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Israel takes action to control the spread of the omicron variant

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Israel is banning its citizens from traveling to the U.S. and dozens of other countries. The hope is that will keep omicron at bay so Israel doesn't have to shut down its economy. But officials say that won't buy Israel much time. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israel reopened its borders to foreign visitors last month, then quickly shut them again a few weeks later as the omicron variant began spreading around the world. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a press conference that the time Israel bought is running out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER NAFTALI BENNETT: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: "The omicron variant is already in the country," he said.

There are already hundreds of cases estimated, from the Knesset, the parliament, to kindergartens. Starting Wednesday, Israel is banning its citizens from traveling to the U.S., Canada, Germany, Italy and more. Israelis are also banned from traveling to France, Spain and dozens of other destinations.

Teacher Rana Mashharawi surprised her family with tickets to Dubai, which they cannot use now.

RANA MASHHARAWI: It is very upsetting, and we don't know what we can do. I just can hope that someday we can live like we used to - life with no coronavirus.

ESTRIN: The Israeli prime minister says the goal is to keep the economy and schools open and vaccinate more children as quickly as possible before omicron inevitably spreads here. Israel used to be a world leader in vaccinations, but today 30% of Israelis are not vaccinated, and many parents are hesitant to vaccinate their children.

DORON GAZIT: This is not a great number when we go into the omicron outbreak.

ESTRIN: Hebrew University physicist Doron Gazit advises the Israeli government on the pandemic. He says it remains to be seen how Israelis who aren't vaccinated or who haven't already caught the virus will respond to Omicron infections. Travel bans are expected to be relaxed in a few weeks.

GAZIT: These measures are only to prevent the outbreak from starting. Once it will start, I'm pretty sure that it will be easier to travel.

ESTRIN: In Bethlehem, the editor-in-chief of a Christian TV station tells NPR that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to restrict annual Christmas celebrations this year to religious ceremonies only.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOETT'S "LAST NIGHT ON RIVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.