JERUSALEM, Israel – A panel of Israeli Health Ministry advisors on Sunday recommended scrapping the country’s Green Pass system because Omicron’s high transmission rate among vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals alike has rendered the certificate largely irrelevant.
The Green Pass is Israel’s proof of vaccination and it allows citizens to enter many indoor venues and large gatherings if they are vaccinated against COVID-19, recovered from the virus in the last six months, or tested negative in the last 72 hours. It was launched in February 2021 to reopen Israel’s economy and keep infection rates low.
But now that Omicron is spreading throughout Israel regardless of vaccination status, the panel of experts believes the Green Pass is no longer a reliable tool to prevent new infections and provides a false sense of security to vaccinated individuals. Instead, the panel said a negative test is a better measure against transmission and suggested requiring such tests at certain indoor events. The experts also proposed keeping the Green Pass in place and demanding that citizens present negative antigen tests to enter areas where high-risk populations live, like nursing homes.
“Guidelines should be formulated for institutions and organizations where at-risk populations are located in order to reduce their exposure to the virus. In general, a requirement from visitors to these institutions to present a Green Pass and a negative COVID-19 test should be maintained,” the panel said.
Health experts also predicted that the quality of care for serious COVID patients will “worsen due to medical centers’ inability to handle” high caseloads.
Israeli leaders are under pressure to announce a decision soon because the Green Pass system is set to expire in eight days.
Prof. Cyrille Cohen, an immunologist at Bar-Ilan university and health advisor to Israel’s government, is among the experts who believe that in the age of Omicron, the Green Pass loses its meaning.
“The fact that there is an extremely contagious variant that is able to infect both [the vaccinated and unvaccinated] populations almost at the same rate makes us think that if the purpose of the Green Pass was to prevent the spread of contamination and create a safe environment for vaccinated people, it is no longer the case,” Cohen told CBN News.
Not everyone agrees.
Prof. Hezi Levi, director of Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center and former Health Ministry's director-general, told Ynet news that the Green Pass helps Israel fight the pandemic because vaccines are still serving their primary purpose – keeping COVID patients out of ICUs and morgues.
“While it's not helping so much with the current wave, it still reduces morbidity rate, especially among people who are vaccinated. The Green Pass mandate has some logic behind it, therefore I don't think we should break all the boundaries we established in the past two years of the COVID pandemic."
As of Monday, more than half a million Israelis are fighting COVID infections, according to Health Ministry numbers. Prof. Eran Segal, a leading health advisor, says Israel may soon reach the peak of the current Omicron wave but warned of deadly days ahead.
“This week we expect to see a decrease in infections. We’re already seeing a drop in those over 60,” Segal told Ynet news. “Once we stop seeing a rise in new infections, we’ll continue to see a rise in serious cases,” he added. “I hope that by next week we’ll reach a peak, and we’ll see stability and the beginning of a drop.”
Vaccines in the Age of Omicron
While Prof. Cohen believes the Green Pass is “less relevant,” he cautioned people not to assume vaccines are now ineffective or obsolete.
“Go to the hospitals and have a headcount of who’s vaccinated and who’s not vaccinated. When you take into account the proportion in the population even today, when we look at people over the age of 60 in severe condition in hospitals, the risk of getting severe disease is between six to 10 times more if you’re not vaccinated…Meaning that the vaccine protects you even now, in the era of the Omicron, between 80-90% against severe disease,” he said.
“The vaccines are not strong enough to totally stop the contamination against new variants. That’s correct, that’s a given because after a few months they do not generate, especially against the Omicron, strong enough neutralizing antibodies in our respiratory tract to prevent the entry of the virus. But once inside, because the vaccine has trained our immune system to fight COVID-19, our immune system is able to mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19.”
Is Herd Immunity on the Horizon?
Because COVID cases are so high in Israel, some have predicted that Israel is quickly approaching “herd immunity,” the point when a population is generally immune from an infectious disease either because enough people got vaccinated or recovered from an infection.
Prof. Cohen isn’t so sure.
“Can we talk really about herd immunity like we see with measles or chickenpox? Right now, I don’t think so,” said Cohen, namely because people can get reinfected with the virus multiple times.
“First, we have to keep in mind that there will always be variants. Being naïve and thinking that the Omicron is the last wave is, to me, premature. I think that the Omicron can accelerate the transition between the pandemic state and the endemicity, meaning that the virus or COVID will still be around but we treat it like we treat other infectious diseases,” said Cohen
In the beginning of the pandemic, Israel enforced strict nationwide lockdowns to contain the virus. Cohen believes that’s not the best strategy in the current Omicron wave, and health leaders are still learning how to fight an ever-changing virus. Right now, the objective is making sure the most vulnerable populations don’t end up with life-threatening infections, says Cohen.
“We are facing a reality where we understand it is extremely difficult to stop the Omicron. What we can do is try with measures and vaccination to lower the pace of the rise of severe disease so that when people go to hospital, they can get the best care they can get.”