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Liberman compares Omicron to flu: We have to live with it

Another COVID wave unstoppable, Bennett says as ministers spar over new curbs

Cabinet approves new rules for schools and some restrictions at malls; study predicts 1,600 patients in serious condition by late January

Illustrative: Medical staff working in in the coronavirus ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, on July 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Medical staff working in in the coronavirus ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, on July 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told ministers Tuesday that there was no way to avoid a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections, while expressing hope that health authorities will soon approve a fourth vaccine dose as the highly-infectious Omicron variant continues to spread.

The meeting saw lawmakers vote to implement remote learning for some high infection areas, and some new restrictions on stores, but some sought to hold off on virus curbs, with at least one minister downplaying the virus as akin to the flu.

“We cannot prevent the [next] wave. It’s just not a possibility,” Bennett told members of the so-called coronavirus cabinet tasked with leading the government’s pandemic policy.

“But we can certainly give the citizens of Israel the tools to protect themselves, mainly from serious illness, if some of them become infected,” Bennett said.

“The bad news is that Omicron is advancing exactly according to our expectations and predictions,” Bennett says. “We’re doubling new cases [each day],” Bennett said. “The decision is between lighter restrictions now or [much more] difficult steps later.”

Health officials discussed significantly expanding the Green Pass system, which requires Israelis to show proof of vaccination or of a negative COVID test upon entry into an event or facility. They also pushed returning caps on crowds, according to Hebrew media reports.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the ministers voted to approve a new plan for schools, authorizing virtual learning in “orange” and “red” locales, indicating moderately high and very high case rates and when the vaccination rate is below 70 percent.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton argued against the plan, saying it would harm children unable to attend school in person and that she had never agreed to the 70 percent cutoff, the Ynet news site reported.

Ministers also voted to place a smattering of new restrictions on malls, capping capacity to one person for every 15 square meters (161 square feet), banning food stands from offering eat-in dining and requiring a Green Pass for stores deemed non-essential that are larger than 100 square meters (1,076 square feet).

Researchers from Hebrew University presented data during the meeting showed the rapid spread of the new variant, particularly among those above the age of 60. The study, based on data from other countries, found that Israel’s case rate would likely double every four days, and as many as 1,600 patients could be hospitalized in serious condition by January 24, up from 81 people currently listed as severely ill.

Researchers told the COVID cabinet that it seems impossible to prevent the rapidly approaching wave, warning that the spread was on pace to burden hospitals in the coming weeks. The scientists urged the government to take steps to protect vulnerable populations.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman (left), seen with then-Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett (center) and MK Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset plenum, on May 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

However, the premier acknowledged during the meeting that health experts would only know “the seriousness of this variant” within a week and a half, exposing him to criticism from those who think he’s advocating for too drastic of a policy.

Among those who pushed back was Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman who sparred considerably with health officials during the meeting, according to reports.

“I don’t think this is the time to take steps like limiting gatherings,” Liberman was quoted as having said. “It puts us into a world of giving compensation” to owners of event halls, concert venues and other businesses that would be harmed by such measures.

“Just like we live with the flu, we have to live alongside Omicron,” he added.

Earlier Tuesday, the Health Ministry announced 170 new Omicron cases in Israel, bringing the total to 340. While overall case rates are rising, so far serious cases and hospitalizations have remained low.

Separately during the coronavirus cabinet meeting, Bennett said he hoped health officials will soon approve a fourth dose of the vaccine for relevant populations to protect against infection and serious disease, Hebrew media reported.

A testing complex in Jerusalem, on December 10, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Ministry official Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis replied that the issue is under consideration, but that it’s a serious decision.

Last week, Health Ministry experts advising on COVID-19 policy decided against recommending a fourth vaccine shot for the general population.

An advisory panel on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic also decided, along with the ministry’s vaccination panel, against reducing the period between receiving a second inoculation dose and a booster shot from the current six months to just three months. The idea was considered as a way to more quickly increase overall immunity in the population due to the spread of the new, highly-infectious Omicron variant.

However, the experts did advise extending the isolation period for confirmed Omicron patients and that they be given a booster shot three months after they are clear of infection. The general isolation period for coronavirus patients is 10 days, after which they can exit quarantine, but the experts advised that for Omicron patients recovery should be 14 days.

Regarding other potential vaccine plans, the two panels decided against giving a second dose to recovered COVID patients who have already had one vaccine shot, or a booster to those who have already had two doses and were then infected.

A fourth dose just for the elderly or immunocompromised was also ruled out.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton hold a meeting at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Overall case rates have been rising in Israel in recent days, but serious COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates have so far been remaining steady.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday that 170 new cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus had been confirmed in Israel, doubling the number of total infections.

There have been 341 verified Omicron cases in Israel to date, the Health Ministry said in a statement. Another 807 infections were “highly suspected” to be Omicron cases, but were awaiting verification.

Authorities announced Tuesday evening what appeared to be the country’s first death due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The victim, a man in his 60s, passed away on Monday after being hospitalized Soroka Medical Center in serious condition roughly two weeks earlier.

However, the hospital said the severity of his illness had been a result of pre-existing conditions and not COVID-induced pneumonia, which is what it said led doctors to suspect it might be a result of the Omicron variant.

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