For 2nd day in row, new daily COVID-19 cases hit all-time high: 16,115

PM has warned Israel could see 50,000 daily cases at peak of wave driven by Omicron variant; transmission rate nears 2, signaling major outbreak

Health care staff conduct COVID-19 tests at a drive through complex in Jerusalem, on January 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Health care staff conduct COVID-19 tests at a drive through complex in Jerusalem, on January 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Driven by the ultra-contagious Omicron variant, Israel saw record numbers of coronavirus infections for the second day in a row, the Health Ministry reported on Thursday.

The record of 16,115 cases diagnosed on Wednesday marks the most new infections reported in a single day since the start of the pandemic. The previous record was set on Tuesday with 12,554, and before that on September 2 with 11,345 new infections logged during the Delta variant’s wave.

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 apparently more contagious but causes 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 Wednesday reached 7.89 percent out of the over 330,000 tests carried out.

The Health Ministry said the virus transmission number, R, indicating how many people each infected person passes on the virus to, had climbed to 1.99. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and values above 1 show infections are spreading — the higher the number, the faster 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 are now 134 patients in serious condition as of Thursday morning, up from 133 the day before. There were 51 people defined as critical.

A week ago, there were just 91 patients in serious condition. The vast majority of those in serious condition are unvaccinated. (At the height of the Delta wave, Israel had some 700 patients in serious condition.)

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

According to Channel 12 news, experts notified 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 and that Bennett had told health chiefs to prepare for a scenario in which the number rose to 4,000.

With two new fatalities recorded over the past 24 hours, the death toll stood at 8,253.

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 steadily on the rise, 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. There was no data on how many have received the recently available fourth dose of the vaccine.

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.

A man over 60-years-old receives a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Meuhedet vaccination center in Jerusalem on January 4, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett said on Tuesday that early results from a study at Sheba Medical Center showed a nearly fivefold increase in antibodies among people with a fourth shot.

The rapid climb in infections has disrupted the clear protocol of vaccinations, testing, quarantining and contact tracing that characterized the government’s response early in the pandemic.

Rules and practices have been changing rapidly to adapt, including scaling back quarantines to keep the economy from shutting down.

People, some wearing protective face masks, line up for PCR and Rapid Antigen COVID-19 coronavirus tests in Tel Aviv, Jan. 4, 2022 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

With a shortage of tests and with hours-long lines at testing stations, new testing regulations were announced on Wednesday that will go into effect at midnight between Thursday and Friday.

Under the new regulations, those who are over 60 or at high risk will be prioritized at PCR testing stations. Those who are under 60 and fully vaccinated can conduct a rapid antigen test, either at home or at a testing station, in order to be exempt 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 much less accurate than PCR tests — particularly when it comes to detecting Omicron.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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