Israel will not be abandoning its mask mandate despite the drastic reduction in COVID-19 cases across the country, coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash said Thursday, adding that he hoped to have a conversation soon about changing the regulations.
Ash said that the mask mandate would remain in effect both in open spaces and indoors, regardless of the encouraging data in the wake of the mass vaccine drive.
“Masks stay on," Ash said. "They are much more important when we are in a crowd or inside a building. I hope that soon we will change the mask mandate, but for now they stay on.”
Ash said that despite the country’s declining coronavirus infection rate, Israel was still in the midst of a pandemic and warned against falling into complacency during the Passover holiday that begins Saturday.
The warning came after the Health Ministry reported that Israel’s virus reproduction (R) number - which indicates how many other people are infected on average by a virus carrier - has fallen to 0.55, thanks to the vaccination drive that has fully inoculated over half the population.
“We are doing well but we have not yet eradicated the pandemic," says Ash.
“The virus reproduction number has dipped to a place we have not seen in many months, the number of daily cases has also dropped and is now below 1,000 and the number of serious patients is also in decline and is now below 500. I'm definitely optimistic," he said.
Despite the encouraging data, Ash said that caution was still warranted, as was adhering to the guidelines.
“The pathogen is still here and can still spread, so the guidelines must be adhered to,” said Ash.
“We still need to be careful. I began to get worried when people started congratulating me for eradicating the pandemic. It has not been eradicated, and that is why I call on everyone to still adhere to the guidelines.”
According to Ash, procedures have already been formulated for the national events taking place after Passover ends on April 5, such as Memorial Day and Independence Day.
“On Memorial Day we will allow entrance to cemeteries and ceremonies. But we will encourage only immediate families to attend,” he said.
“We will also allow ceremonies to be held on the eve of Memorial Day. And while only visitors with a Green Pass will be able attend, bereaved families will have capsules of their own since they often have unvaccinated children and seniors in their midst,” said Ash.
“Independence Day is the bigger challenge. Local authorities will be able to hold events for those with a Green Pass,” he said, referring to the certificate showing that a person has been fully inoculated.
“They could also choose to utilize rapid testing kits to test those who do not have a Green Pass but wish to attend the festivities. Beyond that, there will be no free-for-all, open events with crowds.”
While Israel’s vaccination drive inoculated over 5 million people with the first vaccine dose, and over 4 million with the second dose, teens under the age of 16 still can’t get the vaccine due to lack of FDA approval.
“We are awaiting the completion of Pfizer's research,” said Ash. “I hope it will end in the next month or two and that the vaccine will be approved for children by the FDA.”
“We have decided that we are waiting, we want to see that the vaccines are indeed safe and effective for children.”