In late March, a sudden precipitous rise in the daily infection rate sparked fears that Israel was about to experience a sixth COVID wave. Now, with cases appearing to have peaked, experts are ruling out another wave imminently.
The fifth wave in Israel had been receding since February, but suddenly began to rise dramatically again from the middle of March – up 141 percent from March 14 (6,564 new cases) to March 27 (15,861 new cases). Now, while cases are still higher than they were three weeks ago, they appear to be declining again with 10,664 new infections recorded by the Health Ministry on Sunday.
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The R number – representing the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – fell below 1 for the first time in two weeks on Sunday and as of Monday stands at 0.92. The R number is based on data from 10 days prior, with a number below 1 indicating a decline.
The R number had sunk below 1 in mid-January before rising again, hitting 1.43 just a week and a half ago. A rise in infections spurred concerns of a new wave amid the spread of the omicron subvariant BA.2.
“I don’t think it was the beginning of a sixth wave,” said Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva. However, he warned that “the whole discussion of waves can be counterproductive – because COVID is here to stay and we don’t need to wait for waves to take precautions.”
Rather than speaking about waves, it would be more useful to speak about variants, he said, because each variant has its own transmission characteristics and patterns.
Davidovitch said a combination of factors meant that the recent rise was unlikely to turn into another large COVID wave. High prior infection rates, coupled with rising vaccination numbers, meant that the virus was unable to spread as rapidly as it had in previous waves, he said, adding that with thousands of infections a day, the virus is still spreading.
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“It was so fast, it was consuming itself and can’t continue at the same speed,” he explained. “We’re seeing a deceleration, but still seeing high transmission rate in the community. The rate of transmission is a bit lower, but it’s still pretty high.”
Davidovitch agreed with the expert consensus that the reason for the rising number of cases was the spread of the BA.2 subvariant, which is similar to the omicron variant but around 30 percent more infectious. The Health Ministry estimated last month that BA.2 accounted for 60 to 70 percent of all new cases.
This, he said, “created a period of time of a few weeks [in which the course of the pandemic] changed direction, before returning to the expected reduction.”
Health experts have said they don’t expect the BA.2 subvariant to lead to a lot of serious cases. Most BA.2 patients experience only mild symptoms, similar to the “original” omicron variant.
Consequently, they 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, the subvariant will offer immunity to even more people.
“We need to remember that more variants are expected, thus strengthening continuous surveillance and increasing vaccinations is crucial,” Davidovitch said. Indeed, newspapers have reported in recent days of a new omicron variant, XE, which is comprised of genetic material from both BA.1 and BA.2.
There are currently 254 hospitalized patients in serious condition in Israel, 98 of whom are currently on ventilators. To date, 10,530 Israelis have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic two years ago.
Ido Efrati contributed to this report.