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Israel reports record new coronavirus infections as it starts offering 4th COVID shot

Man receiving fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Israel
A man receives his fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a nursing home in Petah Tikva, Israel, on Tuesday.
(Ariel Schalit / Associated Press)
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Israel opened to tourists for the first time in nearly two years. After just a month, it slammed itself shut again. Now the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has set a widely expected record for new infections in the country, which will once again crack open Sunday — but only to travelers from certain nations.

The back-and-forth has created whiplash for many Israelis. Even in the relatively small, wealthy Mideast nation — an early global leader in the COVID-19 pandemic — the Omicron variant is outpacing the government’s ability to make and execute clear public policy. What once was a straightforward regimen of vaccines, testing, contact tracing and distancing for the nation of 9.4 million has splintered into a zigzag of rules that seem to change every few days.

The confusion here over tourism, testing, quarantines, masks, schools and other policies offers a glimpse of the pandemic puzzle facing governments worldwide as the Omicron variant burns through the population. Someday, the World Heath Organization will declare the pandemic over. But in the meantime, leaders are weighing how much illness, isolation and death people are willing to risk.

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In Israel as elsewhere, what’s clear is that the ultra-contagious Omicron variant has pushed the fight against COVID-19 into a messier phase of rules governed by a key assumption: Large portions of the public will contract the Omicron version, which is more contagious but appears to cause less severe illness and death, especially among vaccinated people. But vaccinated people are still catching the variant, driving a surge fed in part by gatherings over the winter holidays.

On Wednesday, the Israeli government reported that a record 11,978 new infections were registered the day before. That beats the previous high of 11,345 infections in a single day set Sept. 2 during the Delta variant wave.

“There is no control of the Omicron wave,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Israeli Health Ministry’s top public health official, said on Israel’s Channel 13 this week.

COVID-19 just broke its year-old record for new U.S. infections in a week. But this time, far fewer hospitalizations and deaths are likely to follow.

“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 another national lockdown — the red line that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his fragile 7-month-old government coalition are striving to avoid crossing.

“It’s a different ballgame altogether,” Bennett said during a news conference Sunday, warning that the number of daily infections is expected to soar to new records in the coming weeks.

“We must keep our eye on the ball if we want to continue engaging and working with an open country as much as possible,” he added.

Hundreds of thousands of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews have yet to receive their COVID-19 shots, despite the ravages of the disease on their community.

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

As a headline in the Haaretz newspaper blared Tuesday: “Education Ministry Leaves Principals to Contend With COVID-19 Chaos Alone.” A lack of national guidance, the story said, is forcing some school principals to decide on their own whether to hold classes in person, remotely or some combination.

At his news conference, Bennett asserted that the government was staying agile in the face of the more challenging Omicron variant. This included a government decision, after some back-and-forth, to give a fourth vaccination to the immuno-compromised and to people 60 and older. Israel is believed to be the first country in the world to offer segments of its population a second booster shot.

On Tuesday, Bennett announced that a preliminary study at Sheba Medical Center found that the fourth shot produced a fivefold increase in antibodies in the blood. Israel also is on the cusp of making available drugs that could help people in at-risk groups avoid severe infections.

Israel becomes one of the first countries to administer a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose to any of its people as it braces for a wave of Omicron cases.

“Most ministries are working together now better than they were under the old government,” which was led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Dr. Nadav Davidovich, who heads Ben-Gurion University’s school of public health and sits on the national coronavirus advisory committee.

The government’s decision to shutter Israel’s borders in late November, for example, bought time to raise the country’s vaccination rates, which rose toward 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 on the rise, but the increase has been limited in part by ultra-Orthodox Jews and some Arabs who have been slow to roll up their sleeves. About 63% of people in Israel have been vaccinated twice, while around 46% have received three shots.

Our World in Data ranks Israel 17th in the world for vaccination rates, behind other wealthy nations such as the United Arab Emirates and the United States and just ahead of archrival Iran. Back in June, Israel was No. 1 on the list.

But it’s been clear for days that a new COVID-19 wave has arrived. Government data showed new infections in Israel spiking to 10,815 on Monday, some 7,000 more than a week earlier. Severe illnesses have stayed mostly constant for several months, and daily deaths from coronavirus have not exceeded two since Dec. 13, government records show.

Still, the process remains messy and confusing given the Omicron variant’s fast-moving spread.

On Wednesday, in the shadow of the record-setting spike of infections, there was more change. Israel’s health minister announced that the demand for testing was slowing the results and recommended more at-home rapid testing to ease the burden.

Quarantines that two weeks ago were required of anyone who might have been exposed to the virus are being scaled back in order to prevent the economy from grinding to a halt.

With immunity waning and the Omicron variant looming, many scientists are saying the definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ should include a booster shot.

Contact tracing has become more complicated given the shortage of tests. The government also plans on tightening requirements for testing to ease the burden on overloaded testing stations, where people have been forced to wait for hours to be checked. New rules are expected soon that will focus testing requirements on high-risk groups, such as older people.

Israel’s list of countries whose tourists are banned has been scaled back, with the Health Ministry on Monday recommending that Canada, France, South Africa, Hungary, Nigeria, Spain and Portugal be removed.

Travel to and from the United States and Britain remains forbidden.

There’s been considerable hand-wringing over any suggestion of “herd immunity” — when enough people have either been vaccinated or recovered from a past infection to stop the coronavirus’ uncontrolled spread.

California has reported a massive backlog of 237,084 new coronavirus cases, pushing the seven-day average of new infections to 50,267, a record high.

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

“The price of herd immunity is very many infections, and that may end up happening,” Ash told Radio 103FM on Sunday. “But we don’t want to reach it by means of infections.”

Challenged at Sunday’s news conference over charges of flip-flopping, Bennett said that he understood the frustration and confusion but that the coronavirus offers limited choices.

“We could have opted for the strategy that other countries chose, and that’s to impose a lockdown. ... That’s what happened last year, with enormous damage,” he replied. Or “we could have gone with it and done nothing.”

Instead, he said, “we are deciding to take responsibility, to make decisions, even if they’re hard.”


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