Health Ministry clarifies only 2 Omicron cases so far confirmed in Israel

Ministry statement comes after reports that 4 Israelis have caught new strain, makes no mention of doctors who say they contracted it; 34 more suspected cases being probed

A healthcare worker collects swab samples at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Modi'in, on November 10, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A healthcare worker collects swab samples at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Modi'in, on November 10, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Wednesday clarified that only two cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in Israel, as genetic testing was being carried out to determine if other coronavirus infections were caused by the mutated strain.

The two infected women infected were a tourist from Malawi and an Israeli who recently returned from South Africa. A Health Ministry statement said the Malawian was inoculated with AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, while the Israeli received three doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s shot. No information was provided on their conditions.

The ministry said it was looking into 17 cases of suspected exposure to Omicron, but that the samples have not yet been sequenced to verify if the infections were from the variant.

Of those cases, the Health Ministry said 10 people were recently overseas or had come in contact with returnees from abroad, adding that the other seven had no exposure to anyone who was abroad. It said only three of the suspected cases either were vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months, and that the other 14 were “unprotected” against the virus.

An additional 17 cases that the ministry categorized as having a “low suspicion” of being Omicron were also being looked into.

The ministry statement made no mention of two doctors at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, which the hospital has said tested positive for Omicron.

A Sheba Medical Center team at the coronavirus isolation ward, in Ramat Gan, July 20, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

However, contradicting the ministry, one of the doctors said Wednesday that he was informed he has Omicron, which the cardiologist suspected he contracted while recently attending a medical conference in London.

“I got the Omicron in London, for sure,” Elad Maor told the Guardian. “That is interesting because that was 10 days ago in London – really, really early.”

He said that he tested negative upon returning to Israel on November 23, but that he later began experiencing mild symptoms and was confirmed to have COVID-19 four days later.

“The only reasonable explanation is that I got infected on the last day of the meeting – maybe at the airport, maybe at the meeting,” he said.

Maor, who received three vaccine shots, said he likely infected a colleague at Sheba who the British newspaper said also tested positive for Omicron. He added that neither his wife, who was with him in London, nor any of his three children have tested positive for COVID or displayed any symptoms, which he said was reassuring.

“I think the transmissibility of this [variant] is not completely different or extremely different to what I know about Delta,” he said, referring to the highly transmissible strain that has fueled coronavirus outbreaks worldwide.

The World Health Organization has listed Omicron as a “variant of concern” and Israel has imposed a number of measures to block its spread in the country, including renewed travel restrictions and the controversial use of phone tracking to detect suspected cases.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has defended the new measures, citing the continued uncertainty around the new variant.

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