tender for electronic bracelets for enforcement enforcement and take additional measures to increase enforcement,” he said.

In fact, the new government is also working to revive a plan to use electronic monitors for incoming travelers in order to track whether they are violating their quarantine. Late on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett issued a series of new recommendations from the Health Ministry to deal with the outbreak, widely blamed on the “Delta variant.” Bennett approved Health Ministry recommendations including increased enforcement of quarantines, expanding testing at Ben-Gurion International Airport, requiring departure forms for high-risk countries and placing a ban on travel to those high-risk countries.

This comes as the Cabinet voted overwhelmingly in May to extend a special powers law for six months that enables them to enact emergency measures if need be.

But there are many lapses. With a surge in air travel in recent weeks after over a year of strict lockdowns – some of which included airport closures and “red” countries – the airport testing stations are finding themselves overloaded. 

Thousands of travelers who arrived on Friday were sent home without undergoing a PCR test. With 19,000 arrivals, the airport workers decided to forgo the test for people who landed from low-risk countries and needed to be home before the beginning of Shabbat. There are only 70 testing stations at the airport.

In the handover ceremony last week inaugurating Razvozov as head of the Tourism Ministry, he said that his “first task as minister of tourism is to build a correct and effective outline for the easing of conditions for tourists to enter Israel – of course, without endangering the citizens of Israel and in cooperation with the professional bodies in the Ministry of Health.”

But it appears that the hopes of a full reopening has been pushed further out of reach.

Nicole Jansezian was the news editor and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS.

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