COVID reproduction rate continues to rise, fueling fear of renewed outbreak

Experts say Israel could be moving in same direction as UK, where cases are skyrocketing; BA.2 variant seen as main reason for surge in new cases

A Magen David worker takes a COVID-19 takes swab samples from Israelis in a complex in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A Magen David worker takes a COVID-19 takes swab samples from Israelis in a complex in Tel Aviv, March 23, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The reproduction rate (R) of COVID-19 continued to rise Tuesday and hit 1.39, according to Health Ministry statistics released Wednesday morning, up from 0.9 a week earlier and the highest figure since January.

Any R statistic above 1 means that each coronavirus carrier is infecting on average more than one person. The rising figure indicates that the virus is once again spreading in Israel.

Some 13,384 new cases were diagnosed throughout the country on Tuesday, bringing the total number of active cases to 64,271, of whom 849 are hospitalized.

The number of patients in serious condition dropped to 300 from 320 the previous day — rises in serious cases generally lag behind trends in case numbers by at least a week — and the number of patients on ventilators dropped from 138 to 119.

Thirty COVID patients died in Israel in the past week, bringing the total number to 10,449 since the pandemic started.

While Tuesday’s figures mark a slight drop in the number of daily new cases confirmed compared to Monday, the numbers have steadily been rising since January, when Israel was coming out of the Omicron wave that started in December.

Magen David worker take a COVID-19 rapid antigen test from Israelis, at a Magen David Adom drive through complex in Jerusalem, March 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prof. Gili Rahav, the director of infectious diseases at Sheba Medical Center, said she believes the rise in new cases is driven in part by the BA.2 variant, a subvariant of Omicron.

“There are enough people who still haven’t been sick and therefore could still be infected” by the variant, Rahav told Kan public radio on Tuesday.

The rising figures have raised fears among health experts who have warned that Israel could be moving in the same direction as the United Kingdom, where cases are rocketing.

The United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — saw some 3.3 million people infected, out of a population of 67 million, in the week ending March 12. There, the Omicron wave had started to ebb at the beginning of January, and cases continued to fall throughout February, before starting to increase again at the end of the month.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face covering to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, leaves from 10 Downing Street in central London on January 12, 2022.(Tolga Akmen/AFP)

But recent events like Purim, which saw many gatherings, and the funeral of the Haredi leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, could have also contributed to the rise in new cases, noted Hebrew University epidemiologist Prof. Ora Paltiel.

Most of Israel’s remaining coronavirus restrictions were scrapped in late February and as cases have dropped, the population has become less cautious.

BA.2 is thought to be more infectious than the original Omicron, but not necessarily more serious.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020, close to 3.8 million Israelis, about 40% of the population, have tested positive for COVID.

Rahav said she believes the figure is closer to 50%, but noted that while those who have had Omicron are likely to be protected from the current variants, “we know that those who had Delta or Alpha are certainly not protected.”

Nathan Jeffay and Amy Spiro contributed to this report.

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