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Omicron spread in Israel may be wider than thought — report

Health Ministry officials tell public broadcaster that between five and nine cases have no known source, indicating variant may have escaped containment efforts

Israelis, some wearing face masks, shop at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, December 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis, some wearing face masks, shop at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, December 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Ministry officials have said cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant are popping up in Israel with no known source of infection, indicating the strain may be spreading through communities despite efforts to curb travel and keep the highly mutated variant out of the country, Israeli television reported Monday.

“It’s possible it has spread wider than we thought,” a ministry source was quoted saying by the Kan public broadcaster.

According to the report, there were five to nine Omicron cases of unknown provenance, mostly in Modi’in and Ra’anana.

The broadcaster also said Health Ministry planners were warning Israel could see 15,000 daily coronavirus cases if the strain, thought to be very contagious, spreads unchecked.

The ministry has so far confirmed 67 Omicron infections in Israel. In its most recent update on the variant, the ministry said it was working to verify another 80 cases in which there was a “high” suspicion” they were Omicron.

Separately, Channel 12 news reported that the government is working to advance legislation that would give it the authority to bar those who aren’t immunized from gaining entry to venues operating under Green Pass rules by presenting a negative COVID-19 test.

Such a change would limit access to many businesses and events to only  Israelis who have proof of vaccination or that they recently recovered from coronavirus.

The report said that if the proposal is ultimately approved, the government would not seek to enforce it immediately. A Health Ministry source told the network that there were currently no epidemiological justifications for such a measure, but that it would be reserved for a situation in which coronavirus tests are unable to detect a new variant.

Illustration of the new Green Pass, in Jerusalem, on October 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier Monday, the Health Ministry announced that a ban on travel to the United Kingdom and Denmark, which are facing Omicron outbreaks, would be delayed by 24 hours until midnight between Thursday and Friday to allow Israelis “additional time to prepare.”

On Sunday, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz warned additional countries will be classified as “red” in the coming days, but stressed that the government does not currently plan to bar international travel entirely.

He also urged Israelis to refrain from non-essential travel.

Under new quarantine rules approved Sunday by a Knesset committee, Israelis coming from “red” countries must isolate at a state-run facility for at least 10 days. However, they can be released to their homes to complete their quarantines if they test negative for Omicron.

According to Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public services at the Health Ministry, Omicron is more contagious than past variants and is better able to evade vaccines. However, she also noted it has caused fewer fatalities and less severe morbidity than previous COVID-19 outbreaks.

Her assessment mirrored that of the World Health Organization, which said Sunday that Omicron spreads faster than the Delta variant, and reduces vaccine efficacy, but appears to cause less severe symptoms.

Of the 67 Omicron infections so far confirmed in Israel, there has only been one case of someone falling seriously ill — an unvaccinated man who was hospitalized — and no deaths.

Illustrative: A health care volunteer takes a swab sample from an Israeli woman at a testing center set up by Magen David Adom in the Golan Heights town of Katzrin, September 15, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

On Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned of a potential lockdown “if we do not take immediate and difficult steps now.” But the prime minister said that “our overarching goal is to keep the Israeli economy as open as possible, without a lockdown, and to do so without reaching hospitals’ limits.”

According to the latest Health Ministry figures, 490 coronavirus infections were confirmed Sunday, with 0.57 percent of tests coming back positive. The number of serious cases was at 92, and the death toll was at 8,223.

A total of 6,414,892 Israelis have received a first coronavirus vaccine, with 5,792,471 of them having also received a second shot and 4,130,021 of them having received a third.

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