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1-2 weeks until Omicron dominant in Israel, with ‘rampant’ quarantine – expert

1% of the population, including the PM, already in isolation, and that number will grow ‘very dramatically,’ says panel head Prof. Nadav Katz, predicting disruption in schools

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with COVID-19, in Modi'in, on December 26, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with COVID-19, in Modi'in, on December 26, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Omicron will become the dominant strain of COVID in Israel within one to two weeks, and it could spread so fast that quarantine will become “rampant,” according to a panel of experts from the Hebrew University.

While official figures only categorize about a tenth of Israel’s 12,000 coronavirus cases as Omicron patients, team head Prof. Nadav Katz said the actual figure is probably higher — and numbers are about to grow quickly.

He predicted that the number of new infections will double weekly, and that the proportion of them that are Omicron will grow sharply. If this happens, COVID restrictions are likely to be bolstered with social distancing rules, such as more work-from-home in the private sector, within two weeks, he said.

Katz noted that it’s hard to know how infection rates will translate into hospital admissions, as there is limited data on virulence of the variant. However, he was able to model the likely age breakdown of those who end up in serious condition, and concluded that almost 1 in 20 will be children.

Some 90,512 people, almost 1 percent of Israelis, are currently in quarantine, according to the Health Ministry. They include Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who left Sunday’s cabinet meeting and went into isolation upon learning that his teenage daughter was coronavirus-positive.

Quarantine will soon become so commonplace that significant segments of the educational system could have trouble functioning, according to Katz, a physicist who has been modeling coronavirus stats — which are closely followed by policymakers — since the start of the pandemic.

“The numbers of people in quarantine will grow very dramatically in the next few days,” he told The Times of Israel, adding that self-isolation orders will become “rampant.”

Kids at a school in Tel Aviv hold up antigen coronavirus testing kits, on August 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

It could become “very hard” to maintain normal functioning in the education system, he added. According to current rules, all citizens including those who are vaccinated must isolate if exposed to an Omicron case. Even if this requirement is removed, as expected, and Omicron cases are treated like others, requiring either quarantine or regular testing in classes where there is exposure to a confirmed carrier, Katz said that could cause major disruption in education.

His team expects large numbers of children to be infected by Omicron. On the one hand children tend to experience the coronavirus more lightly than adults. But on the other, vaccinated people who get infected tend to experience the virus lighter than the unvaccinated, and many more adults than kids are vaccinated.

The researchers predict that by late January around 4% of the seriously ill will be children. “This emphasizes the benefits of vaccinating children,” they said in a statement.

Predictions by Prof. Nadav Katz’s team for the situation in Israel by late January, showing the likely distribution of serious and critical coronavirus cases (in blue and orange respectively) by age group (which is plotted on the horizontal axis). This graph was released to The Times of Israel on December 26, 2021. (Hebrew University)

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