By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Israel is in the midst of its fifth wave of COVID-19, thanks to the Omicron variant. The infection numbers in Israel show that this variant is the most infectious of all of the coronavirus variants, and developments in Israel might enable researchers to learn if this pandemic is on its way to becoming an endemic.
The experience Israel has had with COVID-19 under the leadership of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett makes Israel a test case for a mostly vaccinated society. As of January 2022, about 71% of Israelis have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. We may be able to learn from Israel’s experience with Omicron when we try to extrapolate what will happen in the U.S. in the coming months.
Israel Has Imposed a New Rule Due to the Shortage of COVID-19 Tests
Many people in Israel are contracting the Omicron variant, and the high rate of infected patients has brought about a significant shortage of COVID-19 tests. As a result, the Israeli government instituted a new policy: It only allows people in the high-risk category to have access to lab tests. The government’s ruling means that if someone is not in one of the high-risk groups, that person may not be able to receive a test unless he or she shows symptoms from contact with an infected person.
According to Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned this fifth wave will bring up to 50,000 patients a day. He noted, “Our overarching goal remains the same: to enable an economy to function as much as possible while protecting the most vulnerable…The good news is that we have learned from the world that if you are vaccinated you are largely protected from serious illness.
“The wave is coming and there is no way to prevent it. Those who are vaccinated will be able to go on with their lives.”
Related link: From Delta to Omicron: How Coronavirus Variants Behave
Israel Is Also Urging High-Risk Groups to Get a Second Booster Shot
Bennett has also pushed for a second booster shot of the vaccination targeting people in high-risk groups. Ha’aretz reported, “So far, 513,865 Israelis have already received the fourth jab, according to the Health Ministry. As of Friday, 4,385,857 people have received their third shot, 6,010,232 have gotten two doses of the vaccine, and 6,666,863 were inoculated only with once.”
Ha’aretz also noted that as of January 14, there were 306 cases of hospitalized patients in Israeli hospitals. There are 86 patients in critical condition and 76 of these patients are on ventilators.
Israeli researcher Professor Nadav Davidovitch, a health policy specialist at Ben-Gurion University, commented that the most serious cases of COVID-19 are among those who are either not vaccinated or partially vaccinated. He said, “Right now there are 13 very severe cases in which the patients are on ECMO machines – 100 percent of those patients are not vaccinated, We also see that 81 percent of patients in the hospital on ventilators are either not vaccinated at all or only partially vaccinated. And among our 57 severely ill patients who are younger than 60 years old, 43 are unvaccinated.”
There are also clear results that getting vaccinated helps to protect older people. Ha’artez noted, “Among Israelis between the ages 60-69, there are 40 severe cases per 100,000 people among the unvaccinated, but only 2.8 severe cases per 100,000 people among the vaccinated. Among those aged 70-79, the ratio is 46.6 severe cases per 100,000 people among unvaccinated, versus 6.8 among the vaccinated.”
What Lessons Can We Learn from Israel’s Experience with COVID-19 and Omicron?
If there is a new variant coming with more virulent characteristics, Israel’s pandemic management will change in an instant. Right now, the hope in Israel is that Omicron with its truly amazing ability to infect people is less virulent than the Delta variant and that it will transform the pandemic to an endemic restricted to just one country.
The endemic stage of COVID-19, however, does not have a clear definition. Infectious disease expert Stephen Kissler of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has defined the endemic period as reaching “some sort of acceptable steady state.” Kissler also added, “I do think we will reach a point where SARS-CoV-2 is endemic much like flu is endemic.”
It seems that COVID-19 is not going anywhere, but we might be nearing a new stage where we could continue and resume normal life with COVID-19 in the background. When we reach that point, we can then really say that COVID-19 is like the flu – a disease that is common and only life-threatening in rare cases.