4% of severe cases in Omicron wave could be young children

1,118 individuals have been confirmed as carrying the Omicron variant * Health Ministry D-G delays approval of fourth shot * Pfizer and Merck COVID drugs en route to Israel

 People some with facemasks shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 24, 2021. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
People some with facemasks shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 24, 2021.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The Omicron wave could bring a surge in young severe patients, researchers at Hebrew University of Jerusalem have warned the government, as the number of daily cases topped 1,700 and Omicron cases spiked by nearly 600.

Experts from Hebrew University shared their predictions for the Omicron wave with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett over the weekend, saying that 4% of severe cases will be children under the age of 12 by late January, assuming vaccination rates continue at their current pace.

Currently, there is only one child in serious condition.

The government was holding an emergency meeting late Saturday about how to manage the country’s most vulnerable population, while some students were heading to Zoom school and the malls are expected to operate according to a stricter outline. The meeting had not been completed by press time.

There were 1,775 new cases diagnosed on Friday, the Health Ministry reported Saturday night. That is more than a 50% increase from the previous Friday when only 877 new cases were diagnosed.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (purple) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. (credit: NIH/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (purple) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. (credit: NIH/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

A quarter of new cases (25.4%) – the largest cohort – are under the age of 20. And nearly 40% of people infected have had three COVID vaccine shots.

Moreover, the number of serious cases, which has been holding at around 80 for a week, jumped up to 90 on Saturday evening. In this case, however, 75% of severe patients were unvaccinated.

The reproduction (reinfection) rate or “R” had hit 1.4 on Saturday night, the highest since July. The positivity rate of those tested was 1.4%.

Overall, in the previous week, 8,652 new virus carriers had been identified, marking an 83% increase compared to the previous seven days.

“The Omicron wave is here,” according to a tweet Friday morning by Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

By Saturday night, there were another 591 people infected with the new variant, the Health Ministry said, bringing the total number of Omicron cases to 1,118. On Friday, there were only 527 cases.

Moreover, there were 861 people considered highly suspicious of carrying the variant as of Saturday night.

The seemingly low number is likely because of the time it takes to genetically sequence the results of the PCR tests. It is therefore assumed that the number of Omicron cases is much higher than being reported.

THE LAST situation report published by the Health Ministry, which has slightly different numbers than its data dashboard and was sent on Friday morning, showed that almost all of the country’s 10,527 cases at the time were in mild condition. There were 10,424 mild cases and 17 moderate cases. Among the serious cases, 37 were intubated.

The death toll stood at 8,241.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was holding consultations late Saturday with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and other top officials to assess the situation further.

The prime minister asked to strengthen the Magen Avot (Parents Shield) program, which monitors and protects senior living facilities, shortly after an outbreak in a facility in Savyon in central Israel where 20 residents and five staff members were infected. All of them were highly suspected to have contracted Omicron.

In addition, the prime minister also plans to speed up the purchase of fifty million coronavirus antigen tests and verify what other equipment might be needed now and in preparation for a future, potential sixth wave.

Meanwhile, entrance into any store larger than 100 square meters will now require a Green Pass, the coronavirus cabinet approved Friday shortly before Shabbat via a telephone vote. The rule will also apply to employees of these stores.

The outline for malls and other shopping complexes was devised by the National Security Council and the Health Ministry and presented at the last cabinet meeting.

The plan calls for malls to operate according to a strict Purple Ribbon outline, which means that occupancy can be one person for every 15 square meters in the larger shopping center. Stores that sell essential items, such as pharmacies and grocery stores, will adhere to this outline and no Green Pass will be required.

However, Green Passes will need to be presented to enter food courts and restaurants. At food courts, only takeaway will be permitted.

The regulations go into effect at midnight between Sunday and Monday, pending approval by the Knesset.

Bennett had wanted to require a Green Pass for entry into the mall itself, but fierce opposition by retailers and some ministers led to this latest plan instead.

ISRAEL HAS continued to keep its airport closed to foreign travelers. The majority of the places that most citizens visit are “red,” meaning that they are listed on the country’s no-fly list unless special permission is received. As such, the majority of people are catching the virus in Israel.

More municipalities are also starting to turn red as a result. There were two red cities on Saturday night and 13 orange ones.

The coronavirus cabinet voted late Thursday to slightly alter the outline for schools to make it more flexible for students to continue to meet with each other.

The original outline said that in red and orange cities, students in classrooms where less than 70% of classmates were vaccinated would need to learn from home. The cabinet voted instead to allow students in grades 7-12 whose classrooms meet these criteria to learn outside in open spaces as an alternative.

Of course, the weather in Israel has been rainy and cold, meaning that learning outside is not currently an option. Younger grades 1-6 in red and orange cities will run under a policy of “reducing contact” rather than at home if less than 70% of the class is vaccinated.

A student will be considered vaccinated if the individual has had at least one shot, from the day of the shot for 30 days.

The new regulations go into effect on December 27, pending approval of the Knesset.

HOWEVER, despite a recommendation last week by the Pandemic Response Team and COVID-19 Vaccination Advisory Board and the number of rising cases, Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash has still not approved an outline for administering fourth shots in Israel.

Committee members had recommended a booster dose for anyone over the age of 60, immunocompromised individuals and medical workers fourth months after their third jab. Bennett and Horowitz celebrated the move, but Ash has still not affirmed it.

Reports indicated that the director-general was holding off amid reports that the variant may cause less severe disease.

There is also room for optimism in that Israel will have tens of thousands of doses of COVID-19 antiviral pills that are expected to help stop the progression of the disease.

Israel is expected to receive thousands of doses of Merck’s molnupiravir oral antiviral drug within the next two weeks, The Jerusalem Post has confirmed.

Merck is known as MSD outside of the United States and Canada. The Health Ministry had signed an agreement with MSD in advance to receive the drug that was conditional on its getting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Molnupiravir received Emergency Use Authorization on Thursday evening in Israel.

The drug is used to treat mild to moderate coronavirus in adults over 18 who are at high risk of developing severe COVID. The recommendation is to administer the drug as soon as possible after a diagnosis and within five days of symptom onset.

Britain already ordered 2.5 million doses of molnupiravir and the United States five million.

Israel is also expected to receive 100,000 doses of Pfizer’s antiviral treatment, Paxlovid, which likewise was emergency approved by the FDA last week.

N12 said that an agreement was finalized over the weekend. The pill has been shown to reduce the chances of developing serious disease by 90%.

Bennett said in early November at a cabinet meeting that Israel had arranged with the pharmaceutical giant to purchase the doses.

“If the drug is approved for use, it will be another significant tool in managing the pandemic, together with vaccines for everyone and accessible tests for everyone, all the time,” the prime minister said.