The first group of Israelis over 60 received their fourth coronavirus vaccine on Monday, as authorities announced that the country’s testing policies will change in light of the surge in cases that is causing severe overcrowding at testing stations.
Several thousand individuals were already jabbed in the first day of the new vaccination campaign, which kicked off a day after Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash authorized the new booster for the age group as well as for medical staff.
Among them were Berta Naim, 86, and Mimi Barak, 63, both members of Clalit Health Services from Jerusalem.
“I feel great and I thank my doctor,” Barak said. “It is because of him that I am here to receive the fourth vaccine.”
In addition, more than 50,000 people have already booked their appointments for the upcoming days. In order to receive the shot, individuals over 60 and medical staff need to have been boosted with a third shot at least four months earlier.
Also on Monday, Israelis continued to stand in long lines to get checked as the country recorded an increase of 220% in the number of new cases during the previous week compared to the seven days before, with a total of 31,000 virus carriers identified.
Over 6,500 new cases were recorded on Sunday, Health Ministry’s data showed on Monday. On the previous Sunday, there were 1,806.
“Unfortunately, the peak of the wave is still ahead of us,” said Coronavirus Commissioner Prof. Salman Zarka at a press briefing.
“In this situation, light restrictions are not going to help,” he said. “We do not want to impose useless measures just to say that we did.”
THE CAPABILITY of the coronavirus testing stations has been severely strained due to the surge in cases.
The number of tests performed every day has been increasing – around 226,000 tests were processed on Sunday, including 144,000 PCRs and 82,000 antigens, a figure similar to that of Thursday and significantly higher than weekdays on the previous weeks.
However, as morbidity surges, the demand in tests has also been skyrocketing, which has led to the long lines.
“I ask you all to show patience and understanding,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a press conference on Sunday night. “If there are problems, and there are – such as the long lines for tests that we are familiar with – we will deal with it. But, at the same time, the situation is one of a great number of verified cases, above and beyond the reasonable capacity of the system.
“Therefore, even now we are preparing to change the criteria regarding tests in order to quickly reduce the severe crowding,” he noted.
Among the policies being considered are to allow individuals who had been found positive to test for recovery through an antigen test instead of a PCR, and asymptomatic individuals under the age of 60 exposed to a verified patient to be exempt from quarantine also with an antigen. In addition, the ministry is considering allowing Israelis to use at-home tests in certain circumstances, as Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz confirmed in an interview on Channel 12.
Horowitz said that a comprehensive plan will be reached and published in the upcoming days. But the minister denied other reports in the Israeli media saying that health officials were considering canceling the green pass system in light of the high number of cases.
SPEAKING BEFORE the Knesset Health Committee earlier in the day, Ilana Gens, head of the ministry's Public Health Services headquarters, said that the country’s laboratories have only a limited ability to increase the number of PCR tests they are able to process, which currently stands at about 170,000 tests per day.
“In the coming days, we will be able to increase it to 200,000 tests a day, and the results will be received within 36 hours,” she said. “We will not be able to expand further and the time required for the results will be longer.”
She noted that while PCRs are about 95% effective in detecting the presence of the virus even in asymptomatic patients, antigen tests are only 65% effective in such patients, and for this reason, it would be preferrable to use them with vaccinated or recovered individuals.
In the briefing, Zarka also said that the authorities were working on expanding structures offering antigen tests, including in schools, offices and police stations.
But the situation is still likely to lead to many cases going unchecked.
“Due to the lack of tests in light of the number of verified cases that are already here or will arrive, verified cases will not give a credible picture of the outbreak,” said Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science and an adviser to the government.
“The most reliable assessment, though delayed, is that of serious patients,” he added on his Twitter account.
At the moment, serious morbidity has been increasing at a much slower pace than general morbidity, as demonstrated by the different reproduction rates of the two parameters.
For the former, the R rate – which shows how the average number of new cases each virus carrier generates – stood at 1.88 as of Monday, the highest since the Delta wave in June. The R for serious patients was only 1.1, however.
There were 108 serious patients as of Monday morning, slightly lower than the previous day, but significantly higher than on the previous Monday, when they were 83. Of the 108, some 82 were not vaccinated at all, eight had been inoculated more than six months earlier as well as 18 who had received a booster, all of them older than 60.
“The situation is under control and is much better compared to the rest of the world,” said Horowitz speaking with the Knesset Meretz faction. “There is no need to panic.”
MEANWHILE, regulations regarding the Green Class outline expired on Monday.
Under the program, if there was one verified patient in a class, that student's classmates did not have to automatically enter quarantine. Rather, they needed to take a PCR test and if found to be negative, undergo a rapid antigen test every day for a week, followed by a final PCR test. If they did not test positive at any stage, they were able to continue attending school.
Zarka said that the outline could not be applied under Omicron, because of its high infectiousness.
“It would lead to a surge in cases,” he noted. “Our first duty is to protect the health of the students.”
The Health Ministry’s position will likely meet the opposition of Education Minister Yifat Shasha Biton, who has been asking for the program to be renewed.
Also on Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited the Alon Headquarters tasked with helping civilian institutions in the fight against the pandemic.
“The IDF continues to assist the health system with any operational need – we are recruiting hundreds of researchers, we manage hotels, and we are also expanding the capability of the various testing stations,” he said, adding that “the Home Front Command will begin a targeted assistance program for quarantined people in need and for seniors.”