Israel’s chief of public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, warned Sunday that the potential for infection with the COVID variant omicron is “very high,” but stressed that in cases where vaccinated people were infected they became only slightly ill.
Speaking at a Knesset meeting, she gave the example of a flight from South Africa to the Netherlands, where 62 out of 600 passengers were found to be infected. “This is very, very fast," Alroy-Preis said.
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According to the South Africa Medical Association, people infected with the omicron variant have shown only mild symptoms. Angelique Coetzee, SAMA’s chairwoman, told the BBC that the cases identified so far are not severe. However, she noted that research on the omicron variant is still in its initial stages. As of Sunday, only 24 percent of the people in South Africa have been fully vaccinated, she added.
According to the report, omicron patients tended to be younger, and the variant was not found as often among the older population. Those infected with the variant mainly experienced fatigue and body aches. Still, it is still unknown what effect infection has on the older adults with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
Prof. Dror Mevorach, head of the coronavirus department at Hadassah University Hospital Ein Karem, said the preliminary reports on the clinical condition of people infected with the new variant are encouraging. “If it continues this way, this might be a relatively mild illness compared to the delta variant, and paradoxically, if it takes over, it will lead to lower infection rates,” and it will be easier to deal with globally.
“It’s still early to say, but not everything that looks bad is really bad. At this point it’s important to collect information, not speculations,” he added.
The Health Ministry said that as of Sunday morning, one woman in Israel has a confirmed case of the omicron variant, and there are already 12 suspected cases.
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Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Sunday that Israel has been preparing for the arrival of a new variant for some time. "Thanks to the preparations and keeping with protective and oversight means, we quickly located this variant," he said in a press conference. "This matter is under control, and there is no reason to panic," he added.
The government is scrambling to contain the new variant already within Israel's borders. National coronavirus czar, Prof. Salman Zarka, said on Sunday that a vaccination campaign in Arab schools would begin in the coming week, eventually to be expanded to the rest of the education system.
"The new variant requires we no longer sit on the fence," Prof. Zarka told news website Ynet.
In a bid to quickly control the omicron variant's spread, a ministerial committee leading the country's COVID response decided to ban entry to non-residents on Saturday. In addition, stricter quarantine and testing rules will be imposed on Israelis returning from abroad regardless of vaccination status
According to the cabinet's decision, all Israelis returning from abroad must quarantine for three days, regardless of vaccination status. In addition to a PCR test upon landing, as was required so far, they will need to undergo another one 72 hours later. If both tests return a negative result, they may be released from quarantine.
The cabinet also approved the resumption of digital tracking of confirmed coronavirus carriers by the Shin Bet security agency. After gaining government approval on Sunday, the emergency measure will be in place until December 2, and will only apply to omicron carriers. The security service will also not be enforcing quarantines.
The temporary ban on non-residents, which comes less than a month after gates were opened to tourists after more than a year-long hiatus, will last for two weeks.
Despite the slew of new restrictions, Israel will still host the Miss Universe beauty pageant on December 12. Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov said on Sunday that participants will be granted waivers from the curbs while possibly being subjected to regular PCR testing among other health measures.
"This is an event that will be broadcast in 174 countries, a very important event, an event that Eilat, too, is very much in need of," Razvozov told reporters.
According to Health Ministry data, 169 new COVID cases were confirmed on Saturday, with 0.52 percent of those tested found infected. The R number – or the number of people each coronavirus carrier infects on average – now stands at 1.05, threatening to reverse Israel's months-long downward trend in new cases.
128 people are currently hospitalized with COVID in serious condition, of whom 73 are connected to ventilators. 10 percent of them are fully vaccinated, and the vast majority did not get any dose of the vaccine.
So far, 4,069,085 people in Israel have received their COVID booster. The virus has claimed the lives of 8,184 people in Israel since the outbreak began.
The omicron variant was first discovered in South Africa, and has since been detected in Belgium, Botswana and Hong Kong, as well as one confirmed case in Israel, in a woman who returned from Malawi.
The Health Ministry's director-general, Prof. Nachman Ash, called the new variant "the most concerning there has been so far." Speaking Sunday on 103FM radio, he said Israel's response "isn't hysteria, but concern... It's important to take measures. We want to be able to at least delay the variant's entry into Israel."
Ash said he assesses it would take about two weeks before there is credible information concerning the variant's resistance to existing vaccines. He added that it's likely the vaccines would prevent serious cases of the new variant.
The COVID cabinet also reaffirmed last week's decision to add about 50 countries and territories in Africa to the list of "red" destinations, effectively barring Israelis from traveling there and barring entry to any non-residents coming from these areas.
The omicron variant has an unusual constellation of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible, experts say.
Reuters contributed to this report.