As Israel's trailblazing COVID-19 vaccine campaign continues to gradually stamp out its virus outbreak, a top health official warned on Thursday that the warranted optimism should not give way to complacency as "the pandemic has not passed and is still very present."
"We are in the midst of a continued fall in morbidity, a decline which has helped cases and hospitalizations to stabilize," Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Hezi Levi said. "Hospitals have seen a large and welcomed dip in admissions: 451 hospitalizations, with less than 300 of them being in serious condition."
"Among patients that are either in serious condition, ventilated, pregnant or in critical condition, about 80% are unvaccinated. Serious ailment and the need for assistance in breathing is more prevalent among those who have yet to receive the vaccine," he added.
Levi's comments came as Israel was mulling scrapping its outdoor mask mandate and moved to lift further restrictions from its education system, bringing it closer to pre-pandemic conditions.
Despite the country's virus mitigation measures all but removed thanks to its world-leading vaccination push, many curbs on in-person learning in schools were still in place since children below the age of 16 were still not eligible to get the shot. However. they were set to expire on Saturday.
Ministers Thursday approved an outline tabled by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, according to which starting next week, fourth-grade students would no longer be obliged to learn in small study groups — also known as "capsules."
As per the outline — devised by senior Health Ministry officials after running consultations with the national parents' union — capsule learning will be abolished for the fifth and sixth grades as well if infection rates remain stagnant ten days after the plan had been implemented.
Additionally, seventh-through-tenth-grade students will be allowed to move between four different capsules, instead of the two.
Another ministerial meeting is scheduled for Monday after Education Minister Yoav Galant demanded the education system fully reopens.
Levi also added the country's healthcare providers and other relevant health bodies were working to finalize a vaccine rollout for adolescents aged under 16 within the week and that public information campaign would also be necessary in the run-up to the opening of the vaccine rollout to calm down worried parents.
According to him, 4.9 million Israelis have received both required vaccine doses as of Thursday.
"Among ages 16-18, we see that only 55% are vaccinated or recovered, much lower than we expected," he said. "However, among those over 50, we see that 90-92% are vaccinated, which was our objective considering that this age group is at a greater risk."
Levi added that additional efforts are needed to boost vaccination rates among the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab sectors.
"I do not believe we will ever reach a point where we have zero cases, but a situation where we see 300 new daily infections and a low reproduction [R] number means we are doing well. I hope we will be able to vaccinate at least 80% of the country's population."