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Health minister: No lockdown; situation under control

Health Ministry chief okays 4th shot for the immunosuppressed only

Nachman Ash cites concerns such people more vulnerable to Omicron; mask mandate ordered for large outdoor gatherings; experts warn Bennett of possible jump to 20,000 daily cases

Health Ministry Director General Nachman Ash attends a press conference on COVID-19 near Tel Aviv, on December 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Health Ministry Director General Nachman Ash attends a press conference on COVID-19 near Tel Aviv, on December 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said Thursday he decided to approve administering a fourth dose of the COVID vaccine to those with immunosuppression, amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

In a press conference, Ash said the decision was made “due to concerns that they are more vulnerable.”

Last week a panel of health experts approved, but Ash chose not to sign off on, the introduction of a fourth dose for Israelis over 60 and others at risk.

Ash said Thursday the panel’s approval meant he can decide when he sees fit to allow vaccination with the fourth shot.

During Thursday’s media briefing, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said officials are preparing for higher infection rates than ever before amid Omicron’s spread, but vowed that a lockdown “is not on the table.”

“We are ready for high numbers of infections and are prepared for all possibilities. The situation is under control. We prepared and practiced in advance and the situation in Israel is much better compared to the world. We gained valuable time thanks to quick and balanced actions, but that does not mean we can be complacent,” Horowitz said.

“We will continue to live alongside the coronavirus,” he added.

In an apparent new rule aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, Ash said that masks must be worn at outdoor gatherings of over 50 people. In April, Israel lifted an outdoor mask mandate and only recommended they continue to be worn in large gatherings.

A health worker readies a COVID-19 vaccine shot at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 28, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennet met with health experts on Thursday who told him that Israel will likely reach 20,000 cases a day next week. New daily infections have surged past 4,000 for the first time in months.

Health officials told Bennett that the Omicron-driven infection wave will reach a peak in about three weeks with record numbers of infections and serious cases before receding, Channel 12 reported.

Some of the experts said the health system was at risk of being overwhelmed, but others disagreed, while other occupations, such as teachers and bus drivers, could see staffing shortages as more people are forced into quarantine, the report said.

Meanwhile, leading retailers threatened to strike if the government does not amend other new regulations that limit shopping, saying they are causing serious harm to their revenue while failing to curb infection rates.

“We warned that morbidity would not go down an iota and that is what happened,” said Shahar Turgeman, head of the Association of Retail Chains.

“It’s a fake Green Pass,” Turgeman said of the requirement to only allow people with the certificate into larger stores, while all are allowed in most shopping mall spaces.

He called on the government to cancel the rules that went into effect on Sunday by next Tuesday or face a general strike.

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

The Health Ministry said Thursday evening that 4,053 cases were confirmed a day earlier — nearly triple the number from last Wednesday, when just 1,418 cases were confirmed.

In addition to the over 4,000 new cases, a further 3,212 diagnoses since midnight pushed active infections past 22,000 — more than double the figure recorded a week earlier.

Alongside the rising morbidity figures, serious cases reached 92 on Thursday night. Of those patients, 45 were defined as critical. The majority of seriously ill patients are unvaccinated.

Serious cases have not yet seen a similar surge, and have largely plateaued over the past few weeks. Experts expect that to change soon as the outbreak spreads more widely, despite the milder illness believed to be caused by Omicron.

Hebrew University researchers warned the government that by the end of January, the number of serious cases could balloon to between 1,000 and 2,500.

As of Thursday, there were only 94 seriously ill patients, but the experts believe Omicron will cause a massive spike, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

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