There were more COVID-19 cases identified in Israel during January this year than the entirety of 2021, according to a report released Thursday.
The Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center said some 960,500 coronavirus cases were identified during 2021, while in January alone, as of Wednesday, more than 1,160,000 have tested positive.
The massive rise in cases has been blamed on the fast-spreading Omicron variant. On Wednesday, 67,723 new cases were recorded, according to Health Ministry data published Thursday. With more than 307,000 PCR and antigen tests carried out on Wednesday, the positivity rate stood at 24.58 percent.
As of Thursday afternoon, 480,501 Israelis were actively infected, with 2,483 hospitalized, 931 of those in serious condition, and 212 of them on ventilators. A week ago, serious cases stood at 587, and two weeks ago the figure was just 283.
Over the past week, more than 520,000 Israelis have tested positive for COVID, with experts believing that the actual figure could be several times higher. Also in the past week, 146 Israelis with COVID died — a 73.8% increase over the previous week — bringing the total death toll since the start of the pandemic to 8,541. A month ago, the average weekly death toll was less than 10.
In response to the rise in COVID-related hospitalizations, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman announced Thursday a plan to immediately implement 45 more hospital beds in intensive care wards in medical centers around the country.
“The health system is working around the clock, day and night, to safeguard public health. Now we are further strengthening the intensive care wards. We are in the height of the wave and soon we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. We will get through this wave together,” Bennett said in a statement released by his office.
As of Thursday afternoon, hospital occupancy nationwide stood at 82.1%, and more than 9,800 medical staffers were out from work due to COVID, including 1,282 doctors and 2,793 nurses.
Starting Thursday, schoolchildren are exempt from needing to quarantine if they come into contact with a coronavirus carrier, despite concerns from health officials that the scheme could end up putting more kids in the hospital with COVID complications.
Health experts had initially supported the move to end precautionary isolation for children who come into contact with confirmed carriers when the plan was announced last week, but many reversed course amid reports of increased pediatric hospitalizations and instances of PIMS, a rare but dangerous condition affecting children after they recover from the virus.
Nachman Ash, director general of the Health Ministry, said Thursday that health experts are under constant personal attacks, especially after the government moved ahead with the plan notwithstanding their concerns.
“It is unfortunate that baseless accusations continue. Our decision-making is purely professional. If there is disagreement on the part of one party or another, our door is open to hearing any different opinion,” Ash said in a briefing, slamming those who use anonymous press briefings to attack health experts. “It must stop,” he said.
Under the new rules, all students both vaccinated and unvaccinated will need to take two home antigen tests a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays, and report negative results to an Education Ministry portal.
Children who test positive for COVID-19 at home will need to take an official antigen test at a state facility and isolate for five days if that test also shows a positive result.
Some officials have warned that the necessary test kits had not yet been delivered to all students as promised by the government, with the Education Ministry saying there was a nationwide shortage of tests.