The Health Ministry said Tuesday that 170 new cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus had been confirmed in Israel in the past day, doubling the number of infections, as leaders scrambled to curtail the reach of the virus and prepare for its seemingly inexorable spread.
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.
The announcement came as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened his so-called coronavirus cabinet to discuss possible new restrictions. Bennett told lawmakers that “the decision is between easy restrictions now versus difficult steps later.”
“The bad news is that the Omicron in Israel is advancing exactly according to our expectations and predictions,” Bennett said. “We’re doubling new cases.”
At a Monday evening meeting with Bennett, health officials reportedly advocated for significantly expanding COVID-19 restrictions to curb the variant. The meeting ended with no decisions on the matter.
Knesset lawmakers earlier Tuesday approved banning travel to and from the United States and other countries, adding them to a swiftly expanding list of “red” destinations.
That horse may have already sprinted from the barn, though. The Health Ministry said 234 of the confirmed cases — some 71 percent — were among people who had come from abroad. Another 29 verified cases had direct contact with recent arrivals from abroad, and 66 were infected via community spread.
Among the suspected cases, however, 432 cases — or 53% — were among people who had been abroad, with another 64 cases tracked to contact with people who had been overseas. The remaining 311 cases are either attributed to community spread or unknown.
The infected returnees came from 16 different countries, most of them in Europe and southern Africa, but also the US, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Morocco.
At the end of November, Israel closed its border to foreign nationals in an attempt to hold off Omicron and has continually expanded a list of so-called red countries with high infection rates that Israelis are banned from visiting.
Officials have raised alarm bells over the Omicron variant, thought to be even more contagious that the previously dominant Delta strain, with many seeing the start of a fifth wave of major infections.
Over 1,300 new cases were recorded on Monday, according to the Health Ministry, the highest single-day tally since October. Daily cases have steadily risen from around 400-500 a month ago.
Omicron has with shocking speed become the leading strain among new infections in other countries, including in the US, where it accounts for 73% of all new cases.
Among the confirmed Omicron cases, 95 of them were considered “unprotected,” meaning they had not been vaccinated with a booster, recovered from the virus in the past six months, or received their second vaccine shot in the past six months.
Out of the total verified and suspected Omicron cases — 1,148 people — 528 were symptomatic, 600 were asymptomatic, and 20 were “getting checked,” the Health Ministry said.
Ministers convened remotely on Tuesday to weigh new measures to contain the virus spread in Israel.
The coronavirus cabinet approved a measure to cut back the capacity of in-office workers at public sector workplaces by 50%. The decision means at least half of public office workers will work from home.
The decision will go into effect on Sunday and last for one month, until January 26.
Earlier this week, Bennett urged private sector companies and businesses to allow their employees to work from home as much as possible.
According to the Health Ministry Tuesday, there were 8,078 active patients, of whom 81 were in serious condition and 41 on ventilators. Though infections have risen, the number of seriously ill patients has been steadily falling.
Along with the rise in infections, the virus reproduction number — indicating the number of people each infected person transmits the disease to — has also been on the rise and was given by the Health Ministry as 1.28. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the number of infections is growing.
Since the start of the pandemic, 8,232 Israelis have died of COVID-19, including three fatalities in the past week.