In Israel running omicron records, zigzag policy, 4th shot

TEL AVIV, Israel – Israel opened to tourists for the first time in almost two years. After just one month, it slammed. Now the omicron variant has set a highly anticipated record for new infections in the country, which again opens on Sunday – but only for travelers from certain nations.

Back and forth has created whiplash for many Israelis. Even in the relatively small, prosperous Middle East nation – an early global leader against the coronavirus pandemic – the omicron variant surpasses the government’s ability to make and execute a clear pandemic public policy. What was once a straightforward regime of 9.4 million vaccines, testing, contact tracing and distancing of the nation has been shattered into a zigzag of rules that appear to be changing every few days.

The confusion here, about everything from tourism to tests, quarantines, masks and school politics, provides a glimpse of the pandemic puzzle that governments around the world face as the omicron variant burns through the population. One day, the World Heath Organization will declare the pandemic over. But in the meantime, leaders weigh how much illness, isolation and death people are willing to risk.

In Israel, as elsewhere, it is clear that the ultra-contagious omicron variant has pushed the fight against COVID-19 into a more messy phase of rules governed by a key assumption: Large sections of the public will join the omicron version, which is more contagious . but appears to cause less serious illness and death, especially among the vaccinated. But vaccinated people also catch the variety, and drive an increase, which is partly fed by gatherings during the winter holidays.

On Wednesday, the government reported a record for the pandemic in Israel with 11,978 new infections a day earlier. It beats the previous high of 11,345 infections in a single day set on September 2 during the delta variant wave.

“There is no control over the omicron wave,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, the health ministry’s top public health official, said on Israel’s Channel 13 this week.

“Probably no one is protected from infection,” Jonathan Halevy, president of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, said Tuesday.

The new goal is to protect society’s most vulnerable people without yet another national lockdown – the red line Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the country’s 7-month-old government are working to avoid.

“It’s a completely different ball game,” Bennett said during a news conference Sunday as he warned that the number of daily infections is expected to rise to new records in the coming weeks.

“We need to keep an eye on the ball if we want to continue to engage and work with an open country as much as possible,” he added.

In everyday life, it means a morass of confusion as Bennett and the coalition government he leads struggle to agree on rules and communicate their decisions to the public.

“The Ministry of Education is leaving principals to fight COVID-19 chaos alone,” a headline in Haaretz read daily Tuesday. A lack of national guidance, the story said, forces some school leaders to decide on their own whether to hold teaching in person, externally, or a combination.

Bennett at the press conference claimed that the government remained flexible towards the more challenging variant. This included a government decision, after some back and forth, to provide a fourth vaccination to immunocompromised and humans of at least 60 years of age. Israel is believed to be the first country in the world to offer parts of its population an extra booster shot.

On Tuesday, Bennett announced that a preliminary study at Sheba Medical Center showed that the fourth plug produced a fivefold increase in antibodies in the blood. Israel is also on the verge of providing drugs that can help people at risk avoid serious infections.

“Most ministries are working together now better than they were under the old government,” led by divisive former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Dr. Nadav Davidovich, who heads the Ben-Gurion University School of Public Health and sits on the National Advisory Committee on. coronavirus.

So the government’s decision, for example to close Israel’s borders in late November, bought time to raise the country’s vaccination rates, which rose towards the middle and end of the month. It also allowed hospitals to prepare for a likely wave of illness.

The vaccinated population has been steadily increasing, but is partly limited by ultra-Orthodox Jews and some Arabs, who have been slow to roll up their sleeves. About 63% of the population of Israel has been vaccinated twice, while about 46% have received three bites.

Our World in Data ranks Israel as number 17 in the world for vaccination rates, after other wealthy nations such as the United Arab Emirates and the United States – and just ahead of arch-rival Iran. Back in June, Israel was No. 1 on the list.

But it has been clear for days that a new wave has come. Government data showed that new infections in Israel rose to 10,815 on Monday, about 7,000 more than a week earlier. Serious illnesses have been largely constant for several months, and daily deaths due to coronavirus have not exceeded two since December 13, government records show.

Yet the process remains messy and confusing given the rapid spread of the variant.

Wednesday in the shadow of the record-breaking rise in infections, there was more change. Israel’s health minister announced that demand for tests slowed the results and recommended more rapid tests at home to ease the burden.

Quarantines that were required two weeks ago by anyone who could have been exposed to the virus are being reduced to prevent the economy from stalling.

Contact tracing has become more complicated due to the lack of tests.

Israel’s list of countries whose tourists are banned has been reduced, and the Ministry of Health on Monday recommended the removal of Canada, France, South Africa, Hungary, Nigeria, Spain and Portugal.

Travel to and from the United States and the United Kingdom is still prohibited.

There has been considerable hand-wringing over any proposal for “herd immunity” – when enough people have either been vaccinated or recovered from a previous infection to stop the virus’ uncontrolled spread.

Israel’s health chief, Nachman Ash, said the fourth shot could be offered to more Israelis, but it is not certain if it could be rolled out quickly enough.

“The price of herd immunity is a lot of infections and it could end up happening,” Ash told Radio 103FM on Sunday. “But we do not want to achieve that with the help of infections.”

Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg contributed to this story.

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