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First case of Omicron coronavirus variant detected in Gaza

Despite health campaign and stockpiles of belatedly available COVID-19 vaccine, inoculation rates in the Hamas-run enclave remain at 27% of population

The Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health crews conduct random checks through blood in the town of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 14, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
The Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health crews conduct random checks through blood in the town of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 14, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Palestinian health officials in Gaza announced on Sunday that the first case of the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant had been identified in the coastal enclave.

“We are on the brink of difficult days. We will certainly see a fourth wave, and as in the rest of the world, we believe it will be a severe one,” senior Gaza health official Majdi Dheir told reporters.

According to Dheir, the infected Gazan had not recently traveled outside the enclave — meaning the variant was likely already beyond their capacity to contain.

“This means that the strain is here and spreading in Gaza right now,” Dheir said.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority health officials have identified 23 cases of the Omicron variant. Neither the West Bank nor Gaza has yet seen a corresponding rise in active infections, however, which have hovered around 4,000 for the past few weeks.

The Omicron strain has sent infections shooting up around the world, grounding flights and returning tighter restrictions on gatherings. Israel shuttered its airport in late November in an attempt to slow the spread, but has nonetheless seen a 25 percent spike in the seriously ill over the past few days.

A Palestinian health worker takes samples for coronavirus at a health center in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 4, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places on earth. Since 2007, the enclave has been ruled by the Hamas terror group. Israel and Egypt blockade Gaza in an attempt to contain Hamas, which avowedly seeks Israel’s destruction.

According to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, 189,837 Gazans have been infected with the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic. Experts estimate that the true figure is much higher, as Gaza’s testing capabilities are slim. Some 1,691 have died, according to official figures.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, only 27 percent of Gazans have been vaccinated. Health experts in the enclave attribute the low figures to widespread false conspiracy theories about the shot’s potential side effects.

Palestinian officials in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have sought to incentivize vaccination through a series of carrots and sticks. In Gaza, Hamas obligated those working in public-facing jobs — such as restaurants, courts, and government ministries — to get vaccinated.

“Now, in order to get into universities, you need to be vaccinated; to work as a taxi driver or in a government office, you need to be vaccinated. This ended people’s hesitation,” former Palestinian Authority health minister Jawad al-Tibi told The Times of Israel in late October.

A nurse prepares a shot of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Gaza City, March 21, 2021. (Adel Hana/AP)

The Hamas-run Gaza Education Ministry announced on Sunday that all middle-school students — in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades — would be vaccinated at school. Anyone opposed to having their children inoculated must file a formal petition, the ministry said in a statement.

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