Serious COVID cases rise to 732, as top health expert says Omicron wave is peaking

Epidemiologist estimates serious infections to reach 1,000 but new cases will start to decline this week; schools may face teacher shortage due to quarantine rule change

The Coronavirus ward of the Shaare Zedek medical center in Jerusalem on January 20, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
The Coronavirus ward of the Shaare Zedek medical center in Jerusalem on January 20, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The number of Israeli patients seriously ill with COVID-19 has risen to 732, according to Health Ministry figures published Saturday, as experts predicted the Omicron-fueled wave sweeping Israel is close to its peak.

“During the coming week we will start to see a decrease in the number of infections. We have already seen a decrease in infections in people over 60. This week we will reach 50,000 or 40,000 cases a day,” Eran Segal, a top epidemiologist advising the government, told Channel 12 news.

Last week, new daily infections climbed to nearly 70,000.

Segal also estimated the number of COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms would climb to between 800 and 1,000.

He said Israel had seen a similar caseload during a previous infection wave caused by the Alpha variant, and that Omicron was causing fewer serious cases than the Delta variant.

Health Ministry data showed more than 54,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, as active infections climbed to over 442,000. New confirmed infections tend to be lower on weekends due to less widespread testing.

The coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, January 20, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The staggering number of infections caused by Omicron, but fewer per capita deaths, has forced Israeli officials to recalibrate their response to the pandemic.

According to a Saturday Channel 13 report, Health Ministry officials have acknowledged they were too bleak in their initial predictions about Omicron. The report said ministry officials were obligated to highlight the worst-case scenarios at the time and believe they did the right thing by being cautious.

The network said lawmakers in the coronavirus cabinet have discussed loosening quarantine rules for adults, and more officials are leaning toward scrapping the “Green Pass” card given to vaccinated individuals, those who’ve recovered from the disease or those with a negative test from the previous 48 hours.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman has been calling for an end to the Green Pass system in recent days.

High school students take a mathematics exam in a school in Yehud, January 20, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The education system is also adjusting to the Omicron wave, but recent rule changes may lead to a shortage of teachers in the coming week.

Last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that mandatory quarantine for schoolchildren who were exposed to coronavirus carriers would be scrapped entirely.

According to the plan, starting on Thursday, children up to the age of 18 will no longer need to isolate after being exposed to a virus carrier.

Instead, all students — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — will need to conduct two antigen tests each week — on Sundays and Wednesdays — and present negative results when entering educational institutions.

Children who test positive for COVID-19 will still need to isolate until testing negative.

Saturday reports said the new rule will not apply to teachers and instructors at schools and kindergartens, however.

Channel 13 said around 20% of teaching staff are unvaccinated, although it was unclear whether that included people who have received two shots, but not a third booster shot.

According to the new education plan, teaching staff who are unvaccinated and come in contact with a virus carrier will need to quarantine for seven days. The Education Ministry wanted to include school staff in the new rules for students, but the teachers’ union objected, the report said.

Ynet reported 20,000 people working in the education system were in quarantine on Saturday, leading to widespread concerns among teaching staff and local officials that there will be a teacher shortage in the coming week.

There were close to 198,000 Israelis in quarantine as of Saturday, the Health Ministry said.

In the past week, 447,466 Israelis caught the virus, bringing the total number of confirmed infections since the start of the pandemic to over 1.9 million, out of a population of 9 million, according to Saturday Health Ministry figures.

There were 208 patients in critical condition, including 146 on ventilators.

Sixty-eight Israelis died of the virus in the past week, bringing the pandemic toll to 8,393.

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