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Over 6,500 new daily cases as virus surge turns Tel Aviv into high-infection area

4.83% come back positive as testing system under heavy strain; expert says true caseload likely much higher; ‘green classroom’ system expires, sending 1,500 elementary classes home

People stand in line to be tested for coronavirus in Tel Aviv, on January 2, 2022 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
People stand in line to be tested for coronavirus in Tel Aviv, on January 2, 2022 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Over 6,500 new cases of coronavirus were diagnosed on Sunday as Israel’s surge in infections, driven by the Omicron variant, continued to accelerate.

The Health Ministry said Monday that 6,562 cases were confirmed the previous  day — well over triple the number of a week earlier.

In addition to Sunday’s cases, a further 2,305 diagnoses since midnight pushed active infections past 37,000.

There were 110 patients in serious condition as of Monday morning, with 45 of them defined as critical. The majority of seriously ill patients are unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, the transmission rate also continued its steady rise, reaching 1.88. The transmission rate, or R number, representing the average number of people infected by each virus carrier, is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the pandemic is spreading.

The ministry data also showed that under the Health Ministry’s traffic light system, denoting levels of infections in various localities, Tel Aviv was now among cities classified as “red.”

There were 57 localities defined as high-infection areas, including Herzliya, Tel Mond, Beit Shemesh, Givatayim, Modiin, Nazareth and Rehovot. Jerusalem was one of a number of areas defined as “orange.”

People on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on January 2, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With the testing system starting to buckle under the strain of rising infections and massive lines seen throughout the country, 4.83 percent of tests carried out on Sunday came back positive, another sign that the spread of the virus was accelerating.

Health experts believe the number of infected is in reality much higher, and that many cases are going undetected due to a lack of testing availability.

“The verified cases will not give a credible picture of the spread,” tweeted Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science and a top adviser to the government’s coronavirus cabinet. “The most reliable picture, though delayed, is of the patients in serious condition.”

This aerial view shows cars lined up at a drive-thru testing site for the coronavirus, in Modiin, on January 2, 2022. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Meanwhile, thousands of students returned to distance learning on Monday after the “green classroom” regulations expired and officials were unable to reach an agreement on extending the program.

Army Radio said that as of Monday morning, students from around 1,500 elementary school classes were no longer allowed to stay in school despite being eligible for the program. But with no official announcement on the matter, many parents and schools were unclear on who was permitted to be in school on Monday morning after the program expired at midnight.

Under the “green classroom” system, which applied to areas with low-to-medium infection rates (classified as green or yellow under the Health Ministry’s traffic light system), students who were exposed to a COVID-19 carrier could return to school once they receive a negative PCR test result, rather than requiring the entire class to quarantine for a week.

While in the program, the students must undergo an antigen test every morning and produce a negative PCR result on the final day of the isolation period. They are still in quarantine outside of school hours — the program only allows them to attend an educational institution.

Illustration — An empty classroom at Cramim school in Beit Hakerem, Jerusalem on Otober 21 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With the expiration of the program, when a student tests positive for the virus, vaccinated children must undergo a rapid test before returning to the classroom, while all unvaccinated children must now stay home.

The education system is under increasing pressure due to the highly contagious Omicron strain of the coronavirus, with thousands of students in quarantine and vaccinated educators losing teaching hours by having to wait in long lines for antigen tests (vaccinated or recovered Israelis do not have to isolate upon exposure to a COVID carrier so long as they have a negative rapid test).

Israelis are tested for the coronavirus by healthcare workers at a COVID-19 testing center in Ramat Gan, Jan. 2, 2022 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

With Israel currently seeing over 5,000 daily cases in recent days, testing centers have been swamped across the country.

In response to a question at a press conference on Sunday evening, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said it was hoped that in the coming days, vaccinated students and teachers who are exposed to a COVID case will undergo antigen testing at school rather than spending hours waiting in line at testing centers.

The premier also said that the government would weigh changing testing requirements in the coming days.

A health worker takes swab samples from Israelis at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Jerusalem on January 2, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to Channel 12, one of the options being considered is to not require people exposed to a COVID carrier to get tested unless they are experiencing symptoms.

Other reports suggested that testing could be limited to those over a certain age, who are more likely to be eligible for coronavirus pills that Israel has begun distributing to at-risk patients with COVID-19 with the aim of preventing them from becoming seriously ill with the virus.

Separately, on Sunday evening the Magen David Adom emergency service announced that it would be extending its hours at testing sites, expanding the number of medical staff at the centers and adding new testing stations across the country.

Meanwhile, Bennett also announced Sunday that the Health Ministry has approved the distribution of a fourth coronavirus vaccine dose to Israelis over the age of 60 and to medical workers, so long as at least four months have elapsed since they received their third shot.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 2, 2022. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

Also on Sunday, the ministerial forum guiding the government’s COVID-19 response approved granting a temporary Green Pass to anyone who gets a vaccine shot. The temporary certificates will be valid for 30 days after someone gets a first vaccine dose and will allow entry to all venues and events that require proof of immunization. The passes will begin to be issued on January 6.

Bennett also encouraged Israelis to wear masks in crowded spaces, particularly indoors, and for elderly people to avoid crowds entirely.

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