Israel is set to discourage overseas travel and reintroduce rules on wearing masks indoors as cases of the Delta variant of coronavirus continue to creep higher.
The country had ended most virus restrictions following a successful vaccination programme that saw two-thirds of its population inoculated.
But the number of patients diagnosed with the variant has doubled since the weekend – and officials fear unvaccinated children are unwittingly helping to spread it.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of public health in Israel’s health ministry, said the Delta variant had entered Israel through Ben Gurion Airport and spread by individuals who had not kept to quarantine conditions.
There were reports of some arriving passengers being allowed to leave the airport, Israel’s largest, without being tested for COVID-19.
Everyone passing through the airport will now be required to wear a mask and the border will not be reopened to vaccinated tourists until the beginning of August.
But public health officials are concerned that children are particularly vulnerable to contracting and spreading the variant.
Children and adolescents make up the majority of the one-third of Israelis who have not yet been vaccinated.
About three-quarters of Israelis in eligible age groups have received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. But that ranges from about 90% of those over 50 to just 2-4% of 12-15 year-olds getting vaccinated since they were made eligible this month, according to health ministry data.
Infections fell sharply – from a peak of over 10,000 daily cases in January to single digits this month – and social distancing restrictions were dropped, prompting parents to say they saw no rush to vaccinate children.
But on Monday 125 patients were diagnosed, more than twice the number detected the day before.
Eldad Askof, who got the vaccine himself, sat outside a school with his 13-year-old son Amit, both wearing face masks.
“There was a debate, but at the moment we feel that we don’t want to vaccinate. If we can control it without vaccinating the kids we prefer that,” said one parent, Eldad Askof, who has been vaccinated himself but has not taken his 13-year-old son Amit.
Other parents think differently.
“Now, after the COVID outbreaks, I said – today, today, I don’t give a damn, [we must do it] today.” said Yizhak Nevo, who took his 13-year-old daughter to get the jab in the town of Binyamina, where one school experienced a recent outbreak.
The Health Ministry on Monday issued a formal recommendation that 12-15 year-olds get vaccinated and is now investing in outreach to get parents to bring their children in for shots.
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