Israel begins fifth COVID wave with 55 Omicron cases confirmed

Gov’t considers labeling all of Europe red • Bennett calls on health funds to step up pace of vaccination campaign

 People sit in the arrivals section of the international terminal of Kingsford Smith International Airport the morning after Australia implemented an entry ban on non-citizens and non-residents intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, March 21, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/LOREN ELLIOTT)
People sit in the arrivals section of the international terminal of Kingsford Smith International Airport the morning after Australia implemented an entry ban on non-citizens and non-residents intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, March 21, 2020.

The number of Omicron cases in Israel has started to climb, according to the Health Ministry, as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pushes to step up the country’s vaccination campaign and considers labeling more countries red – and as top researchers say Israel has already begun its fifth wave.

There are now 55 people diagnosed with the Omicron variant in Israel, the Health Ministry said Saturday – an increase of 20 cases since Friday.

“Our national strategy at this stage is two-fold,” Bennett said Saturday night during a conversation with the heads of the country’s health funds, where he called on them to work toward stepping up the pace of Israel’s vaccination campaign. “The first is to delay the penetration of the Omicron strain into Israel as much as possible. The second is to raise the level of immunity of Israeli citizens.”

Only 5% of children who turned five this year and 9% of children ages six to 11 have been jabbed, and there are still a million Israelis eligible for a booster shot who have not gotten one.

“The rate of spread of the strain is extremely high, we see in the data from the world. I am concerned about this,” Bennett said. “The rule in epidemic management is to respond immediately at the onset [of an outbreak], while the situation still allows for effective action. The reason the situation in Israel is good is that we acted quickly and resolutely.

Travelers arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport last Sunday, the day before the government’s latest travel ban went into effect. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)Travelers arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport last Sunday, the day before the government’s latest travel ban went into effect. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

“Is it called an ‘exaggeration?’ I call it being responsible,” he said. “The more we protect Israel from the entry of the Omicron into the borders, the more we will be able to keep the economy open and allow the routine of life to continue.”

But the government is reportedly considering tightening restrictions even more, and late Saturday night Bennett convened party leaders in his coalition to discuss the matter.

The leaders decided to expand the current list of 50 red countries, which would mean that Israelis cannot travel to them without special permission and would have to enter a full period of isolation upon return.

"The list of red countries would be reviewed daily and updated frequently," a statement from the Prime Minister's Office said. "In the coming days, more countries will be added to the list of red countries according to the Ministry of Health's definitions."

N12 reported that one recommendation is to label all of Europe red, where Omicron cases are surging.

Bennett instructed health officials during the meeting to begin examining the roll out of a Green Pass outline for malls in collaboration with the relevant ministers.

Officials are also considering reverting back to previous COVID Green Pass restrictions, meaning tightening the limits on gatherings and requiring masks in outdoor settings of more than 100 people. 

OF THE COUNTRY’S 55 Omicron cases, 36 came back from abroad: South Africa, England, France, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Hungary, Italy and Belarus. Eleven of the new cases were in contact with returnees from South Africa and England, and eight people contracted the variant locally.

The vast majority of the 55 people who have the variant were protected (vaccinated or recovered) – 42 versus 13 who were either unvaccinated, received only two doses of the vaccine or recovered more than six months ago.

There were an additional 51 people who were highly suspicious of carrying the variant, the ministry said Saturday night.

Of those who are infected or suspected of being infected, 40 have symptoms, 63 are asymptomatic and there is not yet any data on the rest.

Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist for the Weizmann Institute of Science who advises the government, retweeted a message by an American scientist over the weekend providing an overview of what is known about the Omicron variant. The good news, it said, is that the cases are mostly mild and individuals with three Pfizer shots are likely still 95% protected against infection and protected against severe disease.

The bad news: the variant has a three-fold higher transmission rate than Delta and people who were infected and recovered have an increased chance of getting the virus.

He later wrote that “there is a high probability of an Omicron wave in Israel: It is more contagious, more infectious to people who recovered, and its arrival cannot be prevented. The rise can also be rapid.”

ON FRIDAY, researchers from Hebrew University warned that Israel has started a fifth COVID wave.

The coronavirus pandemic is spreading across the country in a “significant way,” the researchers said, adding that “the pandemic is spreading across all sectors and all age groups” for the first time since the fourth wave.

The researchers, who have been advising the coronavirus cabinet for over a year, submitted a report on their findings and predictions to the prime minister, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, the head of the National Security Council Eyal Hulata and Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis on Thursday night.

They noted that there could be several reasons for the outbreak, and not necessarily the Omicron, including the decreased level of immunity in those who received the third shot several months ago, an increase in infections in young families and an increase in cases in school.

The Hebrew University team offered a number of suggestions to help contain the virus outbreak, foremost among them working to delay the spread of the Omicron variant in Israel by maintaining restrictions on entry into the country.

On Thursday, Bennett and Horowitz ruled that airport restrictions would be maintained for an additional 10 days beyond their original December 11 expiration date. This means that foreigners can still not enter the country – and even fully vaccinated citizens must isolate themselves for three days on return.

“The time we will gain [with these restrictions] will make it possible to gather information regarding the necessity of the fourth dose for a vaccine modified to protect against Omicron,” the researchers said.

They noted that the reproduction rate must be lowered right away, since if there is an Omicron outbreak, hospitals could become overloaded again.

The reproduction rate, also known as the R, which represents the number of people a sick person will infect, was at 1.11 on Saturday night, up from 1.09 on Friday. An R over one means that the virus is spreading.

Enforcement of the Green Pass and mask-wearing should be set up, the researchers said, and officials should work to get the remaining one million Israelis who are eligible for a booster shot but have not taken one to get vaccinated.

THE GOVERNMENT had already decided late Thursday night to tighten the Green Class outline and increase testing of students participating in it over fears that the Omicron variant could spread in schools.

Currently, there are around 2,100 children between the ages of five and 11 who have tested positive for the virus, the Health Ministry data showed.

Bennett, Horowitz and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton met on Thursday evening and decided that the Green Class model allowing students to continue learning in school when a classmate has tested positive for the virus will no longer apply if two students or more test positive at the same time. In this case, all students in the classroom will have to enter isolation.

They said that the decision is because 5% of all reported childhood cases are from classrooms where two or more students were found to have the virus.

Classrooms where only one student is infected will still be able to operate according to the Green Class model.

However, the model is also changing. Going forward, if a student tests positive for the virus, then his or her classmates will have to take an additional PCR test on day three.

As the Green Class program currently stands, students test on days one and seven with a PCR test and then on the interim days with an antigen test.

Moreover, the Green Class model will also no longer apply in cases where a student is suspected of being infected specifically with the Omicron variant.

If a school is not enrolled in the Green Class program, then only vaccinated students will be able to learn frontally when a classmate is diagnosed with COVID. Unvaccinated students will need to learn via distance learning.

The decision on changing the Green Class program is not final, an announcement by the ministries said, but will be brought to the cabinet for approval on Sunday.

There were 566 new cases diagnosed on Friday, according to the Health Ministry’s Saturday night report. There were 102 people in serious condition, including 52 who were intubated.

The number of serious cases dropped below 100 for the first time on Thursday and has now started to climb again.

Israel had 5,855 citizens infected with COVID on Saturday night. The death toll stood at 8,210.