Senior Health Official Supports New Curbs Over Omicron’s ‘Very High’ Infection Rate

YERUSHALAYIM -
A traveler walks towards the COVID-19 pandemic testing area at Ben Gurion International Airport, Sunday. (REUTERS/Amir Cohen)

Israel’s chief of public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, warned Sunday that the potential for infection with the new 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.

According to the Health Ministry, as of Sunday morning, one woman in Israel has a confirmed case of the Omicron variant, and there are already 12 suspected cases.

According to Health Ministry data, Israel’s 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.

In a bid to control the Omicron variant’s spread, the Coronavirus Cabinet decided to ban entry to non-residents, unless in exceptional circumstances approved in advance by authorities. In addition, stricter quarantine rules will be imposed on Israelis returning from abroad.

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. This, according to the agency’s chief Ronen Bar, would be a temporary measure and would only apply to carriers of omicron.

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.

Dr. Alroy-Preiss explained the move was necessary because of the emergence of the new Omicron variant.

It helps “track the random people infected carriers come into contact with, the ones they cannot even tell about, such as travelers on the same bus,” she said, adding that the strain was cause for alarm as it had 15 abnormal mutations.

“It was identified a few days ago in southern Africa and Hong Kong, and most likely developed in October. We see how fast it spreads and infects. We do not yet know whether it significantly impacts mortality, but we do see an increase in the death rate in southern Africa,” she said.

The use of Shin Bet technology to track civilians who came into contact with confirmed COVID carriers was controversial from the start. It was instated in March 2020 as part of the emergency regulations imposed in the effort to curb the pandemic.

Coronavirus Comissioner Professor Salman Zarka said on Sunday with regard to Omicron, “Since we only have limited data on the new variant so far, it is necessary to increase restrictions, and I think the steps that have been taken [by the government] are reasonable. This new variant is already in the country and what we’re trying to do now is keep additional cases out, as far as possible. I think we can say at this point that we’re in control of the situation.”

Health funds reported that the number of scheduled vaccination appointments increased ever since news of the Omicron variant broke.

Nevertheless, “we wish the rate was even higher. This variant proves to us all that the coronavirus is staying with us and that we should vaccinate the children. We recommend getting inoculated because the alternative is getting infected with the coronavirus,” Ruth Baruch, who overlooks the Clalit health fund’s vaccination campaign, said.

Over the weekend, the IDF Home Front Command, which has been assisting pandemic efforts, sent hundreds of personnel to the homes of Israelis who returned from Africa and are currently in self-isolation, delivering PCR test kits and ensuring quarantine measures are being followed.

It also doubled the staff responsible for processing arrivals from abroad and getting them to the hotels to quarantine. It also set up a special team responsible for monitoring the variant and preventing its spread in the country.

“We understand that there’s a good chance that the new variant has already made its way to Israel, and we do everything to disrupt the infection chain. Fortunately, the number of new cases is low at the moment and we have enough manpower. We will continue to do everything needed to overcome this variant,” Brig. Gen. Relli Margalit, who is in charge of a Home Front Command’s Alon task force, said.