Israel Confirms 170 New Cases of Omicron as COVID Infections Spike to Two-month High

Israel's COVID cabinet is set to debate new measures, in a bid to curb the spread of the omicron variant

Commuters disembark from the train in Jerusalem, December 19.
Commuters disembark from the train in Jerusalem, December 19.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel has confirmed 170 new cases of the omicron variant, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases of the highly infectious variant to 341.

Meanwhile, the number of new coronavirus cases continues to soar, but the number of patients in serious condition remains stable, according to official figures.

The Health Ministry said it was looking into 807 confirmed COVID cases that may be omicron, but have yet to be confirmed.

Israel reported overall 1,306 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, marking a two-month peak. The R number – representing the average number of people each coronavirus carrier goes on to infect – continues to climb, hitting 1.28 and signalling the pandemic is spreading.

Despite the upward trend in new cases, which stood at just 736 cases two weeks ago, the country sees a slight downward trend in serious cases over the last month. Currently, there are 81 patients in serious condition, out of whom 48 are in critical condition and 41 are on ventilators.

Cabinet meeting

The coronavirus cabinet is set to meet later on Tuesday to discuss ways to handle the spread of the omicron variant in Israel. This will be the cabinet's first meeting since November 27.

The government approved on Tuesday a proposal to limit physical presence of employees in the public sector. As of Sunday and for a month, only half of employees will be allowed to come into the workplace, while the others will work remotely.

According to the Education Ministry, there are overall 3,671 confirmed cases of schoolchildren and 295 cases among staff within the education system. Children under 19 represent 59 percent of all active cases in the country.

An outbreak in the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Adumim led to 193 new coronavirus cases, 165 of whom are among schoolchildren. Of the 165, 25 were diagnosed with the omicron variant and two more are suspected of being carriers.

The Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva reported the death on Monday of a patient who had omicron, but stressed his death is most likely the result of preexisting medical conditions, rather than COVID.

About 59 percent of Israel's eligible population is fully vaccinated, meaning they have either received a booster shot or a second dose within the past six months. Another 9 percent received two doses at least six months ago and have not gotten a booster shot. The 31 percent of eligible but unvaccinated Israelis account for 53 percent of new cases and 75 percent of serious cases. Some 4.16 million Israelis have received a booster shot.

The numbers are still relatively small, but the increase in the number of confirmed COVID cases and the jump in the R number has led some experts to believe that undetected omicron cases are already responsible for the rise in case numbers.

As a result of the spread of omicron around the world, Israel is preparing for a fifth COVID wave. In cabinet deliberations, Knesset committee meetings and among public health officials, the approaching fifth wave is considered a fact, echoing Bennett's declaration on Sunday that the "fifth wave has begun."

Israel is quickly expanding its list of "red countries," banned high-risk travel destinations, in order to slow the import of the virus from abroad. As of Tuesday, Israelis are largely forbidden from visiting vast swaths of Africa, Europe and North America.

With little more than a day before the U.S.' addition to the list, 160 participants in Birthright’s free 10-day trips landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Monday. The omicron variant is quickly sweeping the U.S., representing 73 percent of new infections last week, a nearly six-fold increase in omicron's share of infections in only one week according to the CDC.

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