COVID-19 cases hit new record as Israel changes testing policies

Nearly 12,00 new virus were identified on Tuesday, highest since the beginning of the pandemic * PCR tests reserved for at risk population.

 Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear work in the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 23, 2021.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear work in the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 23, 2021.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

As coronavirus cases continued to surge in Israel on Wednesday, with an all-time high of more than 12,500 new virus carriers identified the day before, authorities announced significant updates in testing guidelines to reserve PCR tests for at-risk groups. They also acknowledged that other changes might be needed in isolation and Green Pass policies.

“The Omicron wave presents a different behavior than previous ones, and it forces us to take new steps and adopt a specific perspective,” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said during a press briefing with Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash, Coronavirus Commissioner Prof. Salman Zarka, and Public Health Services head Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis.

Starting Friday, when a vaccinated or recovered individual is exposed to a verified case or experiences symptoms, they will be required to undergo a PCR test only if they are over 60 or have underlying medical conditions. Those exact definitions are still under discussion.

PCR tests are more accurate in detecting the virus than antigen or “rapid” tests, especially those performed at home.

For at-risk patients, a timely and accurate diagnosis is crucial to be able to receive the new antiviral treatments that significantly reduce the risk of developing serious disease.

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with the Coronavirus, in Modi'in, on July 21, 2021.  (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with the Coronavirus, in Modi'in, on July 21, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Healthy protected individuals will be able to perform an at-home antigen test or to undergo an antigen test at a testing station.

In both cases, if they are found negative, they are exempt from quarantine. If, however, they are found positive, they will need to quarantine for 10 days. Those who performed an at home test need to repeat it at a testing station in order to qualify officially as sick – which is important both to receive financial compensation and for issues related to the Green Pass system.

After 10 days, everyone can leave isolation with a doctor’s note, without the need for a further test.

Individuals who are not vaccinated or recovered – including those who received their shots or recovery certificates more than six months earlier – people over 60, or at-risk individuals who are exposed to a verified case or present symptoms, are also required to undergo a PCR test.

If the result shows they are infected, they need to isolate for 10 days, after which they can be considered recovered provided that they receive an approval from their doctor. If they are not infected, they need to isolate for a minimum of seven days and undergo a PCR test on the last day.

Non-protected healthy individuals are required to get an antigen test at a testing station and quarantine for 10 days if positive and for a minimum of seven days if negative. In order to leave isolation, in the first case they need a doctor’s note, in the second case, another antigen test.

Someone who cares for a minor under 12 who is infected will need to stay in isolation with them, even if they are vaccinated.

THE MINISTRY also decided that starting Thursday, it will be possible to perform antigen tests in schools, starting with 3,200 elementary schools all over the country.

Horowitz and the other officials stressed that the new system will place an even higher responsibility on the individual, as Israel continues to strive to find a balance between protecting public health and preserving normal life and an open economy during the pandemic.

“This is indeed a very significant change,” said Ash. “’It has the purpose of identifying morbidity among individuals at risk as fast as possible and prevent serious disease.”

“We are looking less at the number of cases,” he further noted.

Asked whether the new testing rules mean more changes will come in other areas, such as quarantine and Green Pass, he said while this is not on the agenda at the moment, it will be discussed in the future.

“We want to still preserve the other tools that we have to prevent infection as much as possible,” he noted. “For now, we are not making any further change in other policies such as the isolation or the Green Pass systems, but this is a different era and we will need to think about all of these questions in the future.”

Antigen tests offered at testing stations for those exposed to a verified patient or presenting symptoms, as well as PCRs, are funded by the state, while at-home tests need to be purchased at the individual’s own expense.

The new policies have been decided in light of the unprecedented surge in cases – with as many as 50,000 Israelis expected to contract the virus each day in the upcoming weeks.

Israel already broke the record for new cases detected in a single day on Wednesday, with 11,978 new virus carriers identified in the previous 24 hours.

Around 6.6% of the 190,000 PCR tests processed on Tuesday returned a positive result, as the country continued to register problems of severe overcrowding at its testing stations.

The number of serious patients also increased, reaching 129 – most of whom (86) were not vaccinated. On the previous day, there were 116 such patients. At the peak of previous waves, Israel had hundreds of serious patients.

While Omicron appears to be generally milder in terms of symptoms, in light of its high infectiousness, health experts expect that similar numbers of serious patients will also be reached and even surpassed in this wave.

The country’s death toll stood at 8,753 as of Wednesday night, with seven people who succumbed to the virus in the previous week, a number that remains very small compared to the peak of the other waves, when dozens of patients died on a single day.