Israel's Expert COVID Team to Meet as Infection Rate Surges

More than 14,000 new COVID-19 infections recorded in Israel on Monday as highly contagious new variant quickens its spread

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A COVID-19 test is conducted in Tel Aviv, Monday.
A COVID-19 test is conducted in Tel Aviv, Monday.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

COVID-19 infection rates continued accelerating Monday as 14,460 people were diagnosed with the virus amid the spread of the highly contagious new variant, BA.2.

The Health Ministry's COVID team is expected to convene Tuesday to discuss the rising numbers. Although no firm decisions are anticipated today, it is expected to determine over the next few days whether to launch another major campaign to promote vaccination in an effort to slow the spread.

Israel's infection coefficient, a measure of how quickly the pandemic is spreading, ticked up to 1.33, continuing an upward trend that began about a week ago. Any coefficient above 1 indicates expansion, and the higher the number, the faster the virus is spreading.

In addition to the new diagnoses, the number of infected Israelis hospitalized in critical condition decreased slightly Monday to 320, with 138 on respirators.

BA.2 is similar to the “original” omicron variant, BA.1, but around 30 percent more infectious – however, experts don’t expect it to lead to many serious cases. Most BA.2 patients experience only mild symptoms, similar to BA.1.

Consequently, experts actually view BA.2 as a step toward containing the pandemic. More than 2 million Israelis (and likely many more who were never diagnosed) were infected by omicron in recent months and are therefore considered protected against reinfection. Now, BA.2 is expected to result in even more people with immunity.

The Health Ministry has said it is “constantly working to encourage vaccination among the public,” but now that infections are rising again, the government will have to decide whether to resume its vaccination campaign, which receded once infections started falling.

Tuesday's meeting, the first since February 7, will likely touch on the spread of the BA.2 variant and the widespread extent of infection in the community, even among the vaccinated. They will also likely discuss the effectiveness of three vaccine doses versus four when it comes to repelling the BA.2 variant.

The discussion may also revisit Israel's "green passport" program – currently on hiatus – which previously regulated entrance into public spaces based on vaccination status.

The Health Ministry estimates that BA.2 accounts for 60 to 70 percent of all new cases. But this is based on incomplete data, as DNA sequencing is only done on a limited population of COVID-19 cases, and sources in health maintenance organizations and other medical professionals estimate that BA.2 accounts for an even larger share of new cases.

Dr. Yotam Shenhar, head of the Leumit HMO’s clinical testing department, said his labs use PCR tests that can identify the variant, and that BA.2 already accounts for 80 percent of cases diagnosed by Leumit. He attributed the rising number of cases both to the variant’s spread and to last week’s Purim holiday.

British health officials believe vaccines are roughly as effective against BA.2 as against omicron. And despite several mutations that distinguish BA.2 from BA.1, the World Health Organization has suggested that infection with BA.1 helps protect against BA.2.

Despite omicron BA.1’s ability to evade the vaccines, vaccines did prove effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization, especially among patients who had received a booster shot.

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