Sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in Israel may be caused by BA.5 variant

Health Ministry recommends that people once again start wearing masks in enclosed spaces.

 The COVID-19 vaccine (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
The COVID-19 vaccine (illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Israel has seen a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases over the last few days, with 5,817 new cases recorded throughout the day on Sunday and a 26.38% positive return rate for the 22,053 authorized PCR and antigen tests taken.

Over the last week, the country has recorded some 33,000 new coronavirus cases, marking a 105% increase in cases compared to the prior week. The sharp uptick in cases can also be seen in the reproductive rate, which is currently at 1.51. When the R-rate gets above 1.0, it means the virus is actively spreading.

Although 5,800 cases might not sound like much in comparison to the peak of the last wave caused by the Omicron variant, it is a significant increase compared to 10 days ago on June 3, when just 2,400 new cases were recorded. In fact, for the last month, recorded cases were consistently steady, measuring from 2,000-2,500 on most days, with a decrease on weekends.

The number of serious cases has also risen slightly, although not significantly, with 100 people currently considered to be in serious condition. Of that number, 22 people are intubated and two are connected to ECMO machines.

The number of serious patients over the last month has mostly fluctuated from 80-95 but rose to 108 on Sunday.

 COVID-19: People living in the shadow of the coronavirus (Illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY) COVID-19: People living in the shadow of the coronavirus (Illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY)

Despite the rise in cases, there has not been a significant increase in deaths, with one or two people dying due to coronavirus-related reasons each day for the past month. Unless there is a significant increase in serious cases, this number is unlikely to rise, even if case numbers continue to spike.

To date, 10,882 coronavirus-related deaths have been recorded in Israel since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Time to mask up?

The Health Ministry issued a statement on Monday afternoon recommending that people once again begin wearing masks in enclosed spaces for the first time since the requirement was removed in April.

“In recent days, there has been an extremely sharp increase in the number of verified COVID-19 cases in Israel, and with this, there has also been a jump in serious illnesses,” read the statement.

Stressing the importance of maintaining both day-to-day routines and public health, the statement continued: “In a situation where the economy is completely open, routine is maintained and there are no restrictions, the personal responsibility to protect each and every one of us arises. Therefore, we ask you to make sure to wear a mask in closed spaces, not because it is obligatory but because it is an act of solidarity and caring for others.”

“We ask you to make sure to wear a mask in closed spaces, not because it is obligatory - but because it is an act of solidarity and caring for others.”

Health Ministry

The Health Ministry also stressed the importance of following scientific evidence regarding the use of face masks in preventing the spread of infection. It said in a statement, “Although there are those who consistently try to sow doubts about the effectiveness of masks, the scientific information about their effectiveness in preventing infection and infecting others with the virus is well-founded and solid.”

Currently, wearing masks in enclosed spaces is just a recommendation and not obligatory as it was from April 2020-April 2022. However, if cases continue to rise, it is possible that masks in enclosed spaces will once again become mandatory.

What is the reason for the spike in cases?

The reason has not been confirmed but is likely that it is the same reason multiple other countries have also reported a recent increase in COVID-19 cases – the BA.5 Omicron subvariant.

The BA.5 variant was first detected in South Africa in February of this year, although it is likely it did not actually originate there. Rather, due to Israel performing more genetic sequencing tests on COVID-19 samples than many other countries, this was just the first place that it was detected through genetic sequencing.

The BA.5 variant has been classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization as well as by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, according to a report from Reuters last Wednesday.

A recent report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the BA.5 variant now accounts for 7.6% of all new COVID-19 cases, with similar data coming from elsewhere including Germany, which has reported that an estimated 10% of all new cases are the BA.5 subvariant. Data from some other countries are more concerning, however, with Portugal reporting that the BA.5 variant is responsible for 80% of all cases.

Similar to the original Omicron variant, the BA.5 subvariant is once again more transmissible than its predecessors but also causes milder illness than previous variants such as Delta.