'Israel's System Will Collapse': Top COVID Officer Warns of Mass Omicron Infection

Head of Israeli army's COVID task force: 'We will reach tens of thousands of infected people a day. People will not be able to be hospitalized'

A coronavirus ward in Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem, in October.
A coronavirus ward in Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem, in October.Credit: Emil Salman

The spiking rate of COVID infection propelled by the omicron variant will cause Israel's healthcare system to "collapse," the head of the Israeli army's coronavirus task force warned in an interview on Thursday.

"We will reach tens of thousands of infected people a day. People will not be able to be hospitalized," said Brig. Gen. Reli Margalit, who leads the military unit tasked with cutting off COVID's infection chain through contact tracing and epidemiological investigation.

The number of new coronavirus cases in Israel has more than doubled in the past three days as serious cases are steadily growing since December 22.

"In another week, people will run to get vaccinated" he told the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, ahead of retiring from his position. "I hope it will not be too late."

Margalit explained that the omicron variant had less "bad sides," as it attacks the upper respiratory tract but does not bind to lung cells, meaning it causes less severe disease. However, it is highly contagious, including among the vaccinated. "There is almost no way you meet someone who is sick with omicron and you don't get infected," he said.

Although the variant is less likely to cause serious symptoms, the projected spike in infection will likely overwhelm Israel's hospitals, he argues. "Let’s say it reaches half the hospitalization rate that there was with delta. But we’re talking about much larger absolute numbers. What there will be here in the coming weeks is tens of thousands of [new] infections a day. The numbers will be crazy. The health system would collapse."

In the coming weeks, he warns that "our hospitals will reach a reality that never existed in the State of Israel...That’s the most worrying thing of all the problems.”

The unit Margalit heads, officially named the National Investigations Center, is a department within Alon Headquarters: the Israeli army's COVID-19 task force, which also includes testing, quarantine facilities and intelligence-assessment departments.

In line with Margalit's assessment, Israel's Health Ministry directed hospitals this week to prepare for a spike in the number of children in their COVID wards, due to omicron's rapid spread.

A nurse dresses in protective gear ahead of entering a coronavirus ward in Beilinson Hospital, Petah Tikva, in November.

Over the past few days, about one third of those who tested positive for the virus – about 1,300 cases – are children. In Israel there are currently more than 2 million children aged 0 to 18 years. Of these, 730,000 are under 5 years old, and are therefore ineligible for inoculation. This leaves them particularly vulnerable, and even a fraction of a percentage of risk of hospitalization may greatly increase their presence in COVID wards in the event of a mass infection.

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