Health officials: We don’t know enough about Omicron and vaccines to let guard down

Health Ministry chief Ash cautions it is still unclear how vaccine-resistant the strain may be; virus czar Zarka says it will take another week to clarify the impact of the variant

A medic collects a swab sample from a woman at a COVID-19 drive-through testing site in Jerusalem on November 29, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
A medic collects a swab sample from a woman at a COVID-19 drive-through testing site in Jerusalem on November 29, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash and coronavirus czar Salman Zarka said Sunday that it was too early for Israel to let its guard down over the highly mutated Omicron coronavirus variant.

“It is impossible to issue a call for calm over the Omicron variant,” Ash told the Kan public broadcaster.

The health official added that the strain is “still spreading in South Africa and we do not know the data regarding its resistance to the vaccine.”

Ash also addressed the matter of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s wife Gilat taking their children on a vacation overseas just days after the premier recommended that Israelis not travel abroad and shuttered the country to tourists to prevent an outbreak of the new COVID-19 variant.

“Elected officials are expected to set a personal example, but the question of family members is more complex,” Ash said.

“In general, I say that this is not the time to travel abroad because of the fear of the new variant. In principle, it would be good if [Gilat Bennett] had stayed in the country, but I do not know all the considerations,” Ash said.

Health Minister Director-General Nachman Ash speaks during a meeting at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on October 24, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Meanwhile, coronavirus czar Salman Zarka, who is spearheading the national response to the pandemic, also cautioned against premature celebration.

“There are seven cases of the Omicron strain in Israel — three of them are vaccinated and four unvaccinated. It is impossible to deduce information from these statistics,” he told Army Radio.

“We have to wait another week to know for sure what the strain means. At the moment we are being careful and hope that next week we will only be dealing with the Delta variant,” Zarka said.

When asked about a potential easing of the recent restrictions imposed with the discovery of the strain, Zarka said the first stage would be a cancellation of isolation requirements for those who are fully vaccinated.

“The first thing we would like to ease, of the steps we have taken, is for vaccinated people to no longer have to be in isolation. But we will wait a few more days,” he said.

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

Following Ash and Zarka’s comments, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the weekly cabinet meeting that it was too early to downplay the risk of the variant.

“The fact that Israel is an island of functionality and health, of an open economy and a normal life, is the result of our tight management,” Bennett told ministers. “Therefore, I suggest that we not underestimate Omicron.”

“We need to be circumspect,” the prime minister added, pointing to a recent case of 50 Omicron infections at a Christmas party in Norway. “This is a strain that we do not yet know enough about, although we do know with a high level of certainty that it is very contagious. We are still in a foggy period… and we are still studying.”

Bennett said that the government was daily “reassessing the situation –- on the basis of the data we know at the time –- regarding measures to ease restrictions or make them more stringent. Everything is according to the data.”

Even as concerns remain over the variant, Israel’s coronavirus statistics were on an encouraging trajectory Saturday, with the virus reproduction rate dropping below 1 to 0.98.

The figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number below 1 signifies that the pandemic is contracting.

Zarka said he believed this was due to changes in behavior by Israelis with the announcement of the discovery of the Omicron strain.

“This can be attributed to the high vigilance in the public since the discovery of the new variant,” he said.

A child is vaccinated in Safed, December 3, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Health Ministry data on Saturday evening showed that 447 people had been diagnosed the previous day, with the number representing 0.51 percent of the 89,000 tests conducted.

The number of patients in serious condition stood at 111, while the death toll was 8,199.

However, Channel 12 news reported that some 16% of Israelis who arrived in the country this week failed to conduct a second coronavirus test three days after their arrival as the government has instructed. If such a rate is maintained, the network noted, some 18,000 people a week could fail to take the test, creating a serious risk that the Omicron strain could enter the country and spread widely.

Although officials have agreed to push for fines of thousands of shekels against travelers who do not comply with the new rules, they have not yet gone into effect.

The Health Ministry has so far confirmed seven cases of the variant in Israel.

The ministry said there were a further 27 coronavirus cases that had not yet been confirmed to be the Omicron strain but that officials had a “high suspicion” was the new variant.

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