Over 31,000 new COVID diagnoses during weekend, as serious cases rise to 172

3 MKs test positive as Omicron surges; reports of reduced crowding at PCR test sites, but new long lines at antigen locations; expert says 50k daily cases likely in a week

A healthcare worker takes swab samples from Israelis in a drive through complex in Modi'in, on January 6, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A healthcare worker takes swab samples from Israelis in a drive through complex in Modi'in, on January 6, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel registered over 31,000 new coronavirus cases over the weekend, the Health Ministry said Saturday evening, with 18,806 diagnosed Friday and another 12,495 by Saturday evening.

The number of seriously ill patients rose to 172 from 143 the day before.

The positive test rate was at 9.5 percent. The virus transmission number, R, indicating how many people each infected person passes the virus on to, dropped slightly from 1.96 to 1.95. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and values above 1 show infections are spreading — the higher the number, the greater the rate.

The total number of active cases stood at 108,239. The death toll remained at 8,259, with no change since Friday.

Saturday’s data continued the upward trend in daily cases as the highly contagious Omicron strain of the virus surges through the country.

Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science who advises the government on the pandemic, told Channel 12 he expected the country will reach 40-50 thousand cases a day within a week, though many of these may not be diagnosed.

Still, he forecast that the number of serious cases would remain relatively low, at some 250-350 in the coming week. He noted that Israeli data so far shows Omicron patients are five times less likely to suffer a severe case compared to Delta.

Segal also said most current serious cases appear to be caused by Delta and not Omicron, with vaccines offering stronger protection against the former. The vast majority of those in serious condition are unvaccinated.

Three members of the Knesset were diagnosed over the weekend: Likud’s Haim Katz and Eti Atiya, and Shas’s Yoav Ben-Tzur.

Likud MK Haim Katz during a Knesset plenary session debate on his request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution, on February 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 12 news reported Saturday that with new testing regulations prioritizing over-60s and the unvaccinated at PCR testing stations, crowds waiting for PCR tests had reduced drastically. However, long lines were now being reported at antigen testing stations around the country as the younger population simply shifted to those.

Individuals can also conduct rapid antigen tests at home, but there have been severe shortages in test kits in recent days as Israelis raided shops for them.

Some health experts have warned antigen tests are far less accurate than PCR tests — particularly when it comes to detecting Omicron. According to Channel 12, new Defense Ministry data shows antigen tests may miss positive cases some 50 percent of the time.

Prof. Galia Rahav, Head of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Unit and Laboratory, said the current testing directives might need to be changed: She noted that currently people are told to test only once after contact with a confirmed case, and should probably be told to test a second time after a few days to account for the virus incubation period.

She also said antigen tests currently only sample from nostrils, but that people should probably also swab their mouths first, as this can make detection more accurate.

Despite the skyrocketing infection numbers, Israel was set to open its borders Sunday to visitors for the first time since November, as officials have determined that border limitations are no longer relevant in containing the spread of Omicron.

A healthcare worker takes swab samples from Israelis at a coronavirus testing center in Modi’in, on January 6, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has warned that Israel could hit 50,000 daily cases at the height of the wave, expected in some 2-3 weeks.

Omicron, first detected in South Africa, is more contagious but appears to cause fewer cases of severe illness and death than previous variants — especially among vaccinated people.

A woman receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Modi’in, on January 6, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In Israel as elsewhere, the variant is spreading so fast — straining testing, schools, hospitals and airlines — that some experts are urging a focus instead on hospital admissions. Those, as well as deaths from coronavirus, aren’t climbing as quickly — the result, experts say, of protection offered by vaccinations.

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