- Israel lifted all COVID restrictions at the start of June after its world-leading vaccination drive.
- A Delta variant outbreak saw authorities swiftly reinstate mask wearing and tighten travel rules.
- Insider spoke to three Israelis about how the setback feels, so close to the pandemic’s end.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
After the most successful COVID vaccination programme in the world, Israel lifted social distancing and mask requirements at the start of June.
Then a low – but rising – number of cases, fueled by the arrival of the Delta variant, prompted the government to bring back masks in indoor spaces, announce a drive to vaccinate kids, and impose mass testing for airport arrivals.
Authorities are determined to avoid another spike. There are currently just 33 serious cases in Israel and a seven-day average of 321 new daily cases, compared with around 8,600 in January in the early stages of its vaccine drive.
But 13,000 students and teachers are currently in quarantine and the interior minister has threatened to shut down Ben Gurion Airport if cases continue to increase.
The rising case load is concerning for the country that was first to vaccinate its way out of the pandemic using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
One study released this week showed this vaccine is only 64% effective against transmission of the Delta variant but is 93% effective at preventing hospitalization.
Miriam Britz-Kohn, a 49-year-old mother-of-three, lives in Binyamina in the north of the country, where the Delta variant was first observed in Israel around June 20.
Her son’s school informed her that children in one year group had tested positive, and mobile testing centers were quickly sent to monitor any spread. “Binyamina is a small place, so it had a big impact in the town,” she said.
“I felt we’d beaten Corona. We felt great about it, but then it affected our neighbourhood and that was a wakeup call. The reality is it’ll go up and down and be something that’s impossible to get rid of completely, at least in the near future.”
Some of her neighbors, who were previously staying home to avoid infection before they were vaccinated, have stopped sending their children to school, afraid of them bringing home a more transmissible variant of COVID.
Israel was already vaccinating children aged 12 to 15, and rising case numbers have encouraged more parents to vaccinate theirs.
Britz-Kohn said that many people were now vaccinating their teenagers to avoid the entire family having to isolate if they came into contact with someone who tested positive.
Her middle child, aged 13, has not yet been vaccinated but Britz-Kohn said he already had COVID and so should have antibodies.
She said she had “mixed feelings” about getting him vaccinated as his age makes him less likely to develop severe symptoms with coronavirus. Now she plans to get him vaccinated in light of the rising case numbers.
Shlomit Levy, a senior nurse working in Tel Hashomer Hospital, never stopped wearing her mask in at work and in stores, even when the mandate was lifted for three weeks.
“Everybody should wear one,” she said. “Because if we all do, we can keep transmission low but let life carry on.”
Levy told Insider she felt masks kept her and many of her colleagues safe for the year before they were vaccinated. She works in a cancer unit, and said that, while some colleagues caught COVID, they most likely caught it outside the hospital.
Now she’s part of a study group which is tested regularly for antibodies, to see how long the vaccine’s protection lasts. She worries that as her antibody levels decrease, she could catch the new variant.
“I wear a N95 mask, so it gives me some protection as well as helping stop the spread. I’m not only afraid for myself, but also for my patients. Some of them couldn’t be vaccinated because of their cancer treatments.”
May Bejach, 28, a university student in Tel Aviv where she was born and raised, dreads another lockdown. She found it “very difficult” when most of her teaching went online as COVID first hit.
“The city that never sleeps was asleep for a year. Everything was closed and the streets were dead. It was awful,” she told Insider.
“I was so pleased when things went back to normal,” she said, adding she didn’t expect another full lockdown as cases were still low and, with 65.2% of people fully vaccinated, few are falling seriously ill.
She doesn’t know how she’d deal with another lockdown. “We got vaccinated early on, which means we are better prepared now for what’s happening. We need to be careful with masks and hope that the numbers stay low so we don’t need to disrupt our lives again.”
Bejach is still planning a trip to Italy that she had to cancel during the first lockdown. She said, with COVID looming again, increased testing at the airport and new rules could be “just something we’ll have to get used to.”
She is due to fly there on August 22. “The new restrictions have me thinking that it will continue getting worse and that they might cancel us again.”