Prof. Ron Balicer, the head of the Health Ministry’s pandemic response team, said that millions of Israelis will contract the Omicron COVID variant, which means that the number of hospitalizations will soar despite the variant being less virulent than previous ones.
In an interview with Yisrael Hayom on Motzei Shabbos, Prof. Balicer said: “In recent weeks we’ve learned that Omicron behaves fundamentally differently than previous strains. The differences between it and the Delta variant are greater than the differences between Delta and Alpha and the other strains. It has various mechanisms for entering the cell and operates differently at the cellular level. Omicron mostly targets the upper respiratory system and less so the lungs, along with various other differences we can identify at the moment. All of these differences on the cellular level apparently help explain why it is less virulent than the Delta variant. And at this stage, it’s clear to us from data from the UK that the risk of severe hospitalization is at least three times lower compared to Delta.”
“This is the good news, but because it is more contagious than Delta and is able to infect even those who have been sick before and the vaccinated, the number of infections will be higher and the number of accumulated hospitalizations could also be higher. Therefore the health system is preparing for severe scenarios.”
Regarding the effect of Omicron on children, Prof. Balicer said: “We don’t regard it as fact that Omicron is more dangerous for children, but it’s important to clarify that we are still collecting data from across the globe and there is still uncertainty on this matter. In my opinion, it’s prudent to be cautious and to make a significant effort to prevent infection among children in the schools via all the tools at our disposal, and I reiterate my call to those who haven’t vaccinated their children – do it now. It’s important to protect the children to prevent PIMS (Paediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome and long-COVID symptoms), whose rates are still unknown.”
Despite Omicron’s high contagiousness rate, Prof. Balicer said that he still believes that it’s possible for at-risk populations to protect themselves: “Despite the high contagiousness of Omicron, at-risk populations can avoid contracting the virus in the current wave. We must vaccinate those who haven’t received a third dose (there are currently 400,000 people above the age of 40 who haven’t received the third dose). Those eligible for a fourth dose can get it and replenish their antibodies to the levels they had after the third dose. The data from the UK indicates that those who have received a ‘fresh’ booster are almost 90% protected against severe illness.”
“The second thing is to make sure to wear a mask in every closed space and gathering. People should also avoid attending events in closed spaces, aside from necessary daily activities. The elderly population needs to continue as normal to socialize and meet people, but try to do so outdoors or in a space that is as ventilated as possible. On one hand, avoid large gatherings in closed spaces, but on the other hand, don’t reach a point of social isolation and continue to meet with friends.”
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)