JERUSALEM, Israel – Israeli leaders approved plans to close down Ben Gurion Airport to prevent the spread of fast-spreading virus mutations that threaten to undercut the country’s ambitious vaccination campaign.
The Israeli Cabinet voted late Sunday to stop nearly all incoming and outgoing flights from Tuesday to Jan. 31. Small exceptions will be made for humanitarian cases or special personal reasons. There will be no exceptions for new immigrants.
“We are closing the country hermetically. Just in this week of closing the skies, we will vaccinate another million Israelis,” Netanyahu said during his weekly cabinet meetings.
Throughout the pandemic, Israel has restricted entry to most foreigners but made exemptions for students, immigrants, Israelis returning from aboard, and religious students.
Authorities fear the limited travel has allowed new strains of the virus in the country. Israel’s virus czar, Nachman Ash, told Israeli media Monday that an estimated 40-50% of all new virus cases in Israel are from the UK strain. He also said data indicates this strain may cause a 30% higher mortality rate.
Israeli health leaders have also identified two other virus strains – one from South Africa and one from California – that are already in the country.
These strains “are setting us back in dealing with the disease,” Ash said.
The leader said it is likely that the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine Israel is currently using to inoculate its population is effective against the British mutation of the virus. However, he is not sure how effective the vaccine is against the South African and Californian variants.
“We have had a difficult month, and the morbidity is still at its peak, we have a high number of patients in serious condition in the hospitals and the number of daily deaths is accordingly high,” Ash said.
“But the number of verified [cases] has been declining in recent days, the basic reproduction number of infection has dropped below 1, which indicates that the disease is in remission,” he continued.
Ash still believes Israel will exit its third nationwide lockdown as scheduled on Jan. 31.
Israel’s Health Ministry reports that there are more than 70,800 active cases in the country. Over 2.5 million Israelis have received the first vaccine dose and more than a million have received the second dose.
More than 4,400 people have died from the virus.
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