Some 5,745 new daily COVID-19 cases were recorded across Israel on Sunday, with a positive return rate of 11.4% for the 50,422 PCR and antigen tests taken.
Of the 36,590 currently active coronavirus cases, 361 are considered to be serious, with 176 patients in critical condition, 25 connected to ECMO breathing machines and 153 intubated.
Overall, since the start of the pandemic two years ago, a total of 10,379 coronavirus related deaths have been recorded across the country, 46 of which occurred within the last seven days.
In contrast to what Israel was seeing just over a month ago, when over 60,000 new cases were being recorded every day, these numbers are low, and people understand that the Omicron wave is now considered to be over.
The data indicate this, too. The number of new cases over the last seven days dropped by 16.5% in comparison to a week prior, and the number of serious cases by 28.5%. Most importantly perhaps, the number of deaths recorded in the last seven days was almost 60% lower than it had been a week earlier. All the statistics seem to be pointing to a continuous decline in cases, besides one.
The reproduction rate, or R number, refers to the average number of people that one infected person will infect. When the R exceeds one, the number of cases will keep increasing until brought back under control again. Having been measuring between 0.67 and 0.74 for the last month, the R is rising again.
As of Monday morning, it had risen to 0.86, and while it is still significantly below one, if it continues to rise it may once again cross that crucial threshold.
What could be causing the R number to rise again?
WHILE IT is unclear what exactly is causing this rise, it could be attributed to two different factors: The ending of restrictions or the BA.2 variant.
Countries worldwide have reported a rise in cases over the last few days, including the United Kingdom, which recently removed all COVID-19 restrictions. Additionally, France reported a 25% rise in new cases on Monday, according to Reuters, after enjoying a steady downward trend since late January.
Since Israel recently reopened the country to tourism – regardless of vaccination status – and removed the majority of remaining restrictions, it stands to reason that this trend would be visible here as well.
However, the other reason that may be behind the rising R number is more worrisome. The BA.2 variant, a subvariant of Omicron, first began circulating in late January, overtaking Omicron as the dominant strain in several places.
While Omicron was the most contagious variant to date at the time of its discovery, and caused almost uncontrollable outbreaks around the world, BA.2 has been found to be even more contagious, with researchers reporting it to be roughly 30-34% more infectious than Omicron.
However, when speaking to The Jerusalem Post last month, WHO regional emergency director Dr. Dorit Nitzan expressed doubt that the variant would cause another wave of cases, saying that it was too similar to the original Omicron variant to make the chance of reinfection a real concern. A month later, additional research seems to be pointing in the same direction.
In early March, the BA.2 variant was responsible for 11% of new cases in the United States, in comparison to just 1% a month earlier, the New York Times reported on Monday. However, even as concerns grow about it becoming the most dominant variant in the country, researchers do not think it will cause a new wave of the virus to spread once more.
EVEN AS the variant became more common, the newspaper stated, the overall number of new cases in the country fell by around 95%. Additionally, the number of new cases worldwide has fallen by half compared to late January.
These two occurrences – the end of pandemic restrictions and the spread of BA.2 – may be connected, however, with research suggesting that the removal of restrictions may be making it easier for BA.2 to cause a surge in cases.
A new British study titled “The Omicron SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in England during February 2022,” examines data collected from early February until the beginning of March and argues that the high rates of infections in parts of the UK have been caused by a combination of removing all pandemic restrictions and the BA.2 variant.
“The ongoing replacement by BA.2 of other Omicron sublineages demonstrates a transmission advantage for BA.2 which may be contributing to the high rates of infection, alongside the opening up of society as all domestic legal restrictions related to COVID-19 in England were lifted,” the study reads.
However, even as rates rise, many scientists are not too concerned since the already existing vaccines seem to still be effective against the Omicron subvariant. A study published by the New York State Health Department on March 6 indicated that only 8.9% of fully-vaccinated people had experienced a breakthrough case of the virus.
“These results indicate that laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections and hospitalizations with COVID-19 have been uncommon events among the population of people who are fully-vaccinated,” the report concludes.
While it is unclear what lies ahead for Israel when it comes to the future of COVID-19, it seems that for now at least, there are no urgent variants of concern and the R number has yet to come close to reaching one.
Should it hit that redline, however, it may be a different story.