TEL AVIV — Israel on Monday barred travel to 10 new countries, including the United States, Canada and Germany, as its total number of omicron cases reached 175 and the prime minister warned that the fifth wave of the coronavirus had already arrived.
Travel from Israel to red countries is forbidden, unless travelers receive permission from a special committee. Israeli citizens flying from a red country must enter a seven-day quarantine even if they are fully vaccinated — entry of noncitizens was banned last month.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a televised news conference on Sunday that Israel had “bought precious time” by banning the entry of noncitizens and restricting international travel in recent weeks, but that it was now the citizens’ responsibility to take action. He urged all eligible Israelis to fully vaccinate themselves and their children.
The definition for “fully vaccinated” in Israel requires travelers to be 12 years or older and have received a booster shot at least one week prior, or be within six months of having received a second vaccination shot. Last month, Israel opened up vaccinations to children as young as 5.
“Given the very infectious nature of this variant, the collective, national protection provided by the state isn’t enough. The fifth wave is arriving [and] every family needs to prepare,” Bennett said.
He added that more than 5 million children have been vaccinated in the United States, with few significant side effects. Only about 10 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 have been vaccinated in Israel, with the lowest rates in ultra-Orthodox, Arab and lower-income communities.
“A parent who is protected with three doses must also protect his children,” Bennett said.
The Israeli Health Ministry has said that the majority of omicron cases had come from travelers who returned from abroad. On Sunday, 17 travelers on a flight from Miami to Israel tested positive for the coronavirus, with most of the cases suspected to be the omicron variant.
The relatively quick addition of the United States to Israel’s “no-fly” list marks a shift from Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who began sealing Israel’s borders during the first coronavirus wave in March 2020 but waited five days before banning visitors from the United States.
Some 70 percent of the infections in Israel at the time were caused by a coronavirus strain imported from the United States, according to a study by Adi Stern, an evolutionary virologist from Tel Aviv University.
The move on Monday comes as the United States records 126,967 new cases per day as of Saturday, and as American health officials warn of an unprecedented surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
It will be a hit to the long-suffering tourism sectors, both in Israel and in West Bank cities like Bethlehem, which before the pandemic welcomed around 165,000 visitors during the Christmas period.
On Sunday, the Israeli Health Ministry registered more than 1,000 new cases.
“The most likely scenario is that there will be a significant omicron wave in Israel,” tweeted Eran Segal, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science and consultant with the government’s coronavirus cabinet. “According to what’s happening in other countries, the rate of increase will probably be very fast: once there will be about 50 confirmed cases in a community, it’s possible that within two to three weeks we will pass the peak that we saw with Delta (about 10,000 per day). By comparison, Delta took 75 days to reach its peak.”
Earlier this month, a small study carried out by Sheba Medical Center in central Israel found that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are not effective against the omicron variant.
A third “booster” shot does provide “significant protection,” though about four times as weak as than that against the delta variant, said Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit at Sheba Medical Center, in an online news conference.
Sheba Medical Center is preparing for a fourth-dose preliminary trial, using about 100 medical personnel.
Last month, Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said that Israel’s decision to open booster shots to the general population, as the delta variant was spreading across the globe but before it was authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was “justified.” He said that it was possible that the government may also provide fourth shots in the near future, but that the decision would be “based on medical needs.”
In January, Israel launched the world’s most rapid and widely reaching immunization campaign through the mobilization of its well-organized, meticulously digitized national health-care system. Out of a population of 9.3 million, 6.4 million have received their first shot, 5.8 million have received their second and 4.1 million have received their third shot.
Israel has recorded at least 8,232 coronavirus deaths since the start of the pandemic.