Before Omicron Hit, Israel Was Already Seeing Rising COVID Cases

Rising COVID infection in Israel attributed to several factors, including low vaccination rates in children and waning immunity for those who haven’t received a third shot

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
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A girl and her unicorn getting tested for the coronavirus in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
A girl and her unicorn getting tested for the coronavirus in Tel Aviv on Sunday.Credit: Moti Milrod
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 moved quickly over the weekend to impose new travel and quarantine restrictions following the detection of the country’s first confirmed case of the newly discovered omicron variant. However, while health officials have stated that it could take up to two weeks to assess the potential impact of the mutated COVID-19 strain, cases of the older delta variant were already on the rise.

According to Health Ministry data, the number of new daily cases, which have been declining since the peak of the fourth wave in September, recently began to increase again.

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The seven-day rolling average, which had fallen to 424 by November 15, increased to 521 on November 29. Around the same time, on November 8, the R number – the number of people each coronavirus carrier infects on average – rose above 1 for the first time since the beginning of September, indicating that the virus is spreading among the population.

There were 636 new COVID-19 cases in Israel on Monday, with 7,652 active cases nationwide. There are currently 122 serious cases, with 70 patients currently on ventilators.

The rise in cases can be attributed to several factors, says Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, and head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.

Compliance with mask mandates and the government’s Green Pass system “is now far from perfect,” he said, and many double-vaccinated Israelis have declined to receive a booster shot despite proof of waning immunity in the months following the second dose.

He added that while there has been an increase, “we need to take it in proportion,” commenting that the situation is “still quite stable.”

On Sunday, Israel confirmed its second case of the omicron variant, and restrictions banning all foreigners from entering the country and imposing a quarantine on returning Israelis took effect.

Speaking with Haaretz’s Amir Tibon last week, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, Israel’s top public health expert, said that unvaccinated and partially vaccinated individuals, including children, are currently the primary vector for the spread of the virus – accounting for around 90 percent of new cases.

According to Health Ministry numbers, 0.02 percent of children between 5-11 have been vaccinated as of Monday morning, while 58.35 percent of those aged 12-15 have received their first jab.

Waning immunity warning

Overall, more than 6.3 million Israelis have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with over 5.7 million receiving two doses. Nearly 4.1 million have received their booster shot, yet there are nearly a million people who are eligible for a third dose of the vaccine but are yet to receive one.

As of last week, there were some 670,000 Israelis over the age of 12 eligible for the vaccine who had yet to receive a single dose.

Israelis who have let more than six months pass since their second shot without going for a third one “feel that they’re covered, but with waning immunity that is not the case,” Alroy-Preis warned. “Their protection is wearing off.”

In total, just over 57 percent of eligible Israelis are fully vaccinated – meaning that they have already received their booster shot or have had two doses and are not yet eligible for a third. The percentage was significantly higher before Israel opened up vaccination to children, who were previously not counted toward the total.

Israel began vaccinating children aged 12-15 in early June, meaning that the first children in this age group will be eligible to receive boosters starting in the coming weeks.

On November 23, Israel launched a nationwide COVID-19 vaccination drive for children ages 5-11. There are currently around 1 million children in this age group who are eligible to receive the vaccine (in addition to about 224,000 children who have recovered from a coronavirus infection).

A survey released last week indicated that the parents of around 440,000 of the eligible children plan on having their children vaccinated.

In a speech three days before the start of the new pediatric vaccination campaign, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett dubbed the recent increase in cases “the children’s wave.”

“Will omicron be the factor that changes the situation? That’s not clear yet, but vaccinating as many people as we can, including children, will have an important effect. On top of that, we have to add contact tracing and breaking chains of transmission alongside masks,” Bennett said.

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