US could be ‘red’ this week as experts say COVID wave 5 on its way

Netanyahu in isolation, but tests negative for corona * Omicron cases spike to 134 * ‘Strict’ Purple Ribbon to be rolled out at malls

 A SIGN at Ben-Gurion Airport directs passengers to the COVID-19 testing area. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
A SIGN at Ben-Gurion Airport directs passengers to the COVID-19 testing area.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The US and Canada are reportedly on a short list of countries that could be labeled red by the government on Sunday, as the number of Omicron cases soars above 130, daily cases hit an all-time high and the positivity rate neared 1%.

More than 100 people were sent into isolation after an Omicron outbreak at the Knesset.

In order to slow the entry of Omicron into Israel, the government has continued to impose travel restrictions on foreigners and Israelis, including labeling a growing number of countries red.

Israelis are banned from traveling to red states without special permission, and anyone who returns to Israel from a red country is required to quarantine for a minimum of seven days whether the person is vaccinated or not.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said he wants to close the airport to all travel, including to Israelis, just for a brief period in order to learn more about the Omicron variant – specifically whether it causes serious disease. Data already shows that it is at least four times more infectious than its Delta predecessor.

A Clalit health worker fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at Cinema City in Jerusalem. (credit: CLALIT HEALTH SERVICES)A Clalit health worker fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at Cinema City in Jerusalem. (credit: CLALIT HEALTH SERVICES)

However, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz is opposed to closing the skies. Instead, the ministers have reportedly agreed to add a strategic list of countries to the red list. These are expected to include the US, Canada, Morocco, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Turkey – essentially closing the skies.

“Most of the Omicron cases are coming from abroad,” Horowitz said in an interview with N12 on Saturday night. “As such, we need to restrict [travel] from specific destinations.”

He said, “Infection is really spreading throughout the world, and we want to benefit from a little time.”A spokesperson for the Health Ministry said no decision has been made on these or other countries, but that the ministry is carefully following the data of every country.

Top health officials in the US have warned that the country should expect a massive Omicron outbreak in the coming weeks. Already in New York, COVID cases hit a record high over the weekend: more than 21,000 daily cases.

Locally, a “strict” Purple Ribbon outline will likely be applied to all indoor shopping malls, the Prime Minister’s Office said late Friday night.

The announcement came after days of discussions on how to manage shopping malls.

The decision was made jointly by Bennett, Horowitz, Economy Minister Orna Barbivay and MK Abir Kara.

One person for every 15 sq.m. will be allowed to shop, and increased enforcement of mask-wearing will be established.

Moreover, the officials agreed, mall hours will be extended in order to accommodate shoppers, and immunization complexes will be set up in 50 main centers in the malls to encourage people to get the jab. Those who are vaccinated will enjoy special privileges.

Bennett had wanted to require that the malls operate under the Green Pass outline, meaning that individuals would have to be fully vaccinated or take a COVID test to enter the facilities. The only exception would have been to access essential products. However, fierce opposition by retailers and some members of the government on Thursday pushed the plan to the side.

If morbidity rates continue to climb, the Green Pass outline will once again be considered for any facility over 100 sq.m., according to the announcement.

This plan is still not final. It will be discussed at the cabinet meeting on Sunday, drafted as regulations and then voted on by the coronavirus cabinet via telephone poll. Once passed, the outline will begin immediately.

Meanwhile, the virus is spreading throughout the country, and the number of Omicron cases is going up. On Friday, the Health Ministry reported 134 cases of Omicron.

Eighty-six of the people infected returned to Israel from abroad, another 28 came in contact with infected people, and only 20 caught in from an unknown source in Israel.

The majority of the infected were fully vaccinated (92), while another 42 people were either unvaccinated, recovered or had two shots more than six months ago.

This is a 45-case increase since the previous Omicron report a few days ago. There are another 307 highly suspicious cases in the country, the ministry said.

Moreover, on both Friday and Saturday, more than 800 people were reported to be diagnosed with the virus – 838 were reported on Friday and 873 on Saturday night. This is the highest number of new daily cases since late October.

Among the people who tested positive were four Knesset staffers, which caused 130 people to enter quarantine, including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesh Atid MK Simon Davidson, the Knesset spokesperson said.

Netanyahu tested negative for coronavirus on Saturday.

One of the four infected people is on the list of being highly suspicious of carrying the Omicron variant. Netanyahu specifically was in contact with a trainer at the Knesset gym on Wednesday, it is unclear if this individual is on the list of highly suspicious cases.

Friday’s announcement came only one day after 21 other Knesset employees, including United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush, were asked to quarantine when a Knesset security guard tested positive for Omicron. Porush has since tested negative twice and left isolation.

The country’s Omicron regulations require that even people who are fully vaccinated and come in contact with an Omicron carrier must be isolated for a minimum of three days.

“We are likely to soon see a significant wave,” Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist for the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot said in an interview with N12.

The rate of people testing positive has started to climb, hitting 0.95% on Saturday night.

Finally, the reproduction rate or “R” that indicates how many people a sick person will infect continues to hold above one, meaning that morbidity is spreading. On Saturday night, the Health Ministry showed it at 1.11.

The only number that continues to decline is the number of hospitalizations – 81 people were in serious condition and only 41 were intubated as of Saturday night.

The small number of hospitalizations could be a sign that the vaccines are working to ward off severe disease even if they are not stopping infection. Only one vaccinated person under the age of 60 was in the hospital, according to ministry data on Friday.

Segal said it is still unclear if Omicron is less likely to cause serious disease, as has been reported by South Africa. He said the data in Britain are showing otherwise and it will take another week or two to be sure.

Segal added that even if Omicron is 1% to 2% less likely to cause severe disease, the country will still need to reduce the number of daily cases through travel or domestic restrictions and vaccination.

There are still three million Israelis who are eligible for a vaccine who have not gotten one: Just under 90% of all children between the ages of five and 11; a million Israelis who are eligible for a booster shot; and around 750,000 Israelis who have chosen not to get inoculated at all.

Horowitz said on TV that the Health Ministry will be increasing vaccination in schools this week, with complexes being set up at 500 schools throughout the country so that “every child can get vaccinated close to home.”

Finally, the Pandemic Response Team is expected to meet this week to once again discuss whether the country should provide a fourth COVID vaccine shot to the elderly and immunocompromised. Horowitz said this is a decision that would need to be made by medical professionals and not politicians.

Only last week, the team and the Advisory Committee on Vaccines decided against such a move.