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Indoor mask rule to remain in effect until at least May 1

COVID transmission rate rises further but health chief doesn’t expect large outbreak

13,603 new infections recorded as serious cases remain steady; Health Ministry director: We believe past Omicron infection protects against BA.2; Likud’s Steinitz tests positive

A Magen David worker takes a swab sample at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A Magen David worker takes a swab sample at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Thursday reported a further increase in the COVID-19 transmission rate, as a top health official predicted the renewed rise in morbidity would not nevertheless lead to a major outbreak.

According to ministry data, the reproduction rate, or R number, ticked up to 1.42. The figure represents how many people each coronavirus carrier infects, with any reading above 1 indicating the virus is spreading.

The R number was less than 1 a week ago.

The ministry said 13,603 new infections were confirmed Wednesday, with 19.08 percent of tests coming back positive.

Active cases stood at 66,821, including 786 people hospitalized for COVID complications. The number of serious cases remained steady at 301, among them 130 on ventilators.

The death toll was 10,455, with the Health Ministry reporting 27 fatalities from coronavirus over the past week.

While new cases were only up slightly Wednesday compared to the day before, infections have steadily been rising after the Omicron wave that began in December had appeared to bottom out in early March.

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)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz met Thursday with the heads of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) to discuss the rising cases.

Following the meeting, Bennett’s office announced that current coronavirus restrictions — such as the indoor mask mandate — will remain in effect until at least May 1.

The Prime Minister’s Office said HMO directors presented a plan during the meeting to encourage vaccination among Israelis older than 60, including with financial incentives, PR campaigns and by vaccinating people at home. Further details of the plan will be released later Thursday.

Bennett and Horowitz were also presented with a “comprehensive plan” for dealing with a potential new coronavirus variant that would involve canceling air travel to and from the country and sealing the country’s borders, among other measures. A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the plan’s aim is “preventing the future strain from entering the country’s borders.”

Health officials have in part attributed the current rise cases to the BA.2 variant, a subvariant of Omicron. BA.2 is believed to be more infectious than Omicron, but not necessarily more severe.

The director general of the Health Ministry said Thursday that Omicron reinfections were “very low” and that officials believe prior Omicron infection would protect against BA.2

Nachman Ash also said the Health Ministry was categorizing the current rise in cases as part of the Omicron wave, the fifth major outbreak in Israel since the pandemic began.

“I don’t believe the rise in morbidity will be large,” Ash told Army Radio. “We have enough space in terms of hospitalization and we can track and make informed decisions in accordance with the data.”

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 in Jerusalem, on December 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also Thursday, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz said he tested positive for COVID.

“For two years I was careful,” the opposition lawmaker wrote on Twitter.

Steinitz, who is vaccinated, did not specify his condition.

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