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41,154: Israel hits COVID case record; expert estimates true daily tally is 100,000

Health Ministry data shows serious cases top 250; active cases multiply by 12 in 2 weeks; minister says figures show Israel is heading toward ‘herd immunity’

People shop at a market in the central town of Ramle, December 31, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
People shop at a market in the central town of Ramle, December 31, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel hit a new record high of daily coronavirus cases, according to Health Ministry data released Tuesday morning, with 41,154 new cases recorded the previous day. The past seven days have each shattered the daily record, which had stood at 11,335 before the current outbreak of the Omicron strain.

Almost 14,000 additional cases were diagnosed on Tuesday by 5 pm, the figures showed.

The number of serious cases rose to 253, an increase of 31 from the previous day, over 700 people were hospitalized, and the death toll grew by five to 8,274. While the figures are the highest seen in months, they are a fraction of the nearly 1,200 seriously ill patients and over 2,000 hospitalized in January 2021, a reflection of what experts say are the relatively mild COVID-19 illnesses caused by Omicron.

The total number of active COVID-19 cases stood at 194,523 on Tuesday afternoon. That number was around 15,000 two weeks ago.

The test positivity rate for Monday stood at 10.97 percent, according to Health Ministry figures. Experts believe many cases are now going undetected, as Israel has replaced the standard PCR testing with antigen tests, some of them at home, for vaccinated people under age 60, in order to prioritize PCRs for those at higher risk.

Health Ministry director Nachman Ash said Tuesday that Israel was dealing with the fast-spreading Omicron strain while also still battling the remnants of the more dangerous Delta variant. He noted that hospitals were also being challenged by normal seasonal illnesses, amid what officials have said is an uptick in flu cases.

The virus transmission number, R, indicating how many people each infected person passes the virus on to, on average, dropped to 2.08, after hitting 2.12 a day earlier. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and values above 1 show infections are spreading — the higher the number, the greater the rate. The rate was at a record 2.64 before the first lockdown in February 2020, but has only broken the 2 threshold a handful of times since.

Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute told the Kan public broadcaster that he estimates the true number of new cases to be around 100,000 per day in recent days, and that most cases are going undetected due to limited testing capabilities and a policy of reserving the most accurate PCR tests just for risk groups.

He estimated the daily caseload will double again once or twice before the current wave will peak, adding that this could happen within two weeks.

Eran Segal (Courtesy)

Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej said Tuesday that the latest figures showed Israel was heading toward “herd immunity.”

“According to the figures we have, 2-4 million people in the next three weeks are expected to test positive,” Frej told the Ynet news site. “This is the direction. Why should we bury our heads in the ground like an ostrich? The pandemic is reaching everyone.”

Frej admitted that the government “is not able to do all the tests needed, we don’t have enough PCR tests, we have a problem with labs.” But he defended the government, saying it is making decisions “to do the maximum to protect public health” with vaccines and antiviral medications.

The minister said a lockdown would do more damage than good, and called for adherence to the current guidelines: “The behavior of the public is more important than anything we do… everyone’s behavior is what will determine our direction.”

Meretz MK Issawi Frej attends a Economic committee meeting at the Knesset on July 12, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The government has urged the public to get vaccinated and shots are available to all those aged 5 or above.

Of Israel’s 9.5 million population, 6,639,649 have had at least one vaccine dose, Tuesday’s Health Ministry figures showed. Of those, 5,979,310 have also had a second shot and 4,346,855 had a booster as well.

Last week, Israel began distributing an additional fourth-shot booster to its elderly population and health workers. As of Tuesday, 367,670 people had gotten the second booster.

A Health Ministry advisory panel on Monday recommended shortening the quarantine period for confirmed coronavirus carriers from the current 10 days to a week. The Omicron-driven surge in morbidity was sending more and more Israelis into quarantine, leading to concerns of economic fallout as an increasing number of people became unable to work because they were sick or needed to care for a child who was infected or in quarantine and unable to attend school.

Hebrew media said some cabinet ministers have called for slashing the quarantine period to five days due to fears of a labor shortage. Kan reported that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was shown an estimate that 30% of the workforce could be required to quarantine within the next week.

On Monday, the CEO of Pfizer said it was not clear if a fourth dose of his company’s COVID vaccine was necessary, but predicted that an Omicron-specific version of the shot would be available by March.

The Health Ministry team of experts objected to expanding access to fourth doses of coronavirus vaccines, which are currently available to those considered most at risk.

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