Omicron: Just another virus or a cause for concern?

Despite there not being a single Omicron patient on a respirator at Ichilov, that is not to say none exist elsewhere in the country. 

 People pose with syringe with needle in front of displayed words "OMICRON SARS-COV-2" in this illustration taken, December 11, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)
People pose with syringe with needle in front of displayed words "OMICRON SARS-COV-2" in this illustration taken, December 11, 2021

Over the past week alone, Israel’s Health Ministry reported 276,671 new COVID-19 cases, marking an increase of 194.8% from the previous week. The Omicron wave is making its way through the population at an unprecedented rate, as seen by the record-breaking high of 48,200 cases in a single day last Thursday.

With that, however, it is undeniable that so far the Omicron variant appears to be milder than its predecessors. Although the number of serious cases is rising, and currently stands at 395, an increase of 184.2% since the previous week, it is rising more slowly than in previous weeks.

At the peak of the Delta wave, Israel had more than 700 serious cases of the virus, and the number of infected was much lower overall.

The seemingly less severe impact of Omicron on the health of those infected, coupled with the rate of infection crippling workplaces due to the number of people in quarantine, has led some to call for looser restrictions, saying the current model needs to be reexamined.

On Saturday evening, Prof. Idit Matot of Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv said: “These days we are marking two years since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and unfortunately, if there is one thing that still drives the decision-makers in this field, it is anxiety and the feeling of fear.”

ENTERING THE emergency room at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv.   (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)ENTERING THE emergency room at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“The Omicron variant belongs to the coronavirus family, but there is nothing there to compare it to previous strains, like the Alpha or Delta strain we experienced, which caused a prolonged and severe illness that caused fatal health damage with frequent need for respiration. That was then. That is not Omicron,” she wrote on Facebook.

“In fact, for a month now, we have been seeing and understanding that the Omicron strain is highly contagious but has minimal potential for damage. Minimal! We can see this; we do not have a single Omicron patient on a respirator here at Ichilov, not one,” Matot said.

However, while there may be no Omicron patient on a respirator at Ichilov, that does not mean there are none elsewhere in the country.

As of Friday, there were 92 coronavirus patients on ventilators, an increase of 23 from two days before.

“Unfortunately, instead of treating this strain accordingly, people are forced to be imprisoned in their homes and we are in a de facto lockdown, and the state is on the verge of collapse. Tell me, have we gone mad?” Matot asked, adding that isolation periods should be shortened or even ended.

“The madness of quarantine should be reevaluated,” she said. “Certainly for the asymptomatic. Certainly for the children who are owed a routine life. We rob them of childhood, development, learning, and give them fears and mental disorders… anyone who feels unwell should stay at home. Everyone else should go out freely and just do one thing – wear a mask.”

But do other medical professionals agree with Matot? Is Omicron really just another virus. Are the restrictions really disproportionate?

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Public Health, said although Omicron does seem more mild than previous strains, caution must still be taken.

“While it is quite clear that Omicron clinical effects are less prominent than previous variants, we can still find severe effects in high-risk groups,” he told The Jerusalem Post, adding that it might be time to reexamine current strategies that are in place for fighting the coronavirus, and the threat of the Omicron variant must still be taken seriously.

“Authorities and the public are making great efforts to successfully deal with the pandemic in a ‘living with coronavirus’ approach, while saving lives and continuing with life,” Davidovitch said. “At any point, it is our professional duty to reexamine the situation and pinpoint the response to the pandemic, while placing public health at the center.”

“It is essential to make sure that someone who is ill, even with mild symptoms, stays at home to avoid infecting others,” he said. “In addition to encouraging immunization against the coronavirus, action should be taken to encourage immunization against influenza and to maintain general health.

“Herd immunity is achieved through vaccines, not through mass infections,” Davidovitch said.

“I think that the current wave should be addressed partially with similar tools, such as vaccination and isolation for positive and symptomatic patients,” he said. “On the other hand, because of the widespread transmission in the community, we need to prioritize protecting mainly the elderly and high-risk groups.”

The burden placed on the health system could be lessened while still keeping the public safe, but it involves more than just wearing a mask, Davidovitch said.

“Ways should be explored to improve the protection of frontline health workers by providing better ventilation, better masks and improving the capabilities of remote treatment,” he said. “Priority should be given to focusing on testing for [symptomatic cases] or to treating high-risk people. Of course, those who test positive should remain in isolation to avoid infecting others.”

Another aspect of Omicron that remains largely unknown is the long-term effect it can have on people, even if the original case of the virus was mild.

Prof. Cyrille Cohen, head of immunotherapy at Bar-Ilan University, said there was a lack of knowledge regarding the Omicron variant and its long-term effects.

“Most of the long-term effects of COVID-19 are only visible after three months, and Omicron has only been around for a month and a half,” he told the Post. “So at the moment, it’s very difficult to know about the long-term effects.”

Omicron appears to be less severe, but it is too early to be certain that the overall risk is minimal, Cohen said.

“It is assumed that because the disease is less severe in general, long-term effects might also be less severe,” he said. “But this is only an assumption, and we need more data on the subject.”

“We do see that in general, the disease is less problematic. It is true that it is highly contagious, but Omicron patients are discharged earlier than Delta patients. On that front, it is undoubtedly good news,” Cohen said.