1 in 20 Israelis infected, yet experts optimistic Omicron won’t defeat hospitals

Virus cases have passed half a million and are about to peak, but all indications are that the number of seriously ill patients is small enough to avoid health system crisis

Nathan Jeffay

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

A medical worker at Kaplan Hospital at the coronavirus ward on January 18, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A medical worker at Kaplan Hospital at the coronavirus ward on January 18, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Virus cases are at their peak, and Israel’s COVID judgment day is approaching.

Everything depends on the half million people who are currently infected — that’s more than 1 in 20 citizens. Their progress in overcoming the virus is likely to determine whether Israel rides out this record wave without hospitals becoming overwhelmed.

The 83,088 new diagnoses on Sunday bring Israel’s infected population to 531,430, and the total number of infections during the pandemic to 2,387,131.

If there’s an unexpected setback and those currently carrying the virus buck the patterns of Omicron seen until now, leaving more than the tiniest proportion ending up in serious condition, it could put an impossible strain on hospitals. If they follow this variant’s patterns as anticipated, and almost all make a smooth recovery, doctors are expected to face several hard weeks, but without feeling overwhelmed.

“We think we are around the peak now in terms of cases,” Prof. Nadav Katz, a member of an interdisciplinary Hebrew University team that models COVID stats, told The Times of Israel on Monday, predicting a “significant decrease” in the number of new daily infections during the first week of February.

According to the team, which consists of medical experts alongside Katz, who is a physicist and expert in statistics, serious cases in hospital will rise from the current level of 814 and peak at between 1,000 and 1,400 cases in around a week. Even the higher number is widely considered within a manageable range.

At Israel’s largest hospital, Sheba Medical Center, infectious diseases specialist Prof. Eyal Leshem shares the cautious optimism. “The peak seems close and still we’ve not seen overwhelming of hospitals, and I don’t expect it to happen,” he told The Times of Israel.

Ziv hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward. (David Cohen/Flash90)

He said that his staff is stretched, especially given the large number of doctors who are infected, but added: “I don’t think that the most pessimistic scenarios that were outlined for hospitals will happen.”

Prof. Nadav Katz at the Hebrew University’s Quantum Information Science Center. (Yitz Woolf/ Hebrew University)

Katz said that the current high level of infection should prompt caution among those who are most susceptible to deterioration if infected. “For people who are older, or with specific health issues, now is the time to be careful,” he urged.

“The virus is really everywhere right now, and this week and next week things will be harsher in hospitals, with more and more COVID departments opening.” This is because it often takes several days after infection for serious patients to deteriorate, so wards are only expected to be at their fullest around seven days after the peak in diagnosed cases.

Policymakers can be encouraged by indications that hospitals will weather the storm, but shouldn’t unduly relax regulations, Katz suggested.

For Israeli doctors, the big Omicron concern was never infection numbers, but the proportion who become seriously ill. They watched other countries closely, hoping and praying that Israel would follow in the footsteps of the United Kingdom and other places where the proportion has been very low, but hesitated to draw conclusions.

A Magen David worker takes a COVID-19 rapid antigen test on January 12, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

They noted that every country’s circumstances are different, and Israel couldn’t relax based on the experiences of another country unless there’s a clear indication that the trajectory is the same. Now, based on a close comparison, Katz’s team has concluded that it is.

“It looks like we’re following the British trend,” said Katz. “It looks like we’re following them, and we’re about three to four weeks behind them.”

News daily cases in the UK are half the level they were two weeks ago, and the proportion of cases turning serious remained low throughout the wave. Israel will soon see a reduction on a similar scale, and without increased proportions of serious patients, Katz predicted.

Leshem said that despite Omicron bypassing the vaccine more than any other variant, the inoculation has proven a potent effect in preventing serious illness, which has been key in getting Israel to this point without far more damage. “From a public health perspective we now have evidence to show that the majority of people at risk are vaccinated and aren’t seeing a high rate of severe disease,” he said.

Experts don’t know what level of immunity recovery from Omicron gives against coronavirus reinfection, but Leshem said that he expects that after the peak, Israel will start to enjoy a degree of herd immunity. He declined to specify how long it may last, though.

Doctors in Britain are already saying this herd immunity effect is kicking in there. Prof. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said on Sunday that Britain is over the worst of the pandemic: “The very high level of immunity in the UK population – acquired via both vaccination and infection – means that the risk of a new variant causing unmanageable levels of healthcare demand is much reduced.”

In a similar vein, Leshem said: “With hundreds of thousands of Israelis infected over recent weeks, immunity is high and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, for this wave at least.”

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