Virus czar predicts 50,000 new cases a day by next week

Health officials believe 2-3 million Israelis will get Omicron — TV

But report says spread of new variant could end up being greater but go unrecorded under new testing rules; senior official: 12% of cases are among people who previously had COVID

A health care worker takes swab samples from Israelis at a drive-thru testing complex in Modiin, January 6, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A health care worker takes swab samples from Israelis at a drive-thru testing complex in Modiin, January 6, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

As COVID-19 cases surge in record numbers, health officials estimate that 2-3 million Israelis will end up contracting the Omicron variant of coronavirus, Israeli television reported Friday.

According to Channel 12 news, the Health Ministry and government believe daily infections will hit 50,000 next week and continue to rise before peaking at around 100,000 cases the week after.

The report noted, however, that the true extent of the outbreak could end up being far greater, with many cases potentially going unreported under new testing guidelines that encourage increased home testing for vaccinated Israelis younger than 60.

Due to this prospect, the number of serious cases will reportedly be the key measure for assessing the severity of the current wave over the coming weeks, with Health Ministry officials making policy recommendations in accordance.

The network said decision-makers have been encouraged by shortened hospitalization times for serious Omicron cases compared to other variants and by the less severe disease among these patients.

In an interview with Channel 12, a top Health Ministry official noted Omicron appears less infectious to the lungs, which some studies have pointed to as the reason the variant may be less severe.

“Therefore there will be fewer cases of extended ventilation,” said Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public services at the ministry.

“We all hope this is the end but this pandemic has surprised us time after time,” she added.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, at a press conference on COVID-19, December 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Alroy-Preis said 12 percent of verified cases were among people who previously had COVID, higher than in previous outbreaks.

“This is something we did not encounter in the past. We have a very large wave to contend with,” she said.

Alroy-Preis again denied that Israel was pursuing a policy of having Omicron sweep through the population in a bid to achieve herd immunity.

“If we were doing that, we would stop all the tests and that’s really not the situation — we are increasing the number of tests,” she said. “What we are doing needs to be adapted to the reality of a very large wave of contagion.”

She also said health officials are considering the possibility of shortening mandatory quarantine periods.

“We are now gathering data to do this intelligently,” she said.

Separately, the official coordinating Israel’s pandemic response described the current outbreak as a “different wave” requiring Israelis to be more cautious.

“We are not looking to break records, but this is the reality,” Prof. Salman Zarka told Channel 13 news, predicting new cases will reach 50,000 a day by next week.

Like Alroy-Preis, Zarka denied officials were encouraging mass infection as a means to overcoming the Omicron outbreak, saying “it won’t be possible to test everyone” and that therefore there could be undetected cases.

He was asked if only people with coronavirus symptoms will be advised to get tested amid the growing strain on testing centers.

“It could be we reach this scenario,” he said. “There’s absolutely a chance that next week we may update the [testing] guidelines.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka seen during a visit to a hospital in Safed on August 24, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Zarka also insisted that the outbreak was under control and said there would be another four to six weeks “to protect ourselves… and we’ll get through this safely.”

Despite Zarka’s comments, Channel 13 said health officials were worried about losing control, though a report by the Kan public broadcaster said it was believed that even in a worst-case scenario, there would not be cuts to essential services or shortages of certain goods.

The TV reports came after the Health Ministry confirmed 16,888 new cases on Thursday, surpassing the daily records set the previous two days.

The ministry reported another 9,049 cases as of 3 p.m. on Friday, bringing active cases to 89,635.

There were 143 people listed in serious condition, including 56 defined as critical. The vast majority of those in serious condition were unvaccinated.

The death toll stood at 8,259.

The Health Ministry said the virus transmission number, R, indicating how many people each infected person passes the virus on to, dropped slightly from 1.99 to 1.96. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and values above 1 show infections are spreading — the higher the number, the greater the rate.

However, the testing rate continued to rise, with 8.76% of the over 155,000 tests performed Friday coming back positive.

Ministry figures also showed that over 6.6 Israelis have received at least one vaccine dose and more than 5.9 million have gotten two shots, while over 4.3 have gotten a third dose.

Israel has also begun offering additional booster shots to the immunocompromised, medical workers and anyone older than 60.

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