Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday that two teenagers in Britain had died after contracting the new COVID variant omicron, when no such event had happened.
A source in Bennett’s bureau said he had been confused about the story, which had been reported recently.
“Just this week, two middle school students in Britain from the same class died of omicron,” Bennett said, in an attempt to bolster the children's vaccination effort. “One wasn’t vaccinated at all, and the other had apparently been partially vaccinated.” In fact, the deaths of Mohammad Habib and Harry Towers, a week apart, occurred in October; omicron was not discovered until November 9.
Bennett's bureau said that the prime minister meant to refer to the coronavirus, and not specifically the omicron variant. "The prime minister discussed the deaths of the two British schoolboys, who contracted COVID and passed away shortly after," the response said.
It added that omicron is still being studied and analyzed, and that "COVID is a virus that endangers human lives and health, including those of young people. The prime minister is concerned about the risk posed by COVID, its symptoms and long-term consequences on the health of Israel's children, and calls on all parents to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible."
In the morning's cabinet meeting, Bennett said the vaccination rate should be increased, due in part to the spread of the omicron variant and the concern over its health implications. “We aren’t protected enough at the moment,” the prime minister said, and asked parents to have their children vaccinated: “We won’t be able to delay omicron.”
Bennett called omicron “very worrisome. Other countries put off closing their borders, and they're flooded with the variant, but securing the borders is not enough. We have to take advantage of these precious days to boost the vaccination of all citizens.” Since last week, Israel's COVID response panel has been weighing giving a fourth jab to at-risk patients.
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So far in Israel, 55 omicron cases have been confirmed, and about 50 more are suspected. The variant is considered to be spreading relatively rapidly compared to others that appeared over the two years of the pandemic. However, the extent of the damage the variant does to infected people has yet to be finally determined.
According to data presented on Saturday night by Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, three rounds of inoculation reduce the risk of omicron infection, but not to the same levels they did for the delta variant. Preliminary data indicates that people who were vaccinated six months ago or earlier are apparently not protected from omicron at all. A government report released over the weekend in Britain states that the booster gives people significant protection from symptomatic infection.
Since Israel approved giving COVID vaccines to 5 -to 11-year-olds, about 110,000 children in that age group have received a shot, out of a total population of 1.2 million children. From Sunday morning onward, inoculations are being given out in schools as well. The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention, Rochelle Walensky, said on Saturday night that no significant side effects appeared in the 5 million children vaccinated so far.
On Saturday, Bennett announced new restrictions to limit the virus' spread. Health Officials are set to add further countries to the list of "red countries" – those with high infection rates – in the coming days, and the list will be reexamined on a daily basis. Travel to and from these countries is forbidden, unless permission is granted by the Exceptions Committee. In addition, only people with Green Passes – or vaccine certificates – or recovered COVID patients will be allowed to enter shopping malls.
Bennett wants the number of vaccinated people, which he called “dismal,” to increase 10-fold every day. He also wants to use sanctions to encourage people to get their booster shots, and the government is also considering significantly harsher Green Pass regulations for entry to leisure activities. An initiative to prevent unvaccinated people from leaving the country is not expected to move forward, and Bennett’s idea to enforce a lockdown on such people was quashed by the deputy attorney general.