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45 new confirmed Omicron cases in Israel

Daily COVID cases hit two-month high, with over 800 people diagnosed Thursday

Virus reproduction rate rises to 1.07, signaling pandemic spreading, as Israel continues to grapple with challenge of Omicron variant

Children aged 5-11 receive a dose of COVID-19 vaccine, at Clalit vaccination center in Katzrin, Golan Heights, on December 16, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Children aged 5-11 receive a dose of COVID-19 vaccine, at Clalit vaccination center in Katzrin, Golan Heights, on December 16, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The latest Health Ministry coronavirus figures released Friday showed 838 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed the previous day, the highest daily figure in some two months.

The number represented an increase of 181 from the previous day, as the pandemic appeared to be on an upward trajectory in Israel once more amid concerns over the spread of the Omicron variant.

The latest numbers also showed Israel’s basic virus reproduction rate had risen to 1.07. Also known as the “R-number,” the figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number over 1 signifies that case numbers are rising.

The Omicron coronavirus strain has dominated policy talks, leading Israel to once again shutter its borders to most foreigners and impose fresh restrictions on Israelis returning from countries with high infection rates.

The ministry said 45 of the new cases had been confirmed to be of the Omicron variant, bringing the total number of Omicron cases in Israel to 134. Most of the cases were found in people returning from overseas. There were an additional 207 likely cases waiting to be confirmed.

The ministry added that 92 of the 134 cases were in people who were considered “protected” with either a booster shot, two doses in the last six months or recently recovered. It did not say how severe their cases were.

The threat of a rapid spread of the new strain has also led the government to briefly announce the implementation of the Green Pass system at malls starting Friday (requiring proof of immunity or a negative test to access non-essential shops). But a public outcry from business owners and threats of rebellion have led the plan to be shelved for now.

It is not clear that the rise in infections in Israel has been caused by Omicron, but the highly mutated strain is growing in presence in the country.

Though the strain first identified in South Africa is believed to be the most infectious yet, it is not yet clear that it is more dangerous. In fact, some data has indicated the disease it causes may be milder than previous variants.

The new variant has even struck the Knesset, as a security guard tested positive for the variant on Thursday, sending 21 other security and Knesset personnel as well as United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush into quarantine.

There is also growing concern about the spread of coronavirus among students. On Thursday, an all-girls religious school in Jerusalem was closed temporarily and went to remote learning after at least 62 COVID cases were reported there (though it was not yet clear whether the cases were of Omicron).

A healthcare worker takes a COVID-19 test sample from a man at a testing center in Katzrin, Golan Heights, December 12, 2021 (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

More than half of active COVID cases on Thursday were students.

As of Friday morning there were 6,542 active COVID-19 cases; 79 of those were severely ill, hospitalized COVID-19 patients, down from 93 a week earlier. There are 42 coronavirus patients on respirators.

According to Health Ministry data, 6,438,561 people in Israel have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, 5,815,500 have received two shots, and 4,147,339 have received the booster shot.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 8,230 people have died from the coronavirus.

Elementary school-aged children are eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, but uptake has been slow with only 9.8 percent of kids in that age group having received one dose so far, according to Health Ministry data on Thursday.

The Health Ministry on Wednesday added seven countries — France, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Norway, Finland and Sweden — to its “red” no-fly list, while also reportedly considering expanding it further to include the United States.

On Thursday afternoon, the Knesset Justice and Law Committee authorized the earlier addition of Denmark and the United Kingdom to the no-fly list from midnight.

Israelis who do return from red countries are forced to enter quarantine in state-run hotels until their first COVID test comes back negative, after which they can leave, but must remain in home quarantine for seven days, even if they are fully vaccinated.

The cabinet also voted to extend the current travel restrictions, including the ban on foreigners entering the country and a requirement for all Israelis to quarantine for three days upon entry. The restrictions will now last until December 29 at least.

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