Israel sees 70% spike in number of seriously ill COVID patients within a week

‘It’s an unpredictable and unstable situation,’ says immune system expert Prof. Cyrille Cohen, urging lawmakers to ‘actively encourage herd immunity among the vulnerable’

Family members visiting a family member at the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed on February 15, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Family members visiting a family member at the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed on February 15, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The number of coronavirus patients in serious condition in Israel reached 140 on Friday, marking a near 70% rise since last week, with health experts warning that the current situation was “unstable.”

While Israel has seen rising infection numbers for a few weeks, a rise in seriously ill patients marks a real concern as the country deals with the spread of the new variant BA.5, with experts warning that hospitals may need to reopen COVID wards. The number was up from 85 seriously ill patients on Friday last week.

Some 7,313 Israelis tested positive for the virus on Friday, the Health Ministry said. The reproduction number (R) stood at 1.31 as of Friday. The figure measures how many people each coronavirus carrier infects on average, with any number above 1 meaning the spread of COVID-19 is increasing. It first began to rise above 1 in mid-May, having stayed below that threshold for nearly two months.

The death toll stood at 10,882, including six fatalities over the past week.

“The data definitely indicates that the disease is active in the community,” immune system expert Prof. Cyrille Cohen of Bar Ilan University told the Ynet news site.

“The real indication is the number of patients in serious condition because we know much of the morbidity is not detected as people don’t go and get tested, and that should also be taken into account,” he said.

“The thing that determines the policy is not necessarily the number of confirmed patients but the condition of seriously ill patients. We need to understand whether they are experiencing the disease in a more severe way — and whether we will need to get ready to reopen COVID wards this summer,” he added.

Empty beds in the intensive care unit at the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on October 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Despite the warning, Cohen said it’s too early to know the severity of the variant that mutated from Omicron, known as BA.5, and whether or not it will develop into a new wave.

“We don’t know exactly what this wave will look like and whether we can call it a wave at all,” he said. “We are following the events in Portugal because variant BA.5 is the dominant one there and because its population is similar to Israel in size with many people vaccinated, even more so than in Israel.”

Cohen noted that morbidity and mortality rates rose in Portugal at the same time the BA5 variant started spreading.

“We need to realize that’s going to happen here as well,” he said, urging lawmakers to take action. “It’s an unpredictable and unstable situation regarding COVID. It will take months and even years before there is a significant decrease and we reach a more predictable scenario. But one must also be careful with making estimations,” he added.

Cohen said the effort should be concentrated on “actively encouraging herd immunity among the vulnerable and older population” by “calling people who haven’t received the vaccine and encouraging them to get it.”

He also advised wearing masks in crowded places like on buses and at shopping centers.

Israelis, some wearing face masks, walk in Tel Aviv on July 22, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Wednesday, coronavirus czar Prof. Salman Zarka said the new variant BA.5 is quickly gaining traction and is more resistant to vaccines than previous strains.

“The BA.5 strain currently accounts for about 50 percent of patients,” he said. “The strain caused relatively mild illness among young people, but we can see a rise in hospitalizations.”

He said BA.5 was replacing Omicron as the dominant variant, and that it will continue to gain ground.

Israel scrapped its indoor mask requirement in April as infection numbers dropped off sharply. Outdoor masks have not been required since April of last year.

Salman Zarka also said Israelis may soon be able to be officially recognized as COVID-19 patients based solely on a home test, under certain conditions, while at the same time the Health Ministry was working to expand test facilities.

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