Middle East

In Israel, omicron, confusion drive ‘real panic’ for tests

Wed, 2022-01-12 00:49

TEL AVIV: Aviran Yael fetched rapid antigen kits from a pharmacy in Tel Aviv’s busy center, placed them in the light blue bag strapped to the back of his motorbike and headed off to deliver them.

With that, Yael on Monday joined a growing army of couriers toting Wolt delivery boxes around Israel, a sight that has become ubiquitous in the three years since the Finnish company began operating here.

The payload in the blue boxes changed when the Israeli government last week authorized more at-home testing to take the burden off of testing centers.

Almost immediately, as the omicron coronavirus variant set infection records, rapid antigen tests became the platform’s most in-demand product — even more than food, its core delivery business, officials said.

By Monday, as Wolt opened a modern headquarters in a blue building in Tel Aviv, someone was ordering an antigen test every three seconds — a reflection of widespread public anxiety and confusion over the government’s constantly changing pandemic policies.

“There’s real panic for these tests,” said Yael.

Even in relatively wealthy, small Israel, the government and the governed are struggling with the stunning surge of omicron as it rips around the globe, raising anxiety in a place already known for tension. Since the variant emerged in South Africa in November, the government has closed and reopened the airport, changed testing policies, tightened and loosened quarantine requirements and confused people about whether and how to send their kids to school.

In the latest twist, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced late Monday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, making him the most senior Israeli official to contract COVID-19.

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“I am confirmed with corona,” he wrote on Twitter. “I feel excellent because I am vaccinated. Get vaccinated, wear a mask and we will be through this together.”

With his government facing sagging public support, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned this week that between 2 million and 4 million people among Israel’s population of 9.4 million are expected to be infected by the variant.

On Monday, Israel reported 21,514 new cases, another all-time high. The number of serious cases crept up to 222, a figure that remains well below the highs experienced during previous waves of the coronavirus. Bennett has said preventing serious illness and hospitalizations is his main concern.

Testing has skyrocketed nationally, another sign of the concern about the variant’s spread.

Coronavirus testing reached a peak for the current wave, with more than 342,141 PCR and antigen tests conducted Sunday, according to Health Ministry figures.

That’s the second highest single-day figure behind a spike of more than 414,000 in late August, as Israel was rolling out its booster shots.

“It is hard to control a virus that spreads four times as fast as what we’ve known in the past,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s top public health official, said on Channel 13.

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