Infections at record high, hospitalisations low as Omicron sweeps Israel

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Data from Israel on Thursday supported growing evidence worldwide that Omicron causes milder illness than previous variants of the coronavirus, even as the country grappled with a record number of daily infections.

A woman is tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a drive-through site as Israel faces a surge in Omicron variant infections in Jerusalem January 3, 2022. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Total hospitalisations on Wednesday stood at 363 patients, after the Health Ministry reported more than 16,000 new cases – a record high in Israel since the start of the pandemic – with a daily increase of 34 people falling severely ill.

During the height of Israel’s Delta variant wave, the record number of people infected topped 11,000, with the number of those falling severely ill increasing daily by around 100 and 1,300 people hospitalized.

“Our initial data, which is not yet entirely accurate, points to seven to eight people hospitalised for 1,000 infected, two of whom will fall severely ill or worse,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, the ministry’s head of public health, told Army Radio.

“This is a significant change from Delta which saw far more – at least 10 severely ill for every 1,000 infections,” she said.

A World Health Organization official said on Tuesday that more evidence was emerging of Omicron affecting the upper respiratory tract, causing milder symptoms than previous variants and resulting in a “decoupling” in some places between soaring case numbers and low death rates.

With infections rising fast, Israel’s testing centres have been buckling under the pressure, prompting health officials to prioritise risk groups and trust younger, vaccinated populations to test at home if exposed to a carrier.

Risk groups have also been green-lighted for a fourth dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and for Pfizer Inc and Merck & Co Inc’s antiviral COVID-19 medications nL8N2TL22R.

A week into a fourth dose trial at a major Israeli hospital, researchers saw participants’ antibody levels increase five-fold.

But Gili Regev-Yochay, who is leading Sheba Medical Centre’s study, said that while the jump restored protection provided by a third dose, it was lower than what she had hoped for.

“I expect to see it continue rising, the peak of antibodies usually occurs two to four weeks in,” she told Army Radio.

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