Serious COVID Cases Spike as Omicron Wave Engulfs Israel

The number of seriously ill COVID patients has tripled in 18 days ■ 14 percent of Israelis over 20 are unvaccinated, yet they account for 50 percent of serious cases

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Israel sees spike in serious COVID cases as omicron surges
Israel sees spike in serious COVID cases as omicron surgesCredit: Emil Salman
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel's Health Ministry recorded a two-month-high of 205 seriously ill coronavirus patients on Sunday, as the omicron variant continues its rapid spread throughout the country.

The figure represents a 22 percent increase in serious coronavirus cases in a single day, with 48 of the current patients on ventilators. 

The number of serious COVID cases in Israel has tripled in the last 18 days, rising from 76 on 22 December.

As serious cases continue to rise, the discrepancy between vaccinated and unvaccinated patients becomes more evident. According to Health Ministry data, 14 percent of Israelis over 20 are unvaccinated, and they account for 50 percent of serious cases.

On Saturday, the Health Ministry reported 17,521 new confirmed cases, a fall from the previous day's peak. However, due to the recent shift to antigen tests, this number may not represent the true number of newly infected individuals. 

On the heels of the new testing policy, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced on Sunday that Israel would provide children and staff in kindergartens and elementary school with three free antigen home-testing kits.

Warning of “several difficult weeks” ahead, the prime minister said he was speaking to pharmaceutical companies about lowering the prices of antigen tests, though he also noted that the market will likely drive a fall in the price due to increasing supplies.   

The change in the testing policy to limit PCR testing to only part of the population and to put the burden of rapid testing and reporting on individuals will widen the gap between the information decision makers have in hand and a true picture of the growing omicron pandemic. The data they will have to work with will be less precise than before, restricted to figures on symptomatic and hospitalized patients, which provide only a lagging indicator for the spread of the virus.

As of midnight between Saturday and Sunday, tourists arriving in Israel will be required to fill out an online form before their flight, take a PCR or antigen test before boarding their plane and a PCR test when they land in Israel. This applies to passengers who are either vaccinated or had COVID-19 and recovered. Unvaccinated tourists are not allowed into the country.

Amid growing concerns about the inaccuracy of the antigen tests, the Health Ministry is weighing up recommending an alternative method of carrying out coronavirus tests, the director general of the ministry Professor Nachman Ash said on Sunday. This will involve also placing the swab in the mouth before taking a sample from the nose, Ash explained, and said that he expects the ministry to make the recommendation.

Meanwhile, the R number – the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – continues being at a six-month peak and stood at 1.97 last Tuesday (data on the R number represents a weekly infection average recorded with one week delay). Director general Professor Nachman Ash, however, said that he does not expect new restrictions on gatherings, as they are unlikely to significantly reduce infections. 

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