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In Israel’s first suspected Omicron death, vaccinated woman succumbs to virus

Over 600 new cases of strain confirmed; eight patients with variant hospitalized, including 2 unvaccinated in serious condition; PM: Pfizer treatment pill due to arrive Wednesday

An illustrative photo of medical workers wearing protective gear tending to a patient in the coronavirus ward at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of medical workers wearing protective gear tending to a patient in the coronavirus ward at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Tuesday announced the death of a woman from a suspected Omicron infection, as it confirmed over 600 more cases of the new coronavirus variant.

The woman had been vaccinated against COVID-19 and had received a booster shot, according to a ministry statement.

If verified, the woman would be the first Omicron fatality recorded in Israel. A reported death from Omicron last week was later clarified to have been caused by the Delta strain of coronavirus.

The Health Ministry statement said 623 new Omicron cases were confirmed in the past day, bringing the number of Omicron infections since the variant was first detected in Israel to 1,741.

According to the ministry, two unvaccinated people were in serious condition from Omicron infections, including one hooked up to a ventilator.

It said another six people were hospitalized with less serious bouts, four of whom were vaccinated.

Over 1,000 of the confirmed Omicron carriers came from abroad, the Health Ministry added.

Travelers arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, on December 22, 2021. (Flash90)

Israel has seen a surge in infections since the emergence of Omicron, with new COVID cases hitting a three-month high on Monday.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday that over 2,000 more cases were confirmed since midnight, pushing active infections past 16,000. It also reported a further increase in the positive test rate, in another sign that the spread of the virus was accelerating.

Despite the rising morbidity figures, there has not been a spike in hospitalizations and serious cases, which remained steady at 84 on Tuesday evening. The national death toll from the pandemic stood at 8,243.

Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced a change in the quarantine regulations for those exposed to a COVID patient, amid concerns that Omicron’s spread would require an increasingly high number of Israelis to self-isolate.

Under the new guidelines, fully vaccinated people exposed to any variant of the coronavirus will be required to quarantine only until they get negative results from a PCR test. Once released, they will not be allowed to enter mass events or places with high-risk populations, like nursing homes, for the following 10 days. Until now, fully-vaccinated Israelis did not have to quarantine following exposure to a COVID patient, but did if it was suspected to be Omicron.

Unvaccinated individuals will need to quarantine for seven days with tests on the first and last days.

A health worker readies a COVID-19 vaccine shot at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 28, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Presenting the new rules, Bennett said that without the change, Israel would be put in a “de facto lockdown.”

“We saw what was happening abroad and understood that if we stuck to what we were doing with regards to quarantine policy… we would have been in a de facto lockdown of 1 to 2 million people,” he told reporters.

He claimed the controversial move to curtail travel by keeping Israelis in the country and foreign nationals from being able to visit bought five weeks of breathing room before the expected Omicron onslaught, and will allow the economy to keep humming.

“This gave us an advantage over other countries, which are fighting Omicron and Delta at the same time. The alternative was to act like the Netherlands, with a full lockdown,” Bennett said.

Despite the fact that he himself wrote a book titled “How to Defeat a Pandemic” while in the opposition last year, sources close to the premier said there was “no guidebook” on dealing with COVID, defending his handling of the crisis.

They said he would rather receive criticism for being too aggressive in fighting the pandemic than risk public health.

“Our goal is to leave the economy open and market open and stores open as much as possible, while avoiding stretching hospitals beyond capacity. If we wanted, we could have locked down, but nobody wants to get to a de facto lockdown by calling it another name,” Bennett said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

He also confirmed that Israel is slated to receive an initial shipment of the first approved anti-COVID drug from Pfizer on Wednesday, which Bennett said will make it the first country outside the United States to get the therapy.

The Health Ministry granted emergency approval Sunday to the oral antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has shown a nearly 90 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to suffer severe illness.

Lab tests have shown it to be very effective against Omicron.

Channel 12 news said Saturday Israel had finalized an agreement to purchase about 100,000 pills, adding that Bennett had spoken with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla over the weekend to finalize the deal. The anti-COVID pill will be available for free in Israel to those in high-risk groups, the report said.

Sources close to Bennett asserted on Tuesday he has a good relationship with Bourla but “doesn’t make a lot of press conferences about it,” issuing veiled criticism of predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, who often publicized his good ties with the Pfizer chief.

This image provided by Pfizer shows its anti-COVID pills. (Pfizer via AP)

Meanwhile, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of the Health Ministry’s public health department, reportedly said Israel could face a PCR test shortage as cases continue to skyrocket. According to Army Radio, Alroy-Preis told government officials that, if that occurs, she would recommend conducting a PCR on day seven of quarantine and skipping the one taken at the start of quarantine following exposure.

In addition, according to Hebrew media reports, Israel is expected to soon cut down the number of countries on its “red” list to which Israelis are banned from flying, but keep the US, United Kingdom, Canada and France on the list.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Sunday that such a move was likely soon, as the spread of Omicron shifts from coming largely from abroad to being dispersed mostly from within Israel.

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