1 confirmed case in Israel, and 7 more suspected cases

Authorities scramble to locate 800 Israelis feared exposed to Omicron variant

Home Front Command races to cut off infection chains after first case located; hundreds of travelers recently returned from high-risk countries; cabinet to debate closing to travel

Jerusalem, on November 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Jerusalem, on November 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Authorities are scrambling to locate 800 Israelis who may have been exposed to the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, a defense official said Saturday.

The Health Ministry confirmed one case of the new variant in Israel, and said there were seven other suspected cases who were awaiting test results.

Four of the suspected cases returned to Israel recently from international travel, and three had not traveled, raising fears of community transmission in Israel.

The military’s Home Front Command was racing to locate the potential cases to quickly cut off any infection chains of the variant, which is feared to be more infectious than previous strains, Deputy Defense Minister Alon Schuster said.

“The variant that was discovered is worrying,” Schuster said at a media event in Mevasseret Zion.

“It looks like it might be more infectious, so we’re taking action as fast as possible.”

The Home Front Command was trying to locate hundreds of people who recently returned to Israel in recent days from countries where Omicron is feared to be spreading. The Defense Ministry reopened quarantine hotels on Friday.

The confirmed case in Israel was an individual who returned recently from Malawi. Of the seven suspected cases, three were vaccinated and four unvaccinated.

Deputy Defense Minister Alon Schuster, on March 19, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The potential cases will be ordered immediately to self-isolate and Home Front Command soldiers will conduct home virus tests, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.

The coronavirus cabinet of government ministers will discuss whether to put in place new restrictions against international travel by all tourists and foreign residents at a meeting on Saturday night, Channel 12 reported.

The cabinet would likely designate all of Africa as a high risk “red” area, except for Morocco, which recently signed its first defense deal with Israel in a major breakthrough in relations for the two countries.

New restrictions would likely be in place for two weeks, until authorities can get a better grasp of the risks posed by the Omicron variant.

Leading epidemiologist Eran Segal recommended to the cabinet that the airport stay open, but that authorities require an additional virus test three days after travelers arrive in Israel and extend the time in quarantine for all arrivals.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked told Channel 12 that the cabinet was set to approve a new quarantine plan for international arrivals. Both those who have been vaccinated and those who have recovered from the virus within six months will be required to quarantine for three days after traveling abroad. Seven days will be required for those who are not vaccinated, she said.

Shaked said the government’s priority is increasing vaccinations, called on parents to vaccinate their children, and said the government intends to keep the country open during the Hannukah holiday, which begins on Sunday.

Healthcare workers take samples at a drive through complex for coronavirus testing, in Modi’in, on November 10, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The first case of the strain was detected in Israel after a person arrived from Malawi, the Health Ministry announced earlier on Friday.

Bennett was said to favor stringent restrictions on international arrivals and other ministers inclined to a more lenient approach.

Channel 12 reported that ministers will discuss limiting flights from hubs with frequent connections to southern Africa, including Dubai, Frankfurt, Ethiopia and Turkey.

Omicron is said to be the most heavily-mutated strain to date of the coronavirus virus, which experts believe may mean it transmits more easily, though it is not yet clear if it is more dangerous.

Switzerland on Saturday became the first nation to place fresh limitations on Israelis arriving in the country, as it largely barred those who do not have European passports from entering.

Action to restrict arrivals from Israel was apparently being considered by other countries, as governments race to get ahead of Omicron, which is feared to be highly contagious, and possibly better able to bypass vaccine protection than other strains.

Israel was among numerous countries to ban foreigners arriving from most African countries in recent days. The highly-mutated Omicron was first identified in South Africa.

The country is still allowing Israelis who previously departed to those countries to return, but is enacting strict quarantine measures. All arrivals from so-called “red” nations will be processed through Ben Gurion Airport’s smaller Terminal 1, to keep them away from the majority of passengers. They will then be required to isolate at state-run quarantine hotels.

Beyond the airport, another area of concern is the education system, where health officials fear the outbreak could be most prominent.

Bennett on Friday said the government was “preparing for every scenario” concerning the new strain, and recommended Israelis generally avoid travel abroad. But he said there were no immediate plans for a lockdown.

The Health Ministry said Saturday that coronavirus’s basic reproduction number in Israel has increased to 1.07. Known also as the “R-number,” the figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number over 1 signifies infection is expanding.

The new data showed that 508 people had been diagnosed the Friday, with the number representing 0.66 percent of the 79,000 tests conducted. There were 167 hospitalized individuals, of whom 125 were in serious condition.

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