Israel's Bennett, Expert Panel Say Even Lockdown Won't Stop Omicron Wave

Prime Minister Bennett expresses his concerns about infection in children too young to be vaccinated as experts urge hospitals to gear up after the number of serious cases doubles in a week

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Medical workers in the coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem, on Monday.
Medical workers in the coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem, on Monday.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel's omicron outbreak cannot be halted by a lockdown, according to both an expert committee advising the Health Ministry and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. 

"Serious measures" will not be enough and hospitals should prepare for an increase in demand, according to the committee.

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The outbreak of the extremely contagious variant "cannot be stopped, even with the help of the most serious measures, including declaring a lockdown," the committee concluded in a summary of its Monday meeting.

Bennett said in a nationwide address on Tuesday, "We saw that other countries imposed measures as harsh as a lockdown. The Netherlands, for example, imposed a total lockdown, but it didn't help. We have to manage this tsunami," Bennett said in reference to the omicron wave Israel is facing.  

Bennett added that Israel will "protect the most vulnerable, while trying to minimize the economic damage," and reiterated that a lockdown would not be helpful. 

Bennett also addressed concerns about infection in children too young to be vaccinated. "This variant does not skip children," he said. "Most of them will be without symptoms or will be mildly sick, but the minority among the unvaccinated children will be hit hard. This concerns me a great deal. When I look at charts of hospitalized children from around the world, I think of our unvaccinated children and I am just heartbroken."

The expert committee called for measures to protect vulnerable groups and for adding more restrictions on indoor spaces in order to minimize the strain on the health system that is expected to be caused by the outbreak. It further said that "even if we were to imagine a situation in which the public follows regulations in a full lockdown (there isn't, to our understanding, a high chance of this)," this would bring about "a temporary slowdown – but not a stop."

The experts warned that there is still uncertainty about the ramifications of the omicron variant, and that it is possible that during the outbreak's peak hospitals' ability to treat patients will be compromised.

As for schools, the committee advised that they stay largely open, but emphasized that "it is crucial to permit hybrid learning to allow children who need it" to stay at home.

Israel logged 37,887 COVID cases Tuesday, once again breaking the country's record for daily new cases.

Nearly 150,000 people in Israel are in quarantine, as ministers prepare to discuss a proposal for shorter isolation time for confirmed COVID carriers, in a bid to minimize damage  to the economy.

Out of those in quarantine, around 10 percent are children under the age of 15, many of whom are unvaccinated. 

As the omicron strain of the coronavirus sweeps through the country, Israel's serious cases now stand at 247, with 79 in critical condition and 59 on ventilators.

The overall number of serious cases has more than doubled in a week. According to the Health Ministry, 94.7 percent of hospital beds across Israel are now occupied, with some hospitals already operating beyond full capacity.

Israel's government fears the anticipated strain on hospitals, likely to be augmented by a personnel shortage driven by infection. Currently, 3,743 medical workers are missing work due to COVID-19 or quarantine requirements, including 542 physicians and over 1,000 nurses. The number of health workers in quarantine has doubled in less than a week.

As of Tuesday, 367,670 people had received a fourth dose of the Pfizer vaccine, after Israel approved it for over 60s, patients living in geriatric facilities, care homes, and to immunocompromised people.

According to Health Ministry data, 14 percent of Israelis over 20 are unvaccinated, and they account for 45 percent of serious cases.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry's director general approved shortening the isolation period for COVID carriers from 10 to seven days. The new regulation will go into effect overnight into Thursday. 

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