The omicron variant has been spreading in Israel for several weeks, leading to an unprecedented number of infections, but thus far the rise in severely ill patients is slow compared to the rise in daily verified cases.
Despite the slow rise in the number of severely ill patients, the plethora of omicron-induced infections could yet cause a significant rise in severe illnesses. “We’ve seen projections from various experts of 1,500 to 2,000 severely ill patients,” said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. He said the government is preparing for 4,000 inpatients in hospitals in the current wave, assuming the rate of severely ill patients among them will be lower than in the delta wave.
Still, the Health Ministry doesn’t know what is the ratio of omicron to delta among hospital patients. Health Ministry data suggest that only 13 inpatients have omicron, but the data is very partial. Some hospitals don’t even have PCR test kits that can diagnose the omicron variant. Medical sources at hospitals that do have such tests told Haaretz that omicron is actually the prevalent variant among their inpatients. This assessment is consistent with the fact that over 90 percent of those currently infected with COVID-19 carry the omicron variant.
The Health Ministry has not instructed hospitals to distinguish between the two variants among patients, even though such information could be critical for better managing the pandemic. Knowing how many seriously ill patients have omicron versus delta would help authorities better understand to what degree omicron leads to severe illness.
Concurrently, hospitals fear a significant rise in staff members infected or required to quarantine. Such a personnel blow might compromise the functioning of hospitals, which unlike last year are also dealing with regular flu patients, in addition to COVID-19 patients.
This number of medical staff members missing work due to COVID-19 or quarantine requirements tripled in a matter of days from 524 to 1,985 this past weekend. 1,383 contracted the virus, Health Ministry data showed. 261 physicians, including 227 infected with COVID-19, are among the quarantined staffers.
The Health Ministry met with hospital directors on Sunday about ways to deal with the projected personnel shortage. In previous COVID waves, the ministry shortened quarantine requirements for medical staff exposed to verified carriers, on condition they take a quick PCR test at the start of every shift.
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The Health Ministry is now working on a backup plan to let physicians work in COVID-19 wards even if they have contracted the virus, on condition that they be asymptomatic, while maintaining patient safety, Yediot Aharonot has reported. However, the ministry would only implement this plan if officials feel they have no other choice.
The chairman of the Israeli Medical Association, Prof. Zion Hagai, tweeted that he is opposed to infected physicians continuing to work. “We will not agree, under any circumstances, that physicians infected with COVID-19 will carry on with their work as usual, endangering patients and medical staff.” He added that “reexaminations are always in order, but irresponsibility and shooting from the hip are not a work plan.”
Michael Hauser Tov contributed to this report.