As the Delta coronavirus variant takes hold in Israel, the government is cautiously optimistic its successful vaccination drive can save it from the deadly surge in cases seen earlier in the pandemic.
In a show of confidence, Israel last month lifted its indoor mask-wearing mandate after more than a year. But only 10 days later, masks were back on.
The about-turn came amid outbreaks of coronavirus in Israel, where from late April to June fewer than 100 cases had been detected each day.
"The world is currently dealing with an immense wave of the Delta variant,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Wednesday, of the highly infectious strain.
“Our goal in the government is to continue managing – calmly and based on information and facts – the continued dealing with the coronavirus in general and with the Delta variant in particular,” he said.
Health Ministry data showed infections were increasing, from a daily average of 14 recorded cases a month ago to 386 on Thursday.
Beyond the revived mask-wearing rule – which is not being strictly observed – the government held off on reimposing measures on its nine million residents.
“The main effort is given to locating new cases,” said Noa Harrowitz, spokeswoman for Clalit, Israel’s largest health care provider. She said there were dozens of testing sites in operation nationwide.
Authorities are also working to boost vaccinations, particularly among the 12 to 15 year olds who became eligible in June.
As part of the campaign, the prime minister’s daughter, 14, was pictured last month getting her shot.
Around 25 per cent of under-19s are fully vaccinated, compared to more than 56 per cent of the total population.
The five million Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank are not part of Israel’s vaccination programme. The government instead opted to vaccinate around 100,000 Palestinians who have Israeli work permits.
Although hundreds of new cases are recorded each day in Israel, the number of patients in serious condition over the past month has risen moderately from 31 to 46.
Nonetheless, the country’s largest hospital this week reopened a coronavirus ward.
“The vaccine is not 100 per cent protection. We anticipate seeing patients but not in the numbers that we have seen in the first three waves,” said Eyal Leshem, an infectious disease specialist at Sheba Medical Centre.
“Previously, if we let thousands of cases in the community we would see hundreds of deaths.."
Israel has registered only four coronavirus deaths over the past month, in addition to an 86-year-old man who died on Thursday and has not yet been included in official figures. The elderly patient was fully vaccinated, a spokeswoman for the Rambam hospital in the city of Haifa said.
Despite the increase in cases, Israel is not expected to tighten controls significantly at the country’s borders.
Looking ahead, Dr Leshem remained optimistic that few patients will need to be admitted to hospital.
“I think this is the right way to approach, [to] cautiously observe the number of cases,” he said.
“There is a good chance that we will not need severe public health measures to keep this current event in check.”