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Transmission rate highest since July; positive COVID tests top 2% as Omicron spreads

Israel has nearly 100 patients in serious condition; some schools in high infection areas set to return to distance learning

A COVID-19 rapid antigen carried out at a Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem, on December 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A COVID-19 rapid antigen carried out at a Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem, on December 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The positive test rate confirming infection with COVID-19 has risen above two percent, according to Health Ministry figures released Sunday, which also showed the virus transmission rate at a level not seen in Israel for nearly six months.

Of the 44,538 virus tests carried out Saturday, 2.07% returned positive. The last time the rate was above 2% was on October 7 when 2.14% of tests were positive.

Government and health officials have warned that the highly infectious Omicron variant is pushing the country’s fifth wave of infections, with case numbers expected to rapidly rise in the coming weeks.

The reproductive rate, or “R” number, also continued its gradual rise, hitting 1.41 after having been at 1.02 in early December.

The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the rate of infection is growing. It was last at such a high level when it was given on July 10, as 1.42 in the midst of Israel’s fourth wave of infections from the Delta strain of the coronavirus.

The number of seriously ill patients continued to steadily climb, reaching 98 to match the level of two weeks ago. Of those, 45 people are in critical condition, 18 are on ECMO machines and 39 are on ventilators.

Though testing volume tends to drop over weekends, there were 760 new coronavirus cases diagnosed on Saturday, bringing the total number of active cases on Sunday to 11,894.

A medical worker wearing a special suit to protect against COVID-19 treats a patient at an ICU in Infectious Hospital No. 23 in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, on Oct. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Roman Yarovitcyn)

One death on Saturday took the toll to 8,242 since the start of the pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic last year, 1,364,282 people in Israel have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

As of Saturday, there have been 1,118 confirmed cases of Omicron in Israel since the strain was first identified.

As authorities attempt to curb the virus spread, new rules for the education system were set to come into effect at midnight. Classes for grades 7-12 in communities listed as “red” or “orange” will only be allowed to take place in person where 70 percent of pupils have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Students in classes where fewer than 70% of kids are vaccinated will learn online. This decision will also apply to elementary schools (grades 1-6) in three weeks.

There are some 600 classes across the country that will be required to move to distance learning in the coming days, according to Hebrew media reports, including in the West Bank settlement-city of Ma’ale Adumim and several neighborhoods in the coastal city of Rishon Lezion.

In “green” and “yellow” communities, the education system will carry on normally for all grades.

Under Israel’s “traffic light” plan, each municipality is given a score between 0 and 10 based on several factors, including the number of new cases per 10,000 residents, the rate of positive tests in each town, and the rate of increase in the number of new patients in each town. Each locality is awarded a general color, as well as a separate classification for the education system.

A Magen David Adom medic administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine against the coronavirus for children to a young boy, in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, on December 23, 2021 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

While early studies suggest Omicron may not produce as severe symptoms as the less-transmissible Delta variant, experts in Israel say due to the rate at which the virus is spreading in the country there will still likely be a burden on hospitals due to the sheer number of cases.

The government has made vaccination its central strategy for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Vaccines are currently available for all people in Israel over the age of five.

According to Health Ministry figures Sunday, out of Israel’s population of roughly 9.5 million, 6,502,720 have had a least one vaccine shot, of which 5,876,953 have had two doses, and 4,191,735 have also had a third, or booster, shot.

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