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New daily COVID cases climb above 2,000 as hospitals brace for surge

Health officials report highest single-day tally in months, as Bennett reportedly warns lockdown ‘not off the table’; quarantine rules to be rolled back for vaccinated

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with COVID-19, in Modi'in, on December 26, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/ Flash90)
Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with COVID-19, in Modi'in, on December 26, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/ Flash90)

The Health Ministry said over 2,000 new coronavirus cases were diagnosed on Monday as the Omicron strain continued its spread, hospitals braced for a wave of patients and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly warned that a nationwide lockdown was “not off the table.”

Health officials had identified 2,007 new infections by Monday evening, with the number expected to rise further by the end of the day.

The last time more than 2,000 new cases were recorded in a day was October 10, when 2,343 new cases were confirmed. On Sunday, there were 1,794 new cases.

Serious patients remained steady, dropping slightly from the 87 reported on Monday morning to 84. The positive test rate was 1.9 percent.

In total, 134 patients are hospitalized, out of over 14,000 active cases nationwide, but authorities expect that to change quickly.

The government ordered hospitals to prepare for a wave of adolescent coronavirus cases, with signs that the highly infectious Omicron variant is spreading rapidly. Health Ministry data showed cases climbing especially quickly among children aged 5-11. Hebrew media cited an estimate that within two weeks, 90% of cases in Israel will be Omicron.

Officials have ordered 300 beds prepared at hospitals around the country, along with 40 intensive care unit beds, to help ease potential overcrowding.

“Morbidity figures in Israel and around the world point to a sharp increase in coronavirus infections, especially the Omicron variant,” the ministry said in a statement.

Reports have indicated low vaccination numbers among younger kids, leading to fears that they may be ultra-susceptible to the variant.

Prof. Dror Mevorach of Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital told Army Radio that the Jerusalem medical center reopened its COVID-19 ward earlier in the day when the number of patients there reached 12.

“There’s evidence that the number will go up. We still don’t have any Omicron patients, but the majority are, of course, unvaccinated,” he said.

A man receives a fourth dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on December 27, 2021, as the Israeli hospital begins a trial of a fourth vaccine shot. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Some Hebrew media reports said the government was planning to roll back international travel restrictions, deeming them superfluous in light of the rapid community spread in the country.

The number of countries that Israel is banning travel to and from is set to shrink considerably, several outlets reported.

The reports said the number of countries deemed red and requiring special permission to fly to or from, will drop from 69 to 18 or 15.

However, some of the most popular destinations will remain off-limits, including the US, France, the UK, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Canada, the reports said.

Experts have increasingly questioned the sense of Israel’s travel rules, given the evidence that the Omicron variant is already inside the country’s borders.

On Saturday, 112 people entered the country carrying the virus, according to Health Ministry statistics.

The cabinet is also set to significantly ease quarantine rules, reports claimed.

Channel 12 said that a rule requiring a vaccinated person exposed to Omicron to quarantine for a week, pending two negative tests, or two weeks for the unvaccinated, will be rescinded sometime Monday.

Instead, fully vaccinated individuals will be exempt from any quarantine, no matter if their contact was infected with Omicron or not. However, if the Omicron carrier they were exposed to is a member of their household, the vaccinated person will still need to quarantine for seven days, the report said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting in Kibbutz Mevo Hama on December 26, 2021. (Gil Eliyahu/ POOL/Flash90)

The Kan public broadcaster reported that Bennett had told ministers that a general lockdown had not been ruled out, and that they needed to “encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated.”

“If not, the restrictions we have now will become much more severe,” he said.

Israel has so far confirmed at least 1,118 Omicron cases, of which 723 are among people who returned from abroad, according to Hebrew media reports. Figures presented at a meeting between Bennett and health officials showed that Omicron infections have doubled every 2.5 days and now account for 50% of cases reviewed in epidemiological probes.

The variant has fueled a surge in infections and Bennett warned Monday that what is now Israel’s fifth wave of infections will affect everyone in the country.

The government has reimposed some restrictions to curb the spread, with fresh curbs coming into effect Monday on shopping malls and large stores limiting the number of customers permitted at any one time.

While Bennett and other senior ministers are against ordering a lockdown, there is growing concern that the rapid Omicron spread will push so many Israelis into quarantine through infection or exposure to those who are infected — some estimates say that number will come close to a million people — that the country will effectively be closed anyway.

The virus reached Bennett’s household on Monday when his daughter tested positive for COVID-19, forcing Bennett into quarantine. Bennett’s office said there was a “high suspicion” his daughter had contracted the Omicron variant.

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