The Health Ministry on Sunday reported another four cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant, raising the number of confirmed infections in Israel from the highly mutated strain to 11.
The new infections included a man who the ministry said was exposed to someone who had recently returned from South Africa, the first apparent case of Omicron to be contracted in the country.
The man had received three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Two of the other cases were people returning from France, both of whom had been administered three shots of the Pfizer vaccine.
The fourth infection occurred in a man who arrived from the United States. He was inoculated with Moderna’s vaccine and had received a booster shot.
Of the 11 Omicron cases verified by Israel, four were unvaccinated. One woman, a tourist from Malawi, was vaccinated with AstraZeneca’s shot. All the other vaccinated cases had received a booster.
The Health Ministry said it was waiting on the results from genetic sequencing of another 24 infections in which there was a “high suspicion” of Omicron. According the ministry, eight of those people were “fully protected,” while the other 16 were either unvaccinated or 6 months had passed since they had recovered from COVID or received their initial vaccines.
It added that 12 of the suspected cases had returned from abroad or were in contact with someone who returned from overseas. The other 12 had not recently left Israel.
The emergence of Omicron, first detected in South Africa, has prompted global travel bans and led Israel to again shut its doors to foreigners. The government also tightened quarantine rules for fully immunized Israelis returning to the country and approved phone tracking of suspected virus carriers, a controversial measure that has since lapsed.
On Sunday, the government approved requiring preschoolers and children in grades 1-6 to present a negative rapid antigen test for COVID-19 when returning to the classroom after the Hanukkah vacation this week.
Schoolchildren were similarly requested to show a negative coronavirus test after the summer vacation and following the break in September for the High Holidays.
During the weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett defended the government’s response to Omicron.
“Every day, we are reassessing the situation – on the basis of the data we know at the time – regarding moves to ease restrictions or make them more stringent. Everything is according to the data,” he said.
“Some people are saying: ‘But the situation is so good in the country, why are you being so stringent?’ The reason that the situation is good in the country is that we are taking quick and precise action. We know to relax the restrictions when necessary and when to tighten them,” the premier added.
Citing “the current uncertainty” over Omicron, Bennett argued it was better to swiftly impose new measures. He also said it was too early to downplay the highly mutated variant, echoing comments made earlier in the day by top health officials.
Even as concerns remain over the variant, Israel’s coronavirus statistics have been on an encouraging trajectory, with the virus reproduction rate dropping below 1 to 0.98 on Saturday. However, it ticked back up to 1.02 on Sunday.
The figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number below 1 signifies that the pandemic is contracting.
Health Ministry data on Sunday evening showed that 245 people had been diagnosed the previous day, with the number representing 0.63 percent of the 40,000 tests conducted.
The number of patients in serious condition stood at 109, while the death toll was 8,204.