As gov’t scrambles to contain Omicron strain, COVID chief says ‘situation under control’

  Knesset member Gilad Kariv, who chaired the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting Sunday, expressed concern with regard…


Knesset member Gilad Kariv, who chaired the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting Sunday, expressed concern with regard to the Health Ministry’s earlier approval of digital tracking of confirmed coronavirus carriers by the Israel Security Agency, commonly known as Shin Bet.

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The ministry’s Director of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Elroi Preiss, who was present at the meeting, 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.

So far one person in Israel, a vaccinated woman returning from Malawi, has been found to carry the Omicron strain. Seven more people are suspected of being infected with it. They are currently awaiting PCR test results. Of the seven, three have been fully vaccinated and four have either recovered from COVID in the past six months or gotten innoculated with the second dose over six months ago. Four have recently returned from abroad.

On Saturday, the government issued a travel ban on foreigners for two weeks. It also added 50 countries, all in Africa, onto its no-fly list.

Speaking at a government meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the measures were necessary because “the strain is spreading worldwide and countries are imposing restrictions. At the Coronavirus Cabinet meeting, we took strict measures in order to protect Israel … We will adjust measures as we find out more [about Omicron].”

Bennett called on the public to “exhibit patience. I understand the fatigue of living life in the shadow of the coronavirus. It is not easy for anyone, but this is reality.”

Coronavirus Comission 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.”

Also on Sunday, the ministry reported that of the 35,124 Israelis it screened for the coronavirus in the past 24 hours, 169 tested positive. The reproduction rate decreased from 1.09 in the last few days to 1.05.

There are currently 7,406 active cases in the country, with 168 patients hospitalized. Of those, 128 are in serious condition.

Israel has reported 1,342,022 cases since the outbreak of the pandemic, including 8,184 deaths.

Thus far, 4,069,085 Israelis over the age of 16 have been fully vaccinated, 5,772,575 received two shots, and 6,306,501 got their third jabs. Over 32,000 children have gotten inoculated with the first dose since the launch of the kids’ vaccination campaign last Tuesday, of the 1.2 million children eligible.

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.

Omicron popped up in more European countries over the weekend, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread. 

Britain on Saturday tightened its rules on mask-wearing and testing of international arrivals after finding two cases. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a news conference it was necessary to take “targeted and precautionary measures, Right now this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximize our defenses.”

New cases were also confirmed in Germany and Italy and Belgium. 

In the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, said he would not be surprised if the new variant was already in the country, too. 

“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility … it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” he said on NBC.

Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5 million lives around the world, countries are on high alert. Many have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand, and the US.

The variant’s swift spread among young people in South Africa has alarmed health professionals even though there was no immediate indication whether it causes more severe disease.

A number of pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax, and Pfizer, said they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they expect to be able to tweak their vaccine in around 100 days.

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In related news, an anti-COVID pill developed by Merck drug manufacturer has proved effective in treating the disease, the US Food and Drug Administration said on Friday in a much-awaited preliminary report.

But the report, from an FDA advisory panel, cautioned that pregnant women should not use the drug, known as molnupiravir, saying the potential benefits do not outweigh the risks for those patients.

An FDA experts panel is scheduled to convene on Tuesday to consider whether to authorize emergency use of molnupiravir.

Approval, analysts say, would represent a major step forward in the battle against the global pandemic, handing healthcare professionals a powerful new tool to help those infected.

Merck released the full results of the drug’s clinical trial on Friday, which found the pill would reduce by 30% the rate of hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk coronavirus patients who took it soon after infection.

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