Two doctors tested positive for the Omicron COVID-19 variant, the Sheba Medical Center announced Tuesday, doubling the number of known cases of the new virus strain in Israel.
Both of the doctors work at the hospital outside of Tel Aviv and one of them had recently returned from a conference in London. That doctor then came in close contact with their colleague, likely infecting them, Sheba said, noting that both had received three doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and were only experiencing mild symptoms.
This comes despite Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz saying that early data indicates those who have three doses of the Pfizer COVID vaccine are well protected against the new Omicron variant.
In comments made while visiting the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, Horowitz urged Israelis not to panic about the new variant, which caused Israel to shut its borders to foreigners and reinstate quarantine measures for vaccinated travelers.
“The situation is under control, there is no need for panic,” said Horowitz. “We expected a new variant, and we’re ready… in the next few days we will have more precise information about the vaccine’s effectiveness, but early indications show that those who have a booster are most likely protected against this variant.”
Horowitz said Israel would try and lift as many of the new restrictions imposed as soon as possible. Israel has shut its borders again, imposed mandatory quarantines and allowed the Shin Bet to resume a controversial program to track those infected.
The two doctors join two others — one a traveler from South Africa and another a tourist from Malawi — as the only confirmed Omicron cases in Israel.
However, figures from the Home Front Command pointed to 34 other individuals who are also suspected to have been infected with the new variant, though the IDF unit was still waiting for confirmation from health authorities.
The data also showed that roughly 1,589 people have arrived from red countries in the last ten days, roughly one percent of all incoming travelers.
Fifty-three of those passengers landed from the Ethiopian capital from Addis Ababa and were taken to an isolation hotel. Another 153 came in from the Seychelles island off the coast of East Africa and were also forced to check-in to an isolation hotel.
There were 636 new cases of all COVID variants diagnosed on Monday, bringing the total number of active cases in Israel to 5,570. Just 0.63% of samples tested Monday came back positive.
At least 117 patients were in serious condition and the death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 8,195.
Roughly 57% of the country’s 9.4 million population is fully vaccinated, according to Health Ministry data.
The World Health Organization on Tuesday called on countries to keep calm and take “rational” measures in response to the new, fast-spreading COVID variant Omicron, which has sparked global panic.
“We call on all member states to take rational, proportional risk-reduction measures,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing to countries.
“We still have more questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines,” he added.
New findings about the coronavirus’s Omicron variant make it clear that the emerging threat slipped into countries well before their defenses were up.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute said Tuesday that it has found Omicron in samples dating from November 19 and 23.
The World Health Organization said South Africa first reported the variant to the United Nations health agency on November 24.
Meanwhile, Japan and France reported their first cases of the new variant, which has forced the world once again to pinball between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
German authorities said they have identified an Omicron infection in a man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who was.
Agencies contributed to this report