Israel confirms 40 new Omicron cases, bringing total to 175

Ministry says 380 others suspected to have new strain; vast majority of infections are among returning travelers; Knesset building imposes restrictions after workers contract COVID

Arriving travelers at Ben Gurion Airport on December 19, 2021. (Flash90)
Arriving travelers at Ben Gurion Airport on December 19, 2021. (Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Sunday announced 40 more people have been diagnosed with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, bringing the number of confirmed cases in Israel to 175.

The ministry said the vast majority of Omicron infections, 113, were detected among travelers returning from abroad. Another 31 people tested positive for the strain after exposure to someone recently overseas and 17 infections were from community spread.

The source of the other 14 cases was still being probed.

Of the confirmed Omicron cases, 122 were listed as “protected,” which the Health Ministry defines as anyone who received a booster vaccine shot, or got their first two vaccines or recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months.

The ministry said it was also awaiting results from 380 more cases in which there is a “high suspicion” of exposure to Omicron.

Among both confirmed and suspected Omicron infections, 229 people had COVID-19 symptoms and 325 were asymptomatic. The ministry said it was “in the process of checking” the remaining case.

Israel has so far reported only one serious illness stemming from Omicron — an unvaccinated man who was hospitalized — and no deaths.

Health care workers test Israelis in a drive-through coronavirus testing complex in Jerusalem, on December 10, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the Knesset announced new restrictions at the parliament building after a number of recent infections there.

The measures included suspending tours and visits, canceling events and conferences, closing the gym, forbidding eating in the cafeteria, and limiting capacity in the plenum and meeting rooms, among others.

The new rules came after nine lawmakers were instructed to quarantine earlier Sunday after being exposed to a suspected Omicron carrier. Several other MKs have also entered quarantine in recent days after exposure to parliamentary workers who tested positive for COVID, including opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz vote from the Knesset gallery due to quarantine requirements on December 15, 2021.(Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Also Sunday, the Health Ministry recommended the government designate another 10 countries as “red” due to Omicron fears. Ministers were expected to vote later in the day on barring travel to the United States, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Canada, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey.

The decision is driven by data seen by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett showing the likelihood of “a significant outbreak” of COVID-19 within three weeks, with the peak surpassing that of the Delta wave, which started in June.

Bennett’s office said the premier would be holding a press conference at 8 p.m. on Sunday, dealing with the pandemic.

Israel has in recent days already added nine countries to the “red,” no-fly list: the UK, Denmark, France, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. South Africa and a slew of other African countries were added at the start of the month.

Those wanting to travel to “red” countries need to obtain special permission from a government committee.

On Thursday, the cabinet voted to extend the current travel restrictions, including the ban on foreigners entering the country and a requirement for all returning Israelis to quarantine for three days upon entry. The limitations will now last until December 29 at least.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Sunday that the restrictions were needed to “buy time” for the vaccination campaign.

“We are facing a new situation. Most of the infection from Omicron is coming from abroad, so we must limit the rate of entry of the virus into Israel in order to buy time and vaccinate as much as possible before the spread also occurs in Israel,” Horowitz told Army Radio.

But in a statement released after Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, in which expanding the no-fly list was discussed, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli said she told ministers that she would not back any further restrictions on travel “until the issue of support for airline companies is resolved.”

Bennett has come under criticism in recent weeks for the policy steps he has taken; however, according to the Haaretz daily, the premier believes he has bought the time needed to slow the entry of the highly contagious variant into the country, giving scientists a window to study it as well as buying time for the vaccination and booster campaign.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 19, 2021. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

The Health Ministry said Sunday that 372 new COVID-19 infections were diagnosed the day before, a low number reflecting reduced testing over the weekend.

According to the ministry, there were 81 COVID-19 patients in serious condition and 41 on ventilators. Most patients in serious condition are over 60 and unvaccinated.

Since the start of the pandemic, 5.8 million Israelis — out of the total population of 9.3 million — have received two vaccine doses, and over 4.1 million have gotten a third, booster shot.

The death toll in Israel since the start of the pandemic stood at 8,232 on Sunday.

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