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Nearly 200 deaths in a week as serious cases keep rising

Cabinet extends Green Pass rules for another week as fifth wave begins to wane

COVID-19 reproduction number dips below 1 for first time since November, but PM warns against premature celebration of end to Omicron outbreak

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Israelis present their Green Pass vaccination certificates at the entrance of a cafe on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis present their Green Pass vaccination certificates at the entrance of a cafe on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday approved an extension of coronavirus regulations restricting public life, while Health Ministry figures showed that the outbreak was shrinking for the first time since November.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned against a premature celebration of the data and urged the public to remain diligent in keeping to health rules.

At their weekly meeting, cabinet ministers approved a Health Ministry request to extend the so-called Green Pass regulations by a week. The regulations, which limit entry to certain venues and activities to those with proof of immunization or negative tests, had been set to expire on Tuesday.

The Health Ministry had asked for more time to evaluate data on how resilient people are to Omicron infection after vaccination or having recovered from the virus.

The Green Pass rules for educational institutions — which require staff to have a valid certificate and that face masks be worn by teachers and students in classrooms — were extended until February 27. Similarly, Green Pass rules for health and welfare sites were extended until March 1.

An accompanying set of rules dubbed the Purple Badge that lay out requirements for commercial sites were also extended by a week, as was a cap of 50 attendees at indoor gatherings that are not in keeping with Green Pass rules.

All the extensions must be approved by the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee as well as the Knesset Education Committee.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting at the Knesset, on January 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman voted in favor of the extension, but warned it would be the last time he would agree to keep them in place and said that he would not allow a further extension beyond February 6, “even by a single second.”

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton both voted against even the extra week.

Indicators over the past few days have shown that the biggest wave of infections the country has known since the start of the pandemic, fueled by the highly infectious Omicron variant, is slowing down. The virus reproduction number was given Sunday as 0.96, the lowest it has been since November 6. Any number over 1 indicates infections are rising, while a figure below 1 signals that an outbreak is abating. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier.

Last month, the R-value shot up to 2.12, but has since been on the decline.

“We are seeing the beginning of a stabilization trend in the Omicron wave,” Bennett said at the start of the cabinet meeting. “I am choosing my words in order to avoid giving an impression to the effect that it is over, and ‘end-of-Omicron celebrations’ are out of place.”

“At the moment, these very hours, we are dealing with severe pressure at the hospitals, where there is still a large number of people who are infected,” Bennett warned.

The latest Health Ministry figures showed there were 2,665 COVID patients in the country’s hospitals, of whom 1,086 are in serious condition.

With 49,371 new cases diagnosed on Saturday and another 15,739 since midnight, the total number of active virus patients on Sunday was 429,006.

The data also showed over 198 people with COVID have died in Israel over the past week, bringing the pandemic death toll to 8,669; 425 of those have died since January 1.

As of Saturday, 30 people on average were dying per day with the coronavirus, the Health Ministry said. A week ago the daily death toll average was 18, and a month ago the average was just one death per day.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visits Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on January 4, 2022. (Ohad Zweigenberg/Haaretz Newspaper via AP, Pool)

The prime minister defended new school rules that eased quarantine requirements for students exposed to a known virus carrier and which prompted the country’s largest teachers union to call a protest strike — later aborted by the labor court — amid allegations that educators would be placed at great danger of infection.

The new rules are “putting 2.5 million students on the testing radar twice a week,” Bennett said, noting that his own children were no exception and that he had tested them that morning.

“Parents need to show responsibility, take care to test the children properly, and send them to school only if they feel well,” he said. “A few more weeks like this, if we all act responsibly, we will get through this wave together as well.”

Under the regulations, students must be home-tested for the virus on Sunday and Wednesday mornings, and after exposure to a known virus carrier.

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