New COVID-19 cases in Israel ticked up again on Thursday, as fears of the spread of the new Omicron variant continue to worry health officials.
According to the latest Health Ministry statistics, 1,400 new COVID cases were confirmed on Wednesday, the highest since mid-October. The positivity rate also trended slightly upward, reaching 1.44%, compared to 1.24% a day earlier and 0.9% a week ago.
The reproductive rate, or “R” number, also continued its gradual rise, hitting 1.34, up from 1.02 in early December. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the pandemic is growing.
Serious cases and hospitalizations, however, continue to remain low, as early studies suggest Omicron may not produce as severe symptoms as the Delta variant, though much is still unknown. As of Thursday morning, there were 9,591 active COVID cases in Israel, with 124 of them hospitalized, 83 in serious condition and 39 on ventilators.
It is unclear how many of the new cases are linked to the new Omicron variant. On Monday, the Health Ministry confirmed another 170 Omicron cases, bringing the known total to 341 overall. The ministry said at the time that another 807 infections were “highly suspected” to be Omicron cases, but it has not provided an update since.
Health experts continue to urge parents to vaccinate their children, and for adults and teens to receive booster doses to help curb the spread of Omicron. And some appear to be heeding the call, as 9,402 people received a first dose of the COVID vaccine on Wednesday, the highest one-day rate since late November.
So far, 13% of all 5- to 11-year-olds in Israel have received at least one dose of the COVID shot, a month after they first became eligible. By contrast, close to 62% of all 12- to 15-year-olds, who became eligible for the vaccine in July, have received at least one shot. Overall, close to 70% of all Israelis have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 45% have received three doses.
Close to 50% of all new cases diagnosed on Wednesday were among school-age children, and more than 35,000 students are currently in quarantine following exposure to a COVID patient.
Fears of Omicron led Israel to shut its borders to non-citizens and severely restrict Israeli travel overseas. As of Wednesday, Israelis were banned from traveling to dozens of countries, including the US, UK, Canada, South Africa and France.
After a fiery debate in the coronavirus cabinet earlier this week, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Thursday that he does not support extended lockdowns and travel restrictions.
“We have to understand that COVID will be with us for a long time,” Horowitz told Army Radio. “There is a devious virus and we are learning to live with it. We cannot always lock down and shut down the skies completely. We can’t endlessly live in a bunker.”
Horowitz criticized, however, recent comments by Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who opposed restrictions on businesses and suggested the government would not pay compensation to those affected.
“I heard the comments by the finance minister, and I do not agree with him on the issue of compensation, and neither do other ministers,” said Horowitz. “If we impose restrictions that will close off certain industries, the government will certainly pay compensation.”
Economy Minister Orna Barbivai also suggested that a new COVID lockdown was not inevitable.
“Nobody is planning a lockdown, and if we get there, then we seemingly did not act correctly — either the public is not cooperating or we didn’t vaccinate enough,” Barbivai told the Kan public broadcaster Thursday morning. “Because we know this variant is on the way, we want to prevent contagion and death. I see great willingness among businesses to cooperate.”
Ministers on Tuesday night voted to institute several new restrictions, including limiting occupancy at shopping malls, allowing entry to non-essential stores only for those with a “Green Pass,” and switching to remote learning in schools in “red” and “orange” localities — with high rates of contagion or new cases — where less than 70 percent of the classroom is vaccinated.
And health officials recommended Tuesday night that Israel begin offering a fourth COVID-19 vaccine shot for over-60s, some at-risk groups and medical personnel.