Hebrew U researchers tell government Israel’s 5th COVID wave is already here

14 more Omicron cases confirmed, taking total to 35; experts urge leaders to delay Omicron outbreak as long as possible, in order to better prepare for handling new strain

People walk in Jerusalem's Old City on December 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People walk in Jerusalem's Old City on December 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Researchers at Hebrew University who are advising the government on the coronavirus pandemic have filed a report asserting that Israel’s fifth COVID-19 wave has begun, and warning that the country must delay the outbreak of the Omicron variant as much as possible in order to better prepare for the strain’s arrival.

Friday saw 14 more people diagnosed with the Omicron variant, taking the number of confirmed cases in the country up to 35. Of those, 24 caught the strain abroad, while 11 were infected in Israel. Twenty-five of those diagnosed were vaccinated.

The Health Ministry said there were 52 cases that were highly likely to be Omicron, but for which the results were not yet in.

The report submitted on Thursday argues that the rise in pandemic metrics is clear, and says that in the past week it has been spreading — for the first time since the fourth wave — across all age groups and societal groups.

The health experts said they were uncertain of the cause, and did not necessarily blame Omicron, which so far has been confirmed in only some 20 cases in Israel. They instead pointed to a possible decline in immunity, school infections and other possible causes.

The researchers supported continuing limitations on entry into the country as “the time we save will allow us to collect data on the need for a fourth vaccine shot or an Omicron-adapted vaccine.”

They also called for efforts to lower the virus reproduction rate, currently at 1.09 (the number of people on average that each patient infects) so that in the case of an outbreak caused by Omicron, hospitals will not be overburdened.

And they advised increased enforcement on the Green Pass and mask-wearing, as well as a fresh review of policies at schools, where infections have risen in recent weeks.

Thursday saw 589 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed in Israel. The numbers have gone up and down in recent days but there has been no clear rise in daily infections. The virus reproduction rate has gone up slightly. Meanwhile, the number of serious cases has gone down, and on Thursday went below 100 for the first time in over four months.

Students at a school in Modi’in on October 12, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

It was not immediately clear what metrics the Hebrew U researchers were referring to.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz agreed to extend travel restrictions enacted at Israel’s borders for an additional ten days beyond their scheduled December 11 expiration date, the Prime Minister’s Office said, in a continued effort to block the Omicron coronavirus variant from spreading in the country.

The statement did not specifically mention the entry ban on foreigners, but said that the two had agreed “on the extension of the current restrictions at Ben Gurion Airport for an additional ten days, starting this coming Sunday, December 12, 2021, at midnight.”

The moratorium on foreign arrivals was expected to be included in those limitations.

All Israelis entering the country, including those who are vaccinated against COVID-19, will continue to be obligated to take a PCR test at Ben Gurion Airport when they arrive and then immediately go into home quarantine.

Vaccinated arrivals must spend at least three days in quarantine and then take another PCR test. A negative result grants exit from quarantine. Those who don’t take the second test must stay in quarantine for a total of 14 days.

Unvaccinated Israelis who have not recovered from the disease must spend at least seven days in quarantine and then take a PCR test, with a negative result enabling them to end isolation.

People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on October 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett and Horowitz “also agreed to discuss additional restrictions and immunization incentives in the coming days,” the statement added.

Bennett, Horowitz and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton also announced changes to the “Green Classroom” program for schools.

The program allows students exposed to a COVID-19 carrier to return to school once they receive a negative test result, rather than requiring the entire class to quarantine for a week.

Under the ministers’ new outline, the program will not apply if a class has two verified infections, and if there is one verified infection, students will be tested again three days after exposure. If a student is suspected of having the Omicron variant, the “Green Classroom” model will not apply.

The new plan for schools will be presented to the cabinet for approval on Sunday.

Earlier Thursday, Bennett’s office said he had ordered officials to look at imposing restrictions on people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2021. (Gil Cohen-Magen/ AFP)

According to Hebrew media reports, Bennett proposed banning unvaccinated Israelis from leaving the country or ordering them into lockdown, noting that the latter measure has already been taken by other countries.

According to sources present at the meeting, Horowitz and health officials, in a heated exchange, opposed Bennett’s suggestions.

Israel has made vaccination its central tactic in dealing with the virus, last month adding children aged 5-11 to the groups of those already eligible to get the shots.

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