COVID’s reproduction rate continues to rise, fueling fear of another outbreak

The reproduction (R) rate of COVID-19 continued to rise on Tuesday and reached 1.39, according to Health Ministry statistics released on Wednesday morning, up from 0.9 a week earlier and the highest figure since January.

Any R statistic greater than 1 means that each coronavirus carrier infects more than one person on average. The rising figure indicates that the virus is spreading again in Israel.

Some 13,384 new cases were diagnosed nationwide on Tuesday, bringing the total number of active cases to 64,271, including 849 are hospitalized.

The number of patients in serious condition fell to 300 from 320 the day before – the increase in serious cases generally lags trends in case numbers by at least a week – and the number of patients on ventilators rose from 138 to 119.

Thirty COVID patients died in Israel last week, bringing the total number to 10,449 since the start of the pandemic.

While Tuesday’s figures mark a slight drop in the number of new daily confirmed cases from Monday, the numbers have been rising steadily since January, when Israel was emerging from the Omicron wave that began in December.

A Magen David employee takes a rapid COVID-19 antigen test from Israelis, at a Magen David Adom compound in Jerusalem, March 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Professor Gili Rahav, director of infectious diseases at Sheba Medical Center, said she believed the increase in new cases was partly due to the BA.2 variant, a subvariant of Omicron.

“There are enough people who still haven’t been sick and therefore could still be infected” with the variant, Rahav told Kan public radio on Tuesday.

The rise in figures has sparked fears among health experts who have warned that Israel could be moving in the same direction as the UK, where cases are soaring.

The UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – saw some 3.3 million people infected, out of a population of 67 million, in the week ending March 12. There, the Omicron wave had started to ebb in early January, and cases continued to drop through February, before starting to rise again at the end of the month.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face covering to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on January 12, 2022. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

But recent events like Purim, which saw large gatherings, and the funeral of haredi leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky may also have contributed to the rise in new cases, noted Hebrew University epidemiologist, the Professor Ora Paltiel.

Most of Israel’s remaining coronavirus restrictions were lifted in late February, and as cases plummeted, the population became less cautious.

BA.2 is believed to be more contagious than the original Omicron, but not necessarily more severe.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020, nearly 3.8 million Israelis, or around 40% of the population, have tested positive for COVID.

Rahav said she believes the figure was closer to 50%, but noted that while those who have had Omicron are likely to be protected against the current variants, “we know that those who have had Delta or Alpha don’t are certainly not protected”.

Nathan Jeffay and Amy Spiro contributed to this report.

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