Omicron to Account for 90 Percent of New COVID Cases in Israel Within Days, Experts Say

As the omicron variant rapidly spreads through Israel, health officials warn of an impending rise in severe cases

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Preparations for a vaccination campaign in an Israeli school in December.
Preparations for a vaccination campaign in an Israeli school in December.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yaashuv
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Health care officials said on Monday they expect that within 10 days the omicron variant will account for 90 percent of all new coronavirus cases in Israel.

As of Monday, over half the COVID samples being tested in health maintenance organization labs are suspected with high degree of certainty of being omicron, a share that is expected to rise in the coming days.

“In recent days the percent of samples that are COVID positive has risen from 1 percent to 3 percent, with half of the verified cases suspected of being omicron carriers,” said Dr. George Prajgrod, the head of the medical laboratories division at the Meuhedet HMO. He predicted that at the current rate of increase, omicron would account for up to 90 percent of all new confirmed cases within two weeks.

Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute, an adviser to the COVID cabinet, also predicted that omicron would soon become the dominant variant in Israel.

“Close to 50 percent of new cases in recent days are omicron,” he said. “Omicron’s R number [contagion factor] is 2.7, which reflects a doubling of the rate once every two or three days. I believe we’ll reach 90 percent of all new cases being omicron within a week to 10 days.”

Another indication of omicron’s spread comes from monitoring of the virus in sewage. To date, the variant has been detected at 19 sampling stations throughout the country, accounting for the sewage of dozens of localities.

Despite omicron’s accelerating spread, and the rise in daily new cases and the R number, there is still no increase in hospitalizations, severe illness, or deaths. That distinguishes omicron from the coronavirus’ behavior over the past two years, in which a rise in infection rates led to a rise in severe illness by a lag of about two weeks.

On December 6, 739 Israelis were diagnosed as positive for COVID and 108 people were hospitalized with severe cases. By Sunday this week, the number of new cases has more than doubled to 1,760, but only 87 people were severely ill. The number of patients on ventilators stood December 6 ago at 62; on Sunday it was 39. Meantime, the number of patients connected to ECMO respiratory machines dropped from 23 to 18.

However, health care officials are not yet rushing to say omicron causes mostly mild cases. Some experts believe that omicron’s high rate of contagion will increase the number of overall cases so much that the number of severe cases will rise sharply, too, even if they are lower share of the total.

Nevertheless, the rationale behind heightened COVID restrictions is beginning to erode, and rifts are developing among the officials and experts. The Health Ministry’s expert panel, whose members have kept to a cautious stance throughout the pandemic, is already discussing easing quarantine policy.

When reports of the variant first emerged, Israel sought to buy time by immediately imposing tighter restrictions. Although the preliminary epidemiological data from abroad was only very partial, Israel acted cautiously by stepping up vaccinations and imposing travel restrictions. Recent data is more complete, but it still does not provide policy makers with a full picture.

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