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New rules for schools come into force on Sunday

Confirmed Omicron infections triple as daily COVID-19 cases near 1,800

Transmission rate hits near six-month high of 1.4; 93 patients listed in serious condition; PM orders tests at entrances to elderly care homes

People shop at the Hadar mall in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People shop at the Hadar mall in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel recorded 1,775 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, including 591 cases with the highly-infectious Omicron variant, according to Health Ministry figures published Saturday.

Confirmed cases of Omicron reached 1,118 as of Saturday, more than triple the 341 known infections from Tuesday, when the Health Ministry last released specific figures on the variant. The ministry said Saturday that another 861 infections were “highly suspected” to be Omicron cases, pending test results.

Health officials have warned that Omicron cases are driving the upcoming fifth wave of infections since the start of the pandemic in Israel in March 2020.

Daily cases have steadily risen from around 400-500 a month ago. Friday’s numbers were the highest daily caseload in over two months when 1,816 new infections were reported on October 12.

The figure came as cabinet ministers approved new restrictions for entry into malls, set to start at midnight Monday, in an attempt to curb the spread of the highly-infectious Omicron variant.

New rules for the education sector were also set to go into effect Sunday. Classes for pupils in grades 7-12 in communities listed as “red” or “orange” will only be allowed to open for in-person learning where 70 percent of pupils have received the first dose of the vaccine.

Pupils in classes where fewer than 70% of kids are vaccinated will learn online. This decision will also apply to primary schools (grades 1-6) in three weeks.

In “green” and “yellow” communities, the education system will carry on normally for all grades.

(Under Israel’s “traffic light” plan, first published in August, each municipality is given a score between 0 and 10 based on several factors, including the number of new cases per 10,000 residents, the rate of positive tests in each town, and the rate of increase in the number of new patients in each town. Cities and towns that receive an average score of 7.5 or higher are defined as “red.”)

On Saturday, Channel 12 reported that 25 people in an elderly care home in the central Israeli town of Savyon were diagnosed with COVID-19 in recent days, amid “high suspicions” the infections were caused by Omicron. Twenty of those diagnosed were residents of the home and five people were workers, according to the report.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett ordered Saturday that rapid testing be administered at entrances to elderly care homes to try to prevent outbreaks in vulnerable communities.

Bennett spoke to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla over the weekend, Channel 12 reported Saturday, finalizing an agreement to purchase about 100,000 of the company’s new anti-COVID pill. US health regulators have authorized the drug for anyone over 12 who tests positive and is considered to be at high risk from COVID-19.

The pill is said to decrease the risk of hospitalization and death in high-risk groups by 90%.

The first shipment is set to arrive in about a week, according to the report.

Omicron on the rise

Professor Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science and a top adviser to the government’s coronavirus cabinet, said Saturday that Israel may see “thousands of Omicron cases” in the coming week and “it’s possible we’ll reach a peak in two weeks of about 10,000 new cases a day.”

“The risk for every one of us to contract the disease is the highest since the beginning of the pandemic,” Segal told Channel 12 Saturday.

Though highly infectious, “if we look at the number of people in serious condition, the numbers are encouraging. Omicron is less severe, we see it in Scotland, in England, and in South Africa,” said the professor.

Segal also pointed to figures from Denmark that show that the rate of hospitalization did not spike with Omicron, unlike with Delta, as the rate of infections went up.

“There is no doubt that the most effective step is the vaccine… this is what will reduce morbidity and the number of people in serious condition. All the other steps — restrictions on gatherings, online learning, [restrictions] at the airport at this point in time — these are steps with limited effectiveness. They will not help to curb the Omicron wave. And the damage [these steps] cause is great,” said Segal.

He added that early measures Israel took to curb the spread of Omicron “bought quite a bit of time,” but, should the circumstances worsen, a lockdown may be in the offing.

Hospital workers wearing safety equipment work in the coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, on October 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Professor Gabi Barbash, a former director-general of the Health Ministry who served briefly as Israel’s coronavirus czar in 2020, said Saturday that early data from the United Kingdom has shown that Omicron appears to be causing fewer serious cases requiring hospitalizations.

Vaccinated people who suffered from breakthrough infections were 60% less likely to require hospitalization, said Barbash, cautioning that these were very early findings.

At the same time, Barbash told Channel 12, the rate of hospitalizations has doubled in the UK over the past 10 days.

The Health Ministry said the vast majority of Omicron infections in Israel were detected among travelers returning from abroad. At the end of November, Israel closed its border to foreign nationals in an attempt to hold off the variant, and has continually expanded a list of so-called “red” countries with high infection rates that Israelis are banned from visiting.

“R” number climbing

The positivity rate also trended slightly upward, reaching 1.82%, compared to 1.42% a day earlier and 1.1% a week ago, according to Health Ministry figures Saturday.

And the reproductive rate, or “R” number, also continued its gradual rise, hitting 1.4, up from 1.02 in early December. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the rate of infection is growing.

The last time the transmission rate was this high was in early July, amid a wave of infections caused by the Delta variant.

While early studies suggest Omicron may not produce as severe symptoms as the Delta variant, experts in Israel say due to the rate at which the virus is spreading in the country, there will still likely be a burden on hospitals due to the sheer number of cases.

Children receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Clallit vaccine center in Jerusalem, on December 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Despite the sharp rise in cases, the number of serious cases has not risen drastically so far, with 40 new serious cases during the past week. This marked an increase of 73.9% compared to the previous seven days.

As of Saturday night, there were 93 patients listed in serious condition, with 80% of them unvaccinated.

The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 8,241, with the most recent casualty on Thursday.

Out of the country’s population of roughly 9.5 million, 6,501,079 have had at least one vaccine shot, of whom 5,875,960 have received two doses and 4,190,768 the booster shot, according to Saturday’s numbers. Since the start of the pandemic 1,363,577 people have been infected with COVID-19.

Channel 12 reported Friday that Nachman Ash, the Health Ministry’s director-general, was expected to approve administering fourth doses in the coming days.

That rollout had been set to start Sunday but the ministry delayed it after reviewing preliminary data suggesting that people with the Omicron variant are between 50%-70% less likely to need hospitalization than those with the Delta strain.

At least 5,905 Israelis received their first dose of the vaccine on Friday, most of them between the ages of 5 and 11 — an age group that was recently granted approval for inoculation.

Some 14% of the 5-11 age group — 185,000 kids — have been inoculated with at least one dose.

According to Channel 13, Bennett had sought to vaccinate half a million kids by end of December, but parents have been slow to do so.

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