Coronavirus Omicron variant
Coronavirus Omicron variant iStock

This week marked a turning point in the Israeli government’s response to the Omicron variant, beginning with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Sunday evening address warning of a “fifth wave” of the coronavirus and hinting of a possible lockdown this winter.

In the days that followed, the government has mulled a variety of measures to contain the Omicron variant, which has several hundred confirmed cases in Israel.

The measures have ranged from banning unvaccinated children from attending school to additional incentives to get the COVID jab, along with plans for a new national lockdown.

The government moved to ban travel to the US, Canada, and a number of European countries with high Omicron infection rates, limited school openings in towns with high COVID-positive rates, and moved forward with a campaign offering a fourth shot of the Pfizer vaccine.

During deliberations this week, Health Ministry officials spoke with senior government officials, working to convince ministers to back far-reaching steps to contain the Omicron variant.

On Tuesday night, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) revealed some of the startling data provided by a senior Health Ministry official, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, chief of the public health department within the Ministry.

“Seven children died yesterday in South Africa from the Omicron variant,” Shaked said, citing Alroy-Preis. “Sharon Alroy-Preis said that a total of 32 children have died thus far. We must publicize this to the public as much as we can, so that parents understand.”

The claim was challenged by Finance Minister Avidgor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), however, who denied the figure and claimed that just 12 confirmed deaths from Omicron had been recorded worldwide.

"So far, in the entire world, around 12 people have died of Omicron,” Liberman was quoted by Channel 12 as saying. “As far as seriously ill patients, we have 81 seriously ill patients, 41 of them on respirators. In terms of the Omicron’s impact, I don’t see how this has more of an impact that the flu. Just as we live with the flu, right now we’re living with the Omicron. I don’t think it makes sense right now to take new steps, like limiting people – 100 people, 300 people.”

Liberman’s rebuttal to Alroy-Preis drew heavy criticism in the Israeli media, and some Opposition lawmakers.

MK Bezalel Smotrich blasted Liberman over his comments, citing them as an example of the government’s “unprofessional, irresponsible” ministers “who will lead to a terrible new outbreak at a painful cost.”

Meir Rubin, executive director of the Kohelet Policy Forum who was tapped last year by Bennett to head up the ‘civil coronavirus committee’, pointed to the figures cited by Alroy-Preis, adding that “thousands” of adults had died in South Africa recently from the Omicron variant, citing a social media post from Twitter.

But a cursory investigation into the number of Omicron deaths reveals that Alroy-Preis’ claims, as well as the figures cited in the media, are based on speculation, rather than official data.

In recent weeks, the Omicron variant has become the dominant strain observed in South Africa, with sample tests in November and December showing the Omicron surging, while other strains, like Delta, remained stable.

A report by South African health officials on December 21st noted that 32 children had died while infected with SARS-CoV-2 over the past 16 days, including seven newly-counted fatalities.

But as South African Department of Health spokesman Foster Mohale told Israel National News, the figures cited by Israeli media outlets and Health Ministry officials regarding Omicron deaths aren’t based on any actual data from South Africa.

SARS-CoV-2 deaths haven’t been tracked by variant, Mohale explained, and the South African Department of Health has no figures on the numbers of Omicron deaths, or whether recent fatalities were caused by Omicron or the Delta variant.

It appears, then, that all SARS-CoV-2-related deaths reported in South Africa since late November were claimed to be Omicron fatalities, with Israeli health officials counting all COVID deaths in South Africa in recent weeks as Omicron-related.

Yet despite the massive spike in cases in South Africa – caused in large part to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant – the average number of deaths per day has remained low.

Based on this and other data, the World Health Organization reported that the Omicron variant thus far appears to be ‘less severe’ than other strains.

Israel National News reached out to the Israeli Health Ministry for comment, but has yet to receive a response.