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Health experts expect to keep breaking COVID daily case records as Omicron rages

Conflicting reports as to whether officials foresee manageable number of severe cases or huge jump; surging cases force reliance on potentially unreliable rapid tests

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Magen David Adom workers conduct COVID-19 rapid antigen tests at an MDA testing center in Jerusalem on January 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Magen David Adom workers conduct COVID-19 rapid antigen tests at an MDA testing center in Jerusalem on January 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health officials expect the fifth wave of the coronavirus to peak in about three weeks, with tens of thousands of new cases reported each day, according to Hebrew media reports Wednesday.

Israel has hit a new record of daily cases, reporting more than 12,500 new infections Tuesday. The figures that will be reported Thursday morning are also expected to set a new record, with citizens swamping testing stations as the Omicron variant takes hold in Israel.

As of Wednesday evening, there were already 8,135 confirmed new daily cases, with the figure expected to grow by the thousands before morning.

According to Channel 12 news, experts notified Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that the wave is expected to crest in three weeks. The unsourced 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 for a scenario in which the number could rise to 4,000.

Currently, there are just 290 Israelis hospitalized with COVID, and 129 of them are in serious condition, with 38 of them hooked up to a ventilator and 15 connected to an ECMO machine.

Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital team members in the coronavirus ward in Jerusalem on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With a shortage of tests and hours-long lines at testing stations, Israel announced new testing regulations 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.

The Health Ministry announced Wednesday that it will be administering rapid antigen tests at elementary schools across the country. The ministry said 3,200 staffers will be conducting the tests on any students or teachers who were potentially exposed to a COVID case.

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.

Israelis wait to get tested for COVID at a drive-through testing complex in Jerusalem on January 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The US Food and Drug Administration said last week that such tests are more likely to give a false negative with the heavily mutated Omicron variant compared to earlier strains.

In a statement, the FDA said it was studying home antigen tests against patient samples containing live versions of the Omicron variant. “Early data suggests that antigen tests do detect the Omicron variant but may have reduced sensitivity,” the agency said.

Channel 13 news said 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.

The Health Ministry is also expected to hold a discussion on a new COVID variant discovered in France, though the World Health Organization has downplayed its threat.

AFP contributed to this report.

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