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Health official: Israel likely seeing up to 20,000 daily COVID cases amid outbreak

Virus czar Salman Zarka reiterates importance of indoor masks, says BA.5 strain quickly overshadowing Omicron

Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus in Jerusalem on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus in Jerusalem on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

There are likely 15,000 to 20,000 new COVID-19 cases every day in Israel, the official tasked with overseeing the country’s pandemic response said Wednesday, as health experts weighed resuming an indoor mask mandate to stem the renewed outbreak.

The rolling average of confirmed daily infections jumped from 2,400 a day on June 6 to 7,661 on Tuesday.

Speaking at the Knesset’s Health Committee, Salman Zarka said the new coronavirus variant that mutated from Omicron, known as BA.5, is quickly gaining traction and is more resistant to vaccines than previous strains.

“The BA.5 strain currently accounts for about 50 percent of patients,” he said. “The strain caused relatively mild illness among young people, but we can see a rise in hospitalizations.”

He said BA.5 was replacing Omicron as the dominant variant, and that it will continue to gain ground.

“If the vaccine worked 90% against Delta and if 30% of vaccinated people were infected with Omicron, with the new strain the vaccine is less effective in preventing infection, but it does protect from serious illness,” said Zarka.

He reiterated his recommendation to wear a face mask in indoor public spaces. Masks are currently mandatory only in medical institutions.

“There is some thinking of returning to regulations that mandate mask-wearing,” he said. “We need to weigh the timing.”

A woman wearing a face mask walks in downtown Jerusalem, March 16, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel scrapped its indoor mask requirement in April as infection numbers dropped off sharply. Outdoor masks have not been required since April of last year.

Salman Zarka also said Israelis may soon be able to be officially recognized as COVID-19 patients based solely on a home test, under certain conditions, while at the same time the Health Ministry was working to expand test facilities.

“Next Monday we will ask that the committee approve regulations that will enable a monitored home test done via telephone, so that those who take a home test will be recorded in the Health Ministry systems,” he announced.

There are currently 34,275 confirmed active cases in the country, including 119 serious cases, according to the ministry. Six days ago, there were just 74 serious cases.

The death toll stood at 10,882, including six fatalities over the past week.

The R-value dropped slightly but remains very high at 1.46. The figure measures how many people each coronavirus carrier infects on average, with any number above 1 meaning the spread of COVID-19 is increasing. It first began to rise above 1 in mid-May, having stayed below that threshold for nearly two months.

With 22,306 tests conducted on Tuesday, the positivity rate stood at 34.35%.

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