Health minister pans ‘apocalyptic scenarios’ after PM predicts 50k daily COVID cases

Nitzan Horowitz says the situation is under control and ‘spreading fear’ is unhelpful, insists no plans for lockdowns or similar measures, but ‘our finger is always on the trigger’

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press conference near Tel Aviv, on December 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press conference near Tel Aviv, on December 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz attempted to temper concerns of rocketing coronavirus morbidity rates on Monday, pushing back against Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s prediction of tens of thousands of new cases a day.

Horowitz, who has stoically maintained that Israel has the pandemic under control despite the spiking case numbers and shortages of tests, also vowed that lockdowns or other strict measures were not under consideration.

“I want to calm things down,” Horowitz said at a Meretz party faction meeting in the Knesset Monday. “We understand the infection is spreading, but there’s no reason to fearmonger among the public and there’s no need to panic.”

Israel is facing swiftly rising coronavirus infection numbers thought to be fueled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. On Monday, the Health Ministry confirmed 6,562 new cases confirmed a day earlier, about double the tally from a weak earlier.

On Sunday, Bennett announced a fourth vaccine shot would be made available to people at least 60 years old or medical staff, but also warned that the country needed to prepare for the possibility that new infection numbers could reach 50,000 a day.

“By the weekend I estimate that we will have crossed the line of 20,000 verified cases and for the peak of the wave, it could be that we will pass 50,000 verified cases. These are very high numbers,” he said.

Horowitz did not mention Bennett directly in his remarks, but appeared to be referring to the premier’s prediction when he spoke out against “totally unnecessary apocalyptic scenarios, with no value.”

“They are causing fear among the public, it doesn’t help and it’s harming the public,” he said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 2, 2022. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

On Sunday, Horowitz and other health officials were also presented several scenarios from experts from the Gertner Institute and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the most extreme of which had 99% of Israel’s population catching Omicron.

Promising that lockdowns or other wide-reaching restrictions were not on the table, Horowitz also appeared to be seeking to curb expectations of what the government could do to keep the virus at bay.

“Like everywhere else in the world, we can’t totally stop the spread of Omicron. So our steps are coordinated to the characteristics of the current wave,” he said. “We planned for the new situation and so the situation is totally under control.”

Horowitz’s comments were echoed by coronavirus czar Salman Zarka, who told a press conference Monday that “we can’t stop the spread of the disease, we’re working to lower morbidity to protect people, especially those at high risk.”

Officials in Israel have increasingly spoken of heading toward something akin to “herd immunity,” eschewing many restrictions and allowing the wave to pass once the infection burns through a wide swath of the population, though some estimates have placed doubts on the effectiveness of such a strategy.

Israelis are tested for the coronavirus by healthcare workers at a COVID-19 testing center in Ramat Gan, Jan. 2, 2022 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“What will happen, like what is happening all over the world, is that the restrictions that somewhat worked [against other variants] will simply be ineffective against Omicron, and the stop will only come when almost everyone who could get infected gets infected,” Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute told Ynet on Sunday, predicting it would take around three weeks before numbers start to drop.

Zarka told the press conference that the idea has “no scientific validity.”

“We have no policy of mass infection. [Claims that we’re trying to reach] herd immunity have no basis. We are currently facing a combined wave, with the Delta variant still active, and quite a few hospitalized patients are suffering from it,” he said.

Segal had predicted in a report handed to the coronavirus cabinet Sunday that 2-4 million out of Israel’s total population of some 9.5 million will end up catching Omicron, but the number of simultaneous serious cases won’t surpass the current record of approximately 1,200.

Health Ministry numbers Monday showed the number of serious cases at 110, the first major spike in hospitalizations since Omicron began to filtrate into the country.

Hospitals have begun to sound alarms, saying that while in previous waves the system managed to deal with 1,200 simultaneous serious cases, this time staff is already strained due to an existing outbreak of the flu and a growing number of staff members in quarantine.

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

Horowitz has been a staunch opponent of lockdowns or similar measures that could harm the economy, and in December reportedly blocked Bennett from imposing a lockdown on unvaccinated individuals.

Nonetheless, Israel has imposed an array of other rules, which have shifted regularly, and led to complaints of confusion.

Horowitz said Monday that the rules were being reconsidered constantly in line with constantly changing conditions.

“We’ve got our finger on the trigger all the time and are managing the risks dynamically, day by day,” he said. “If we don’t do this, we are liable to seriously damage one of three foundations: Health, the economy or democracy.”

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, also known as an outspoken opponent of many restrictions, aimed criticism at Horowitz’s Health Ministry Monday after a program that allowed students to remain in school even if exposed to a virus carrier expired, with officials unable to agree on extending the scheme.

Shasha-Biton accused the ministry of steadfastly refusing to consider extending the program, which she said was “totally unjustified.”

“Canceling the program hurts children sent home and in lower grades, and there are also consequences for parents forced to stay home, and on the economy,” she told Ynet.

Illustration — An empty classroom at Cramim school in Beit Hakerem, Jerusalem on Otober 21 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Army Radio said that as of Monday morning, students from around 1,500 elementary school classes were no longer allowed to stay in school despite being eligible for the program. But with no official announcement on the matter, many parents and schools were unclear on who was permitted to be in school on Monday morning after the program expired at midnight.

Under the “green classroom” system, which applied to areas with low-to-medium infection rates (classified as green or yellow under the Health Ministry’s traffic light system), students who were exposed to a COVID-19 carrier could return to school once they receive a negative PCR test result, rather than requiring the entire class to quarantine for a week.

While in the program, the students must undergo an antigen test every morning and produce a negative PCR result on the final day of the isolation period. They are still in quarantine outside of school hours — the program only allows them to attend an educational institution.

People stand in line to be tested for coronavirus in Tel Aviv, on January 2, 2022 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

With the expiration of the program, when a student tests positive for the virus, vaccinated children must undergo a rapid test before returning to the classroom, while all unvaccinated children must now stay home.

However, testing centers have been swamped, making daily tests for students nearly impossible.

In response to a question at a press conference on Sunday evening, Bennett said it was hoped that in the coming days, vaccinated students and teachers who are exposed to a COVID case will undergo antigen testing at school rather than spending hours waiting in line at testing centers.

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