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Israel okays 4th shots for elderly at care homes as daily COVID cases near 5,000

HMOs start administering fourth shots to immunocompromised people; long waits reported at testing sites throughout the country as Omicron spreads

Medical staff administer COVID-19 tests at a Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Medical staff administer COVID-19 tests at a Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s national health providers began administering fourth vaccine shots against COVID-19 on Friday to individuals with compromised immune systems.

The Health Ministry’s Director-General Nachman Ash on Thursday okayed the boosters for immuno-suppressed people due to the Omicron infection wave, so long as at least four months have passed since their third shot.

On Friday morning Ash also approved vaccines for elderly patients at geriatric facilities. The ministry said this was done “due to concerns of outbreaks at such facilities, and the risk to the health and lives of residents.”

As infections rise throughout the country at a swift rate, there were reports on Thursday and Friday of heavy traffic at testing sites, where some people were forced to wait hours to get swabbed.

Ali, a tester in Jerusalem, told the Ynet news site the facility was seeing “an increase we’ve never experienced” in people coming in for tests. “We work for eight hours at the site and there’s a test every 40 seconds. It’s insane. There’s no rest.”

New data from the Health Ministry Friday morning showed infection rates continuing their rise, with nearly 5,000 new cases diagnosed Thursday.

The virus’s basic reproduction number — the number of people each case infects, on average — also maintained its upward trajectory, standing at 1.71.

A child receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccine center in Jerusalem on December 30, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the number of severe cases remained stable at 93. The majority of seriously ill patients are unvaccinated.

The rise in cases came as South Africa, where the highly contagious Omicron variant first appeared, announced that it believed the wave of infections had quickly peaked and was now on the decline.

Omicron is thought to generally cause milder illness in most people, though it could still cause an unprecedented number of serious cases due to the sheer numbers it is expected to infect. Still, South Africa said there was no significant rise in deaths during the Omicron wave.

During a Thursday media briefing, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said officials are preparing for higher infection rates than ever before amid Omicron’s spread, but said that a lockdown “is not on the table.”

“We are ready for high numbers of infections and are prepared for all possibilities. The situation is under control. We prepared and practiced in advance and the situation in Israel is much better compared to the rest of the world. We gained valuable time thanks to quick and balanced actions, but that does not mean we can be complacent,” Horowitz said.

“We will continue to live alongside the coronavirus,” he added.

In a new rule aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, Ash said that masks must be worn at outdoor gatherings of over 50 people. In April, Israel lifted an outdoor mask mandate and only recommended they continue to be worn at large gatherings.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press conference near Tel Aviv, on December 30, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennet met with health experts on Thursday who told him that Israel will likely reach 20,000 cases a day next week.

Health officials told Bennett that the Omicron-driven infection wave will reach a peak in about three weeks with record numbers of infections and serious cases, before receding, Channel 12 reported.

Some of the experts said the health system was at risk of being overwhelmed, but others disagreed, while other occupations, such as teachers and bus drivers, could see staffing shortages as more people are forced into quarantine, the report said.

Meanwhile, leading retailers threatened to strike if the government does not amend other new regulations that limit shopping, saying they are causing serious harm to their revenue while failing to curb infection rates.

People queuing at the entrance to a COVID-19 rapid antigen testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“We warned that morbidity would not go down an iota and that is what happened,” said Shahar Turgeman, head of the Association of Retail Chains.

“It’s a fake Green Pass,” Turgeman said of the requirement to only allow people with the certificate into larger stores, while all are allowed in most shopping mall spaces.

He called on the government to cancel the rules that went into effect on Sunday by next Tuesday or face a general strike.

Thursday also saw Israel get its first shipment of Pfizer’s promising antiviral COVID pill. Israel is one of the first countries in the world to receive the drug, known as Paxlovid, which lab tests have shown to be very effective against the Omicron variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the pills’ arrival “an important addition to our toolbox in fighting the pandemic” that “will help us get through the coming apex of the Omicron wave.”

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