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Daily COVID-19 cases near record 17,000 as new testing rules take effect

As case count continues to hit highs, under-60s and fully vaccinated now told to take less accurate antigen tests; serious cases climb to 143, but transmission rate ebbs slightly

People line up for PCR and Rapid Antigen COVID-19 coronavirus tests in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
People line up for PCR and Rapid Antigen COVID-19 coronavirus tests in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

New health data Friday showed Israel’s daily cases approached 17,000 the previous day, setting another new record for the greatest number of new infections reported in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

Driven by the ultra-contagious Omicron variant, 16,830 cases were diagnosed on Thursday. Another 4,032 cases were identified on Friday by 8 a.m. But with official testing sites now deprioritized for much of the population, the number of unreported cases is expected to be higher.

On Friday Israel ended the so-called “red” list of countries with high-infection rates, as coronavirus rates in the country spiked to record levels, making the impact of the travel bans negligible. All countries were removed from the list starting at midnight, reopening the skies to dozens of destinations where travel had been severely curtailed in a bid to slow the Omicron variant from infiltrating the country.

The move comes two days before Israel will reopen to vaccinated international travelers, on Sunday, January 9.

Under the new testing regulations, those who are over 60 or at high risk are prioritized at PCR testing stations. Those who are under 60 and fully vaccinated are encouraged to conduct a rapid antigen test, either at home or at a testing station, and can use those results to get exemptions from quarantine.

Israelis have been swamping drugstores to purchase home antigen tests as the new rules take effect and cases skyrocket, though some health experts warn that they are far less accurate than PCR tests — particularly when it comes to detecting Omicron.

Channel 13 news said in recent days it had received internal Health Ministry figures suggesting that only 50 percent of those who have Omicron will test positive on rapid antigen tests, with even higher false-negative rates among those who are unvaccinated. The figures could not be independently verified.

One health official told Channel 12 news that the old rules requiring exposed Israelis to get a PCR test were unsustainable due to the burgeoning numbers, but warned that negative antigen tests were not accurate and would skew the figures.

Health care staff conduct coronavirus tests in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The previous daily case record was set a day earlier with 16,240.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned on Sunday that Israel would likely see 20,000 new daily cases by the end of the week, and could hit 50,000 daily cases at the height of the wave.

Omicron, first detected in South Africa, is more contagious but appears to cause fewer cases of severe illness and death than previous variants — especially among vaccinated people.

As Omicron drives the fifth wave of infections, the positive test rate on Thursday hit 8.22 percent out of the nearly 320,000 tests carried out.

The Health Ministry said the virus transmission number, R, indicating how many people each infected person passes the virus on to, dropped slightly from 1.99 to 1.96. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and values above 1 show infections are spreading — the higher the number, the greater the rate.

With the number of cases rising, there has also been an increase in the number of those seriously ill. Health Ministry figures showed there were 143 patients in serious condition as of Friday morning, up from 134 the day before. There were 56 people defined as critical. The vast majority of those in serious condition are unvaccinated. (At the height of the previous wave driven by the Dela variant, Israel had some 700 patients in serious condition.)

According to Channel 12 news, experts have told Bennett that the wave is expected to crest in three weeks. The unsourced Wednesday report said that health experts expect the number of serious COVID cases to peak at around 1,200 — similar to the previous peak during the fourth wave driven by the Delta variant.

But another unsourced Channel 13 report suggested that Israeli health experts believe there could be up to 2,500 serious cases in the coming weeks.

With one new fatality recorded over the past 24 hours, the death toll stood at 8,259 on Friday.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 2, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In Israel as elsewhere, the variant is spreading so fast — straining testing, schools, hospitals and airlines — that some experts are urging a focus instead on hospital admissions. Those, as well as deaths from coronavirus, aren’t climbing as quickly — the result, experts say, of protection offered by vaccinations.

The number of vaccinated people has been rising steadily, but is limited in part by segments of the population who have been slower to roll up their sleeves. There is additionally a vocal anti-vaccination lobby.

About 63% of people in Israel have been vaccinated twice, while around 46% have received three shots, and just 2%, or 195,000 people, have received a fourth dose as of Friday morning.

Israel is believed to be the first country to widely roll out a fourth vaccination to people 60 and older, as well as those with compromised immune systems.

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