Israel COVID Cases Hit New High as Health Ministry Warns of Sixth Wave

70 percent of infections in Israel now stem from the new COVID variant BA-5, which is more contagious than it's predecessors

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
A woman wearing a COVID mask picks fruit at Hacarmel Market in Tel Aviv in June.
A woman wearing a COVID mask picks fruit at Hacarmel Market in Tel Aviv in June.Credit: Hadas Parush
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

Israel recorded over ten thousand new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, the highest number since April, just one day after Health Ministry director-general warned that Israel may be experiencing the beginning of a “new wave” of coronavirus infections.

Some 51,656 people nationwide are currently infected, an increase of 55.4 percent over the past week. 10,202 Israelis tested positive for the coronavirus on June 19 alone. 170 are in serious condition, an increase of 95.4 percent over the past week.

“I think that it’s possible to start calling this a new wave,” Health Ministry director-general Prof. Nachman Ash told radio 103FM on Sunday, adding that while infection rates have risen, mortality has not. “I hope that, like during the omicron wave, we can get through this without special restrictions.”

“We're careful with terminology because we had something like this a month or so ago – there was an increase, and it went down very quickly. This time is actually different, and there is a new variant, the BA-5 [variant] which is more contagious.”

Ash reiterated the ministry’s call from earlier this month for at-risk populations to resume wearing masks in enclosed spaces. This comes as new infections, hospitalizations and the R number – which represents the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – have all been trending upwards since late March and rose to 1.3 as of June 8. An R number over one indicates that the virus is spreading.

As of last week, the BA.5 variant accounted for 70 percent of infections in Israel, and the BA2.12.1 strain constituted up to 12 percent of infections. As far as is known, these two variants are 15-25 percent more contagious than the BA.2 variant.

New daily cases peaked at over 15,000 in late March, dropping to less than 2,000 in late May, before beginning to rise again over the past several weeks.

The latest increase in cases is due to a combination of several factors, including new and faster spreading variants such as BA5, COVID fatigue and vaccination inertia, explained Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva.

“There is now high community spread [and] the current numbers not telling the whole story. The testing policy is less reliable comparing to the past [and so] the number of hospitalized patients is more reliable [as a basis for formulating] policy,” he said, calling for preparing more covid wards, reintroducing “more organized testing policies” and encouraging the wearing of masks in closed spaces.

“I don’t think we should be back to strict restrictions” but “there is a need to invest in the system, from surveillance to community and hospitals,” he said. “Healthcare workers are overwhelmed and there’s lots of burnout.”

While there will likely be an increase in deaths among those not fully vaccinated, the situation now is not comparable to that of earlier waves, a label which Davidovitch says has lost much of its utility in describing the current public health situation.

“I think the wave terminology is not useful now, COVID is to stay with us and with dynamic of variants there will be changes in infection rates,” he said.

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