Omicron COVID variant: Two Sheba doctors suspected to be infected

Knesset extends Big Coronavirus Law * UN says concerned over African travel ban * Minister recommends sanctioning unvaccinated

People who arrived on a flight from England arrive to the Dan Panorama Hotel used as a quarantine facility, on December 20, 2020.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
People who arrived on a flight from England arrive to the Dan Panorama Hotel used as a quarantine facility, on December 20, 2020.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

Two doctors, both from Sheba Medical Center, are suspected of being positive for the Omicron variant, the hospital confirmed. 

The news comes as the Knesset extended the Big Coronavirus Law and as the UN secretary-general condemned countries for rolling out travel restrictions against African states.

The first Sheba doctor, a physician who returned from a medical conference in London a few days ago, tested positive for coronavirus and is thought to have the variant, although his genetic sequencing results have not yet returned.

He was in contact with a second doctor, around age 70, who has also now tested positive for coronavirus. His PCR results are being genetically sequenced, as well.

A spokesperson for the hospital said there is reason to believe that they both have the variant.

THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

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Regarding the first doctor, the hospital said in a statement on Monday that “the doctor is vaccinated with three doses of the coronavirus vaccine, his condition is mild and he is improving,” adding that he does not need any medical attention.

A cardiologist, the doctor performed several catheterizations and attended at least two other large events before experiencing symptoms and testing. All of the doctor's contacts have been alerted and are being tested.

The second doctor, also a cardiologist, was likewise fully vaccinated.

If these doctors are found to be infected with the variant, they would be the third and fourth such cases in the country.

A first case was detected over the weekend and a second case on Sunday. Another 14 people are suspected of carrying the variant, the Health Ministry said Monday at the Knesset. Some of the suspicious cases are people who returned from abroad, but many others are not, meaning the variant might already be circulating in Israel.

Omicron has caused a stir worldwide, and especially in Israel, where the Knesset on Monday decided to extend the Big Coronavirus Law through the end of January 2022, allowing the government to bypass the Knesset and implement urgent COVID restrictions without the need for approval.

The Knesset said that the decision to extend the law is based on an understanding that doing so could “prevent the real risk of a widespread outbreak of coronavirus in Israel and serious harm to public health, which may occur if the restrictions and measures to reduce the spread of the disease are not possible.” 

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chair MK Gilad Kariv said that a comprehensive and exhaustive discussion on the bill would take place in the near future with the aim of improving the legislation, which Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz had called “the end of democracy” when he sat in the opposition. 

MEANWHILE, the Knesset has approved all but minor details of the travel and gathering restrictions announced by the coronavirus cabinet on Saturday night, including labeling some 50 Arab states “red,” meaning that Israelis cannot travel to them and anyone who returns from such a country would be required to isolate for a minimum of seven days - at least for some part in a coronavirus hotel. 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres condemned countries, including Israel, who rolled out immediate travel bans against these countries due to the Omicron variant in a statement Monday evening.

“I am now deeply concerned about the isolation of southern African countries due to new COVID-19 travel restrictions,” Guterres said. “The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world.

“I appeal to all governments to consider repeated testing for travelers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures, with the objective of avoiding the risk of transmission so as to allow for travel and economic engagement,” he said.

Less than 6% of the population in African states has been inoculated, according to the latest reports. The low rate is fueled by a combination of a lack of vaccines and much of the African continent’s inability to store and deliver the vaccines it has.

Israel was not the only country to label these countries red or roll out travel restrictions, though it was among the first. 

At the same time, at least one Israeli minister is thinking of taking a tip from Austria and Germany, supporting slapping sanctions on anyone who refuses to take a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I strongly support imposing sanctions on the non-vaccinated,” Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen said in an interview on Israel’s morning news. “The moment will come when we have to raise the level of sanctions. If we reach a situation where we have to make such a decision, I will support [the sanctions].”

To date, there are around 600,000 eligible Israelis who have still not received their first shot and about a million others who have not yet gotten a booster. The majority of patients in serious condition in Israel’s hospitals are unvaccinated. Some 50% of new daily cases are children and most of the rest are people who have either not been inoculated or are no longer fully vaccinated. 

Earlier this month, Austria ruled that people who have refused to get vaccinated would not be allowed to leave their homes except to go to work, buy food or in the case of emergencies. In Germany, only people who are fully vaccinated or who recently recovered from COVID-19 are allowed to enter restaurants, movie theaters and sports facilities.

Cohen said he would support measures, potentially including  partial lockdowns or fines, saying that unvaccinated people “endanger others.”

The government needs to step up its efforts to encourage vaccination, he said, including going house to house and into places of work in order to convince people to get the jab.

“Ultimately, we are a democratic state,” Cohen admitted. “We will sit in the coronavirus cabinet meeting and think about what is the best thing that will make people get vaccinated. Fines should be imposed on those who come in contact with people and endanger them. If it is necessary for some people to sit at home, some of them will sit at home.”

The Pfizer coronavirus vaccine is still being evaluated against the Omicron variant, but the company said that it expects the shot to still be largely effective against serious disease. 

Finally, despite COVID fears, the number of new cases remains low. 

On Sunday, 538 people were diagnosed with corona, the Health Ministry said Monday evening. There were 117 people in serious condition, including 70 who were intubated.