Israel has confirmed 591 new cases of the omicron variant, the Health Ministry said Saturday, more than doubling the total number of confirmed carriers in the country, which now stands at 1,118 – up from 527 on Friday morning.
There are 861 other confirmed COVID cases in people who are known to have been exposed to an omicron carrier, but await lab results to confirm whether they indeed have omicron.
Overall new coronavirus cases and Israel's R number continued to rise on Saturday, but the number of serious cases remained stable, potentially reflecting preliminary data suggesting that the omicron a variant of the virus is more contagious but less likely to land people in the hospital.
The R number, representing the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects, rose to 1.4, up from 1.36, hitting its highest level since mid-July. There were 1,775 people diagnosed on Friday, up from 1,515 a day earlier.
The number of serious cases stood at 90 on Saturday, compared to 91 on Friday. Of these, 34 were on ventilators. Six people have died over the virus over the past week, raising the death toll since the start of the pandemic to 8,241.
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On Friday, the COVID cabinet approved new restrictions on public access to shopping and commercial centers. Under the new rules, customers and employees must present proof of vaccination known as the Green Pass before entering stores larger than 100 square meters—including malls and commercial centers, both indoor and outdoor.
Commercial spaces that provide essential services will not be subject to Green Pass restrictions, but will abide by social distancing rules that allow one person per seven square meters.
Thus far, 6.5 million Israelis have received at least one vaccine dose, nearly 5.9 million have received at least two doses, and 4.19 million have received a booster shot.
Tens of thousands of middle- and high-school students will begin learning remotely on Sunday, following the government’s decision last week to halt in-person learning in towns defined as “red” and “orange” that have coronavirus vaccination rates below 70 percent.
Though the decision will eventually apply to elementary schools as well, that will happen only in another three weeks, to give the children in this age group time to get vaccinated. Red towns are the ones with the highest incidence of the virus, while orange towns have a moderately high incidence.
According to the latest Health Ministry data, the towns defined as either red or orange are Ma’aleh Adumim, Sakhnin, Kedumim, Givat Ze’ev, Elad, Rishon Letzion, Mi’ilya, Kafr Yassif, Be’er Yaakov and certain neighborhoods of four major cities – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva and Petah Tikva.
The National Parents Association harshly criticized the decision, saying it discriminates against children, since teachers and members of many other professions are allowed to take periodic coronavirus tests in lieu of getting vaccinated.
“The government once again found the easiest and cruelest solution – wounding the delicate souls of Israeli children, whose only crime is their desire to learn after a nightmare year of the coronavirus,” the organization said in a statement.
The Health Ministry is considering relaxing its quarantine policy for omicron carriers, hoping to avoid ordering hundreds of thousands of people into isolation, potentially paralyzing the economy and closing schools.
The ministry is gathering data ahead of recommending a possible policy change. Since two key pieces of data – how heavy a burden omicron will create for hospitals and how many deaths it will cause – are still unknown, it’s hard to predict what the ministry will ultimately decide, or what the cabinet will approve.
One option under consideration is exempting fully vaccinated people from having to quarantine after contact with a confirmed omicron carrier, possibly requiring them to take one or more coronavirus tests after exposure.
Currently, even people who are vaccinated or have recovered from the virus must quarantine for 14 days after exposure to omicron, though they can be released after seven days if they test negative on the seventh day.
Given how rapidly omicron has spread in other countries and is currently spreading in Israel, continuing this policy would clearly deal a mortal blow to the economy. Moreover, since it gives vaccinated people no benefits, it doesn’t encourage vaccination.
At the peak of previous waves of the virus, before vaccinated people were exempted from quarantine following exposure to earlier variants, there were over 250,000 people in quarantine at any given time. Taken altogether, this resulted in millions of days of lost work, a death blow to small businesses, a serious blow to the school system, psychological harm and other evils.
But omicron, being three times as infectious as the last major variant, delta, is expected to lead to many more infections, and therefore many more people in quarantine. The problem is compounded by the fact that the vaccines provide very partial protection against infection with omicron, though they appear to be 70 to 75 percent effective at preventing severe illness.
The big unknown is how much serious illness omicron actually causes, a question likely to be answered over the next month. If it turns out that this variant is less dangerous, allowing hospitals to cope despite the increase in the number of total cases, the ministry will likely approve relaxing quarantine rules.
If, on the other hand, if the number of people omicron infects is so high that the number of seriously ill patients surges even though the percentage of seriously ill patients is lower than it was with delta, that will pose a problem. If so, the ministry may end up changing its quarantine policy frequency, zigzagging between concern for the economic price and concern for the price in hospitalizations and human life.