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Omicron Variant: Israel Is Preparing for Three Possible Scenarios

Just two weeks have elapsed since Prime Minister Naftali Bennett presided over a “war game” with a cast of participants who simulated the outbreak of a particularly virulent “Omega” variant of the coronavirus.

The conclusions generated from the simulation were consulted over the weekend – to apply them to the emergence of the enigmatic Omicron variant of the virus.

The decisions adopted Saturday by the coronavirus cabinet bear a resemblance to the simulation: a call to immediately take steps to eradicate the outbreak, including the use of “means to provide oversight and monitoring”; rapidly curtailing air traffic; and dramatic action for “early detection” of the risks that the variant presents.

All of this shows the pressure that the political leadership is under as it faces the unknown – how severe will the impact of the Omicron variant be.

The fictitious Omega variant upon which the emergency simulation was based is the nightmare scenario for the Israeli health system and the government – a variant resistant to vaccines that can inflict substantial harm on young children, lead to the collapse of the country’s main strategy for dealing with COVID-19 and put an impossible strain on the country’s hospitals.

In the drill, Bennett and his colleagues (who included ministry director generals, coronavirus chief Salman Zarka, senior Health Ministry officials and representatives from the National Security Council and the army’s Home Front Command), rehearsed three scenarios.

  • In the first, a variant was discovered early, and the country recognized in time the harm it could quickly inflict.
  • In the second, the outbreak was further advanced, with widespread cases of serious illness and a rise in the number of hospitalized children.
  • In the third and final scenario, there were grave complications, with hospitals on the brink of collapse, in part because they had to deal simultaneously with cases of COVID-19 and flu.

The main conclusion from the exercise was, as expected, a recognition of the need to quickly identify when the situation requires a shift to an emergency footing – in other words, how to spot new variants, and to identify as quickly as possible whether they are more dangerous than previous ones and if they merit a change in the public health rules of the game.

If it turns out that the new variant can undermine the effectiveness of the vaccines, the government would have to abandon its current reliance on mass vaccination.

It would then have to shift to a zero-COVID strategy reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic: a total lockdown, the shutdown of air travel and a series of measures to stamp out the wave quickly and aggressively.

Bennett recently concluded that the government’s current approach to dealing with the virus is appropriate and effective. It involves daily situation assessments with those managing the crisis, assessment of specific events and the convening of the coronavirus cabinet, or comparable policy panels, to review the policy in the face of new events.

In the exercise, the participants were called upon to deal with complex dilemmas that a wave of infection could present.

For example, should a lockdown be imposed despite its high cost, or should efforts continue to keep the economy running to the extent possible? Should priority be given to quantity of output over quality at the country’s hospitals? Should the country’s borders be closed or should Jews from abroad be allowed in? Should the pandemic be managed primarily at the national or local level?

One of the major insights gleaned from the exercise was that even between waves of the pandemic, the capacity to deal with the next outbreak needs to be maintained.

“We’re not closing up shop[s],” Bennett said.

For example, even when the number of cases is at an ebb, Bennett said the Magen Avot Ve’imahot project protecting the country’s oldest citizens would not be shut down.

The entire network providing treatment for COVID-19 would remain open and functioning, and vaccines and testing supplies would remain in stock, he said.

Source: Jonathan Lis – HAARETZ