Israel lifts outdoor mask rule as vaccinations drive down infections

Schools resume regular teaching as number of seriously ill Covid patients falls to 200

Muslim women buy traditional sweets during the first evening of Ramadan in Jerusalem’s old city last Monday.  More than 83 per cent of all residents of Israel who are eligible to be vaccinated against Covid-19 have already received at least one dose. Photograph: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Muslim women buy traditional sweets during the first evening of Ramadan in Jerusalem’s old city last Monday. More than 83 per cent of all residents of Israel who are eligible to be vaccinated against Covid-19 have already received at least one dose. Photograph: Amir Levy/Getty Images

 

In the clearest sign yet that Israel is emerging from the coronavirus crisis, from Sunday people will no longer be required to wear masks outdoors and schools will resume regular teaching.

Announcing the cancellation of the decree to wear masks, health minister Yuli Edelstein said Israel’s vaccination drive had dramatically lowered the morbidity rate.

“The infection rate in Israel is very low thanks to our successful vaccination campaign, and therefore more easing of restrictions can be offered. I ask you to still be equipped with a mask when entering confined spaces. Together we will keep the infection rate low,” he said.

At the same time, the school system is resuming regular classes.

Pupils in the first to fourth grades, whose in-person school days were reduced to four times per week, will return to the classroom five days a week. The rest of the students, who studied on alternate days and had to sit in booths, will no longer be required to do so.

More than 83 per cent of all residents of Israel who are eligible to be vaccinated against Covid-19 – 5.3 out of 6.4 million – have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 77 per cent have received both doses. If the number of Israelis who have already contracted the virus and recovered are added, that brings the percentage of Israelis over the age of 16 who have recovered from Covid-19 or been vaccinated with at least one dose up to 92 per cent, and 87 per cent in the case of those who have received both doses.

Defying predictions

In some localities the rate of vaccination and/or recovery is close to 100 per cent, including cities such as Eilat and Beersheba – defying predictions of many health experts who warned that large sectors of the population would refuse a vaccination.

Prof Eyal Leshem, a director at the Sheba medical centre, said removing the regulation to wear masks is a logical step.

“We know that wearing masks outdoors is not as effective as doing it indoors,” he said. “Moreover, we see that many people don’t actually wear masks anymore. Therefore, with the low number of cases and a majority of the population vaccinated or recovered, it makes sense from epidemiological and public health perspectives to lift the requirement.”

He said herd immunity was the “only explanation” for the fact that cases continued to fall even as more restrictions were lifted.

“There is a continuous decline despite returning to near normalcy,” he said. “This tells us that even if a person is infected, most people they meet walking around won’t be infected by them.” A total of 6,314 people have died in Israel from Covid-19, but the number of seriously ill patients continues to fall and currently stands at just over 200.