Some 2-4 million Israelis will likely be infected with the coronavirus during the current wave of infection driven by the omicron variant, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday, citing information presented at the weekly cabinet meeting.
Four million people equals roughly 40 percent of Israel's population. The omicron variant is unlike the alpha and delta variants that propelled previous waves of infection, Bennett said, and "is contagious at levels we haven't yet seen."
The expert panel advising the government on the pandemic is set to meet Sunday evening to discuss expanding the availability of fourth vaccine shots to additional groups, after these were approved last month for those 60 and up, people with compromised immune systems, and medical workers.
"I understand the confusion, the frustration, and the disruption of our normal routine," Bennett said. "We are working to make it as easy as we can, but we will all need patience and endurance."
Referring to the recent shift to antigen tests, Bennett said that the high rate of infection has made it impossible to give everyone who wants one a PCR swab test. "There is not enough capacity in the labs, the results will be delayed, and in the meantime, the person could infect his surroundings," he said. "Therefore, we are allowing antigen testing at institutions or at home."
On the heels of the new testing policy, Bennett announced that Israel would provide children and staff in kindergartens and elementary school with three free antigen home-testing kits.
Warning of “several difficult weeks” ahead, the prime minister said he was speaking to pharmaceutical companies about lowering the prices of antigen tests, though he also noted that the market will likely drive a fall in the price due to increasing supplies.
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Sunday saw the number of seriously ill coronavirus patients rise to 205, a 22-percent increase in a single day, with 48 of those patients on ventilators.
The number of serious COVID cases in Israel has tripled in the last 18 days, rising from 76 on December 22.
As serious cases continue to increase, the discrepancy between vaccinated and unvaccinated patients has become more evident. According to Health Ministry data, 14 percent of Israelis over 20 are unvaccinated, and they account for 50 percent of serious cases.
The change in the testing policy to limit PCR testing to only part of the population and to put the burden of rapid testing and reporting on individuals will widen the gap between the information decision makers have in hand and a true picture of the growing omicron pandemic. The data they will have to work with will be less precise than before, restricted to figures on symptomatic and hospitalized patients, which provide only a lagging indicator for the spread of the virus.
Starting Sunday, tourists arriving in Israel were required to fill out an online form before their flight, take a PCR or antigen test before boarding their plane and a PCR test when they land in Israel. This applies to passengers who are either vaccinated or had COVID-19 and recovered. Unvaccinated tourists are not allowed into the country.
Amid growing concerns about the inaccuracy of the antigen tests, the Health Ministry is weighing up recommending an alternative method of carrying out coronavirus tests, the director general of the ministry, Nachman Ash, said on Sunday. This will involve also placing the swab in the mouth before taking a sample from the nose, Ash explained, and said that he expects the ministry to make the recommendation.