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As COVID outbreak intensifies, Israel said mulling ‘herd immunity’ policy

Almost 3,000 new cases seen for 2nd straight day, but serious cases stay same; milder, fast-spreading Omicron reportedly prompts Health Ministry to weigh aiming for mass infections

People walk on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, some with face masks, December 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People walk on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, some with face masks, December 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel recorded almost 3,000 new coronavirus cases for the second day in a row, according to data released Wednesday, as the infection rate continued to climb and senior Health Ministry officials were reportedly weighing a switch to a policy of reaching herd immunity through mass infection.

Ministry data published Wednesday morning showed 2,967 infections were confirmed on Tuesday, a similar number to the previous day, which had been a three-month high.

The ministry said 2.48 percent of all tests came back positive on Tuesday, a new high for the current wave driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant.

There were 17,260 active cases in the country, double the figure of a week ago. The R0 figure, representing the average number of people each virus carrier infects, grew further from 1.47 to 1.53, indicating the outbreak is intensifying.

For the first time, most Omicron infections were recorded in the community, not in people who recently returned from abroad or those they came in contact with, indicating the true figures are likely much higher than the official ones.

However, the massive rise in infections has yet to translate to a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and serious cases. There were 88 serious patients, a similar number to the past few weeks, including 39 on ventilators and 18 on ECMO machines.

The death toll was at 8,243, with the past eight days seeing three new fatalities.

Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital’s coronavirus ward in Jerusalem on December 27, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In light of the lack of immediate rise in serious illness, Channel 12 news reported Tuesday evening that senior officials in the Health Ministry have recently raised the option of switching to a “mass infection model.”

That would mirror Sweden’s policy in the early stage of the pandemic, which saw the country elect not to impose major restrictions on people who aren’t in risk groups, in a bid to continue normal life while eventually reaching herd immunity.

While that was widely seen as a failure, and Sweden then changed course, the increasing prevalence of the Omicron strain — which is more infectious than the Delta variant but causes milder illness — has led Israeli officials to mull such a move, the unsourced report said.

It said the slowed pace of child vaccination and the unwillingness to impose a lockdown or other major restrictions “don’t enable any other model.”

Officials have estimated that within two weeks, 90% of COVID-19 cases in Israel will be Omicron.

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