Omicron Will Peak in Israel in Two Weeks, Researchers Predict, Urging More Restrictions

Hebrew University scientists say omicron wave could lead to as many as 2 million active COVID cases in Israel, straining the health care system and the economy, as the number of patients in serious condition keep climbing

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Medical staff looks at chest X-rays at the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem, on Monday.
Medical staff looks at chest X-rays at the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem, on Monday. Credit: Emil Salman
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel's current COVID wave, fueled by the omicron variant, will begin to wane in the last week of January, according to a report issued Wednesday by a research team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that has been monitoring the pandemic.

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The researchers forecast that within two weeks, the current wave will lead to 800,000 to 2 million active COVID cases, which will set a new record. According to the Health Ministry as of Wednesday morning, there are 222,877 active cases in Israel.

The researchers expect that this will result in between 1,000 and 2,000 seriously ill patients in the hospital – 2 to 5 percent of whom will be children younger than 12.

Tuesday saw the highest number of patients whose condition was defined as seriously ill since September, leaping to 72 new patients from 55 the previous day. There are 254 patients in serious condition, 84 of whom are in critical condition and 63 on ventilators, according to official figures.

Israel logged 43,815 new cases on Tuesday. Since the pandemic began, there have been 8,274 COVID-related deaths.

A surge in cases, the Hebrew University team said, will not only strain the health care system, but the economy too. They recommend placing limitations on public gatherings and revising the nation's coronavirus testing policy, which currently relies on antigen tests.

Despite predicting a burgeoning wave of cases, the Hebrew University team also pointed to omicron infection data from the United Kingdom, which shows that the variant is less likely to cause critical illness than the delta variant did in the country. Therefore, they said, "critical strain from the number on ventilators in not expected,” adding that the coming week will indicate whether Israel is expected to follow Britain in seeing fewer critically ill patients.

Based on the British data, the Israeli research team also believes that the chances of being hospitalized in the current wave is a third to a half of what had it had been in prior waves of infection. The chances of hospitalized COVID patients requiring a ventilator is a quarter of what it was previously.

“At the moment, the prospect of being hospitalized with omicron is about 40 percent of the comparable prospect in the delta wave. This means that despite the immunity [through vaccination or prior illness] of the population, heavy strain is expected at the hospitals – with at least 1,000 seriously ill patients at the same time, more children in the hospital than in the past and the need to admit hundreds of patients in a single day,” the team stated.

The vaccine's effectiveness in preventing omicron infection is about 20 to 30 percent lower than it is for other variants, but it remains more than 90 percent effective in preventing serious illness, the researchers said.

“In a reasonable scenario, over the next month, 2 million to 4 million people will be infected in Israel. Tens of percent of them will have symptoms – hundreds of thousands at the same time, which will lead to a loss to the economy of millions of work days,” the researchers stated, adding that the figure on the loss of days of work does not include days lost by those in quarantine.

Israeli experts are saying that vaccinated COVID patients experienced a much milder form of the disease earlier in the omicron wave. According to Health Ministry data, only 14 percent of Israelis over 20 are unvaccinated, yet they account for 45 percent of serious COVID cases.

When it comes to life-saving measures such as ECMO machines and ventilators, the numbers are starker. All 13 patients using the machines, which support the heart and lungs in the worst respiratory cases, are unvaccinated, and 81 percent of those on ventilators are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated. 

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