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Israel, counting on herd immunity, declines to reimpose most restrictions as delta variant spreads

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses reporters at Ben Gurion International Airport on June 22, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
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JERUSALEM — As the surging delta coronavirus variant forces countries to reinstate restrictions, Israel's new government is standing pat, expressing faith that the nation's high vaccination rate is shielding people from the variant's worst effects. The number of positive cases is rising, but few people are becoming seriously ill.

Officials decided Sunday night that a spike in positive cases did not warrant a return to lockdown or significant restrictions other than reinstating an indoor mask mandate that had dropped just two weeks ago.

“This past week, there has been a rise in the number of people testing positive in Israel, but there hasn’t been a complementary rise in the number of people hospitalized,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said. “But we need to know, the delta variant does infect vaccinated people.”

Bennett said his government would focus, for now, on expanding its already world-leading vaccination rate and tightening quarantine enforcement. Travelers who violate a ban on visits to “red countries” where variants are raging will face a new $1,500 fine.

“Our attitude is simple: maximum protection for the citizens of Israel with minimum damage to routine and the Israeli economy. Masks instead of restrictions. Vaccines instead of lockdowns,” said Bennett, who issued an appeal Monday for young people to get their shots before portions of Israel’s vaccine dose stockpile reach their expiration dates.

Israel has vaccinated almost 59 percent of its population with both shots of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccines, and about 62 percent with at least one shot. Its pace made it one of the first countries to vaccinate its way out of most covid-related restrictions. As a result, restaurants, beaches and synagogues have been crowded up to pre-pandemic levels in recent weeks.

Now the country is one of the first to wrestle with an outbreak of a coronavirus variant amid a mostly vaccinated population, a situation sure to confront other nations emerging from the pandemic.

Public health officials say the rate of vaccination, while not blocking the aggressive delta variant entirely, is still shielding the population from its worst effects. That makes this spike very different from previous infection waves that threatened to overwhelm Israel’s heath-care system, they say.

“We have reached a level of herd immunity in Israel that also provides cross-protection against the delta variant, and for that reason the virus does not spread as quickly, it doesn’t reach the most vulnerable population and it doesn’t cause a lot of hospitalizations,” Yoram Weiss, director of Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Medical Center, said Monday. “It is making all the difference.”

A week into the rise in delta cases, the hospital’s coronavirus wards remain empty.

“At this point, I still don’t have a single patient,” Weiss said. “Yes, we need to remain vigilant. But we need to understand that this time we are confronting the virus in a different situation than we had before.”

With most adults vaccinated, Israel is busting loose

As global travel has picked up in recent weeks, the variant, which appears to be more transmissible than other forms of the virus, is driving coronavirus case increases in several countries. Israel began to see a rise when 26 new cases popped up June 14. That number recently spiked to 230.

The delta variant surge has been largely attributed to two school outbreaks. The vaccine was made available to Israeli residents 12 and older only in recent weeks, and young people remain one of the largest unvaccinated pools in the population.

Bennett, in an open “Dear young people” letter, called on minors to get their first shots within 11 days, which would allow for the second round to be completed before vaccine doses begin to expire.

“I also have four children your age, and they also want to enjoy the summer,” he said. “We do not want to impose any restrictions on anyone, not on parties, on hikes, no capsules — nothing.”

Earlier this month, Israel said it would deliver more than a million doses of its vaccine inventory to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, where the rate of inoculations is far lower, in exchange for the same number of doses from a fresh delivery in a few months. The deal fell apart when Palestinians rejected the agreement after coming under withering criticism on social media for accepting “old” vaccine doses.

Doctors say the number of infections is probably much higher than tests show, given that many people who have some protection from the disease — including vaccinated people and possibly more than a million who recovered from earlier infections — are fighting off the virus without ever showing symptoms. Tests on sewage samples in the coastal city of Ashkelon suggest that far more residents have the delta variant in their bodies than have tested positive.

“We probably have 65 or 70 percent of people with some level of antibodies to protect them,” Weiss said. “Most people never even know they have it.”