Omicron Wave Begins Receding in Israel, but Bennett Says Hospitals Still Overloaded

Serious COVID cases rise to 1,069 ■ Israel extends proof of vaccination scheme for another week amid calls to scrap it ■ Teachers' strike averted after deal reached

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COVID ward at Israel's Sheba Medical Center, last week
COVID ward at Israel's Sheba Medical Center, last weekCredit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Serious cases of coronavirus are at an 11-month high and continuing to rise, according to Health Ministry figures released on Sunday, as the ongoing fifth omicron wave shows signs of tapering off.

The total number of serious cases stands at 1,069. This is the highest figure since the peak of the pandemic's third wave, when there were more than 1,100 serious cases.

The R number, which represents the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects, dropped below 1, indicating declining spread for the first time since early November.

The R number, which currently stands at 0.95, is calculated from data from the previous 10 days, and any number above 1 indicates that the virus is actively spreading.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday that Israel is "seeing the start" of the omicron wave stabilizing, but added that it wasn't over yet.

"Right now, hospitals are overloaded and we're still seeing high infection figures," he told a cabinet meeting. "A few more weeks like that, and if we all act responsibly, we can overcome this wave, too.

The government agreed on Sunday to extend Israel's Green Pass scheme, which obliges people to provide proof of vaccination or recovery in order to enter certain venues and was meant to expire this week, by another one. It will remain in effect until next Sunday. 

This comes days after the Health Ministry's director-general, Prof. Nachman Ash, said his office was looking into scrapping it. Experts have said that due to high infection figures, it may no longer be effective.

Bennett's office said the ministerial committee coordinating Israel's coronavirus response will meet on Tuesday, for the first time in several weeks. The statement did not specify which topics the COVID cabinet will discuss.

According to Health Ministry data, there are currently 2,647 Israelis hospitalized with COVID, with 301 among them in critical condition and 241 on respirators.

On Saturday, 45,258 people tested positive for COVID, marking the sixth day of declining figures. The rate of positive tests was 27 percent. However, while fewer people tested positive, there were also fewer overall tests.

There are currently 461,929 active COVID cases in Israel. Since the outbreak of the pandemic nearly two years ago, 8,658 COVID-related deaths have been confirmed.

Talks on school policy

Meanwhile, a teachers' strike was averted after an agreement was reached between the teachers' union and the Education Ministry on the COVID policy in schools.

On Friday the Tel Aviv District Court left in place restraining orders prohibiting the teacher's union from striking against the conditions until Monday.

The current plan, which went into effect on Thursday, effectively ends COVID quarantine for students in favor of testing them twice a week, the results of which must be reported to the Education Ministry.

Children whose test results are negative must attend school as usual, while those with positive results must take another antigen test at a testing facility. If the second test is negative, the student can return to school, and if it is positive, they will have to remain in isolation for five days, if they show a negative antigen test on the third day and the fifth day.

The Education Ministry reported on Sunday that only around 35 percent of parents reported their children’s antigen test results under the new plan, with 3 percent of children (about 21,000) testing positive for COVID.

"The students tested today were not required to be tested in the old plan, making this a protective layer,” the ministry said. It also reported that only 30 percent of antigen kits intended for students in junior and high schools have been distributed so far, while 74 percent of those for elementary schools and kindergartens have been distributed.

Since Thursday, hundreds of preschool and daycare centers remained shuttered due to a lack of staff.

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