Israel Investigating 15 Potential Cases of Omicron COVID Variant

Suspected cases include several in people who were not recently abroad ■ 25,000 COVID tests taken at Israel's international airport on Sunday, yielding no suspected omicron cases

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Passengers in Ben-Gurion International Airport's baggage claim area, Sunday.
Passengers in Ben-Gurion International Airport's baggage claim area, Sunday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israeli health authorities are examining 15 coronavirus patients suspected of carrying the omicron variant, including several people who had not recently traveled abroad.

The infected individuals include residents of Bedouin villages in the south of Israel. At this stage, it’s not clear how they would have been exposed to the variant, if it turns out that they are infected with it. One senior official involved in analyzing COVID test results said he thought most of the cases would turn out not to be the omicron variant.

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Officials at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer reported concerns on Monday that a doctor who had recently returned from abroad may have infected with the new variant. After attending a medical conference in London several days ago, the doctor became ill and has only mild symptoms, the hospital reported.

“There is no hermetic defense,” a professional source told Haaretz. “All measures to contain and isolate the spread are currently being employed. Right now it looks like we caught it in time, and we’re employing a lot of resources to block it.”

So far, two cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed in Israel – one in a woman who recently spent time in Malawi, and another in a woman who recently spent time South Africa. Professionals say quick action by Israeli authorities have bucked a more substantial outbreak. Due to the current lack of knowledge and uncertainty about the variant, the Israeli health system has not yet prepared models or scenarios simulating the spread of the variant.

Twenty-five thousand COVID tests were administered at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Sunday to travelers returning from abroad, with none of them showing a suspected case of the omicron variant. In addition, 1,866 people returning from countries defined as hot spots over the past ten days have had their sampled taken. Eighty-five people returning from Ethiopia were put in hotel quarantine on Sunday, and one of them ran away.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway at the central virology lab at Sheba to determine how effective current coronavirus vaccines are against the new variant. Experts anticipate that it will be at least a week before they have results. They noted that it’s possible that results from studies elsewhere around the world will provide an answer first, possibly from vaccine manufacturers.

Over the past ten days, 27 COVID cases have been detected among travelers returning from abroad, including six who had already been infected previously. On Sunday, 506 verified new COVID cases were detected in Israel, including 334 children and adolescents. Concurrently, the drive to vaccinate children aged 5-11, which began last Tuesday, continued. Thus far, some 42,000 people in that age group have been vaccinated, constituting about 4 percent of the target population.

Speaking with Haaretz, a senior Home Front Command officer estimated that the likelihood of a widespread outbreak of the omicron variant is shrinking as time goes by, and that preliminary data indicates a possibility that the existing vaccines are effective in preventing severe symptoms from it. “You have to understand the meaning of the new variant,” said the officer. “About 100 people all over the world have been verified to have it, and the world is already shutting down. The precautions are important and necessary, at least until we learn more about it.”

The military began administering COVID tests at the Allenby Bridge border crossing to Jordan on Monday, as well as at the West Bank checkpoints and the Erez checkpoint for those entering Israel from the Gaza Strip. Those found to be infected will not be permitted to cross.

The Health Ministry and the governing coalition are concerned by the fact that some 3 million Israelis are unprotected and thus exposed to the contagious variant, should it indeed spread in Israel. These include some 670,000 Israelis who have not been vaccinated at all, around a million with an expired vaccination status who have yet to receive the booster shot, and the underage population.

“It’s important to be polite, but life is more important,” wrote Dr. Zeev Feldman, chairman of the Israeli Physicians’ Organization, chief of the pediatric neurosurgery unit at Sheba Hospital and deputy chairman of the Israeli Medical Association, on Monday.

“It is time to say it loud and clear: The 3 million unvaccinated people in Israel endanger us all They endanger the inpatient care system, as we do not have enough ICU beds to handle a wave of the unvaccinated and also give optimal care to those with ‘regular’ ailments. We cannot handle another wave and provide proper, timely care to cancer patients, cardiac arrest patients, chronic illness patients. Instead of allocating funds for long-term improvements to the health care system, the vaccine-hesitant will force us to spend billions of shekels more just to care for them," he added.

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