Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned Tuesday that Israel is on the precipice of a “storm of infection whose likes we haven't yet seen,” as Israel witnesses a three-month high in new coronavirus infections.
On Monday, Israel recorded 2,952 new COVID cases, up from 1,799 the day before.
Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, the prime minister said that "a lot of people are going to get infected” by the omicron strain. "The storm will happen. We can't prevent it.”
On Tuesday, Bennett and senior health officials decided that vaccinated people who are exposed to COVID carriers must isolate until they obtain a negative result from a PCR swab test, regardless of which strain they come in contact with.
In addition, exposed people must avoid crowded places and contact with high-risk groups for the next 10 days, though it is unclear how Israel will enforce such measures. The decision will go into effect on Wednesday.
Until now, vaccinated people who were exposed to COVID patients infected with the omicron strain were required to quarantine for 14 days. As omicron is likely to soon comprise the majority of COVID cases, Bennett's move is seen as an easing of isolation requirements.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said the measure is intended "to reduce the number of people in quarantine and avoid serious disruption to everyday life."
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Discussing the omicron tide on Kan, Bennett also stressed the importance of vaccinations in avoiding serious illness and said older people should avoid crowded places.
There are currently 85 serious cases, with 46 among them in critical condition, according to the Health Ministry. Of these, 38 are on ventilators. Just 6 percent of people with severe illness are vaccinated.
The R number, marking the average number of people that a coronavirus carrier infects, rose to 1.47 based on Health Ministry data from the last 10 days. On Sunday it had reached a three-month peak at 1.41.
The number has seen a steady rise over December. Two people have died over the last week, raising the death toll to 8, 242.
Also Tuesday, in an interview with Army Radio, Bennett said that omicron was “unusually contagious,” and that Israel is “facing a significant increase in the number of those identified” with the strain.
“We will not be able to prevent significant infection of the public …. Our goal is to maintain public health while preserving the economy,” he added.
Bennett said that Israel is witnessing an increase in children's infection rates and hospitalizations. In Tel Aviv, 79 percent of all COVID infections have hit children, with the figure at 53 percent in Jerusalem.
Israel's public health chief, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, presented the government with data on “the spike in London and other cities in children's hospitalizations,” Bennett noted.
Regarding Israel's recommendation to begin administering a fourth vaccine dose, Bennett said that “we have quite a few indications in this regard. We're not talking about a vaccine for all Israelis but for vulnerable people and older adults. We're definitely seeing a decline after a few months from the booster.”
Last week, a Health Ministry expert panel recommended that Israel become the first country to offer a fourth dose – a second booster – to Israelis over 60, medical workers and people with compromised immune systems.