A lockdown would not help to curb the Omicron wave, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday, as Israel registered a record 41,154 new daily cases.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus cabinet convened to discuss the evolution of the situation. Earlier in the day, the Health Ministry announced that, starting Thursday, infected individuals will be able to quarantine for seven days instead of 10, provided that they did not experience any symptoms for the previous three days.
“A lockdown would not help, it has not helped anywhere in the world,” Bennett said during a press conference.
“Israel is following three guiding principles: Keep our economy open, protect the most vulnerable folks in society and the elders, and take care of our children. Many of them are vulnerable,” he added.
During the cabinet meeting and also in previous days, some health officials suggested that if the hospital system becomes overwhelmed by the number of hospitalized patients, serious restrictions such as a full closure could be needed. However, the prime minister rejected the idea.
At the same time, the high number of people infected and in quarantine, as well as the general fear of contracting the virus, have been creating what some are describing as an unofficial lockdown. Many individuals are either in isolation, working from home, or generally avoiding everyday activities such as shopping or dining out.
The prime minister noted that all workers will be compensated for the days in quarantine by the state, and not at the expense of the businesses, including for first-time independent workers. He added that the government would look into financial support for specific businesses or sectors hurt by the wave.
The authorities have also been concerned about shortages of workers in essential sectors, such as the health system and the army.
Overall, nearly 3,800 healthcare workers were in quarantine as of Tuesday, including 542 doctors and more than 1,000 nurses. The lack of staff in essential sectors has been one of the reasons that prompted the Health Ministry to reduce the length of quarantine.
The change was decided after the ministry conducted a study on 80 individuals infected by the Omicron variant who got tested every two days. The research demonstrated that after seven days, the chance to still be infected with live virus was very low (about 6%), making the possibility of transmitting the disease to others unlikely.
“We will not require isolation beyond what is necessary, in order to protect our health, and also the economy, education, culture and to preserve as much of normal life, along with the coronavirus, as possible,” said Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz.
Also on Tuesday, Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash sent out new guidelines to hospitals in order to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus by personnel, asking them to refrain from all unessential gatherings, and instructing them to test every patient and allow only one visitor per patient.
Bennett stressed that the situation is under control. He asked the public for cooperation and understanding in light of problems such as long lines at the testing stations.
“These will be difficult weeks,” he said. “We’ll get through this together.”
A total of 41,154 new virus carriers were identified on Monday with almost 400,000 PCR and antigen tests processed.
The country currently has 195,000 official active cases.
However, according to Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and an adviser to the government, the number is likely much higher.
“I estimate that we have already reached about 100,000 infected a day and that about 5%-8% of the population has been cumulatively infected in this wave,” he wrote on Twitter Tuesday morning.
“It is estimated that in London there were three to four times more infected than those verified,” he added. “In this wave, this is a reasonable deduction for us as well. So considering the 37,000 cases verified yesterday and 23,000 verified [daily] cases on a reasonable weekly average, we have already reached about 100,000 infected per day.”
Under the new testing policy that came into effect on Friday, healthy vaccinated individuals under 60 are not required to get checked at an official testing station if they are exposed to an infected individual, or present symptoms, although they can choose to take a test at home.
For this reason, there is an understanding that many cases are going undetected, both because of the level of compliance and because antigen tests, especially those taken at home, present a lower level of accuracy, especially for asymptomatic virus carriers.
Also among the new cases was Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
“Yes, I tested positive for the coronavirus,” Lapid wrote on Twitter. “I feel great because I’m vaccinated. Go get vaccinated, wear a mask. We will go through this together.”
The number that government and health officials are carefully following is the total of serious patients, which is crucial to guarantee that the health system can face the current wave.
As of Tuesday morning, there were 247 serious patients, 25 more than on the previous day.
On the previous Tuesday, there were 117. Of the 247 patients, 84% are over the age of 60, 10% between 40 and 59, and 6% younger than 40, including 2% of children ages 0-4.
Later in the day, the number reached 253.
“I asked the health system to be ready for up to 4,000 patients, even if the experts predict no more than 2,500,” Bennett said in the press conference. He stressed that many measures have been prepared, including adding beds or postponing nonessential treatments.
While most of those in serious condition are not vaccinated, the number of inoculated Israelis whose condition is deteriorating, especially among the elderly, has been growing. However, according to data presented during the cabinet and reported by the Hebrew website Ynet, none of the boosted patients in serious condition had received their third shot in the past three months.
The hope among health officials is that the fourth vaccine will help boost protection offered by previous inoculations.
So far, more than 413,000 people over the age of 60 have received a fourth shot.