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Liberman tells cabinet ‘Omicron no worse than flu,’ draws ire of top health official

In leaked recordings, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis says new fast-spreading variant could cause major problems for more than a million Israelis who do not have booster shots

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on December 7, 2021. ( Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on December 7, 2021. ( Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman told the cabinet meeting Tuesday that there was no need for new restrictions to deal with rising COVID-19 infections as the Omicron variant was no worse than flu, drawing an angry response from a senior health official, according to a leaked recording of the conversation played on Channel 12 news.

The meeting saw ministers vote to implement remote learning for some high infection areas, and some new restrictions on stores, but some sought to hold off on other virus curbs, particularly Liberman who was concerned over the impact on the economy.

“We have been living with Omicron for a month and a half already. So far only 12 people have died across the world from it as far as we know,” Liberman said, noting that in Israel currently there are only 81 people seriously ill with the coronavirus, including 41 on ventilators.

“In terms of the influence of Omicron, I don’t see it as being any more disruptive at the moment than flu. And just as we live with flu, now we live with Omicron,” he said.

Liberman said that as such he saw no reason to impose fresh restrictions on gatherings. “That takes us straight into the world of financial compensation,” he said referring to demands for payments from businesses forced to close.

His remarks drew an angry rebuke from senior Health Ministry official Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, who insinuated that Liberman may have missed an earlier briefing on the severity of Omicron coming from South Africa, where the variant was discovered.

“We clearly presented the findings from South Africa showing a rise in hospitalization. It was not as deadly as the current (Delta) variant, but there was still a rise in mortality,” she said also noting that the average age of the population in South Africa was much younger than in Israel.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at the Health Ministry, addresses a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on November 28, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Liberman then interjected to ask about vaccination rates in South Africa, which Alroy-Preis conceded were lower than Israel’s at some 40%. However, she warned participants not to overestimate Israel’s vaccination success.

“We have here more than a million people who have not received a booster yet,” she said pointing to evidence that Omicron can bypass the protection provided by the first two doses of the vaccine. “And there is a large group who have not had their first and second shots.”

“We also have a large population who are not recovered or vaccinated. So when we say were are a vaccinated country, you have to understand the numbers and realize that it is not entirely so,” she said.

Researchers from Hebrew University presented data during the meeting that showed the rapid spread of the new variant, particularly among those above the age of 60. The study, based on data from other countries, found that Israel’s case rate would likely double every four days, and as many as 1,600 patients could be hospitalized in serious condition by January 24, up from 81 people currently listed as severely ill.

Researchers told the COVID cabinet that it seems impossible to prevent the rapidly approaching wave, warning that the spread was on pace to burden hospitals in the coming weeks. The scientists urged the government to take steps to protect vulnerable populations.

Hower, in the end  the ministers also voted to place a smattering of new restrictions on malls, capping capacity to one person for every 15 square meters (161 square feet), banning food stands from offering eat-in dining and requiring a Green Pass for stores deemed non-essential that are larger than 100 square meters (1,076 square feet).

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with the Coronavirus in Jerusalem, on December 21, 2021.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier Tuesday, the Health Ministry announced 170 new Omicron cases in Israel, bringing the total to 340. While overall case rates are rising, so far serious cases and hospitalizations have remained low.

Overall case rates have been rising in Israel in recent days, but serious COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates have so far been remaining steady.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday that 170 new cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus had been confirmed in Israel, doubling the number of total infections.

There have been 341 verified Omicron cases in Israel to date, the Health Ministry said in a statement. Another 807 infections were “highly suspected” to be Omicron cases, but were awaiting verification.

Authorities announced Tuesday evening what appeared to be the country’s first death due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The victim, a man in his 60s, passed away on Monday after being hospitalized Soroka Medical Center in serious condition roughly two weeks earlier.

However, the hospital said the severity of his illness had been a result of pre-existing conditions and not COVID-induced pneumonia, which is what it said led doctors to suspect it might be a result of the Omicron variant.

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