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In Israel, omicron, confusion drive 'real panic' for tests

Laurie Kellman
Associated Press

Tel Aviv, Israel — 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.

Delivery drivers from the Wolt app leave a pharmacy with rapid antigen tests for the coronavirus for delivery to customers in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

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 re-opened the airport, changed testing policies, tightened and loosened quarantine requirements and confused people about whether and how to send their kids to school.

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.

Nearly two-thirds of the public is displeased, according to a poll for Israel's Channel 12 TV. Sixty-three percent of the Israeli public said it views the government’s handling of the omicron crisis as bad, as opposed to 34% who said they thought the crisis was being managed well. That's up from 54% disapproval in August.

Cabinet members complained during Sunday's meeting about the dissonance of tightening and loosening requirements — then allowing people to crowd soccer stadiums for games.

“We keep getting asked for clarifications all day long,” said Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai. "The sense among the public is that the government has conceded the fight against the coronavirus.”

The perception is a challenge for the 7-month-old governing coalition. It's fragile to begin with, consisting of eight parties that have little in common other than their opposition to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For his part, Bennett has said almost daily that he understands the frustration as the parent of four children and someone who's recently been quarantined.

He has tried to calm people by boasting of preparations for the current wave, offering a second round of booster shots to older Israelis and stocking up on hard-to-get medicines to treat people with the virus.

He also has driven a public campaign to raise the vaccination rate, even in sectors like Israel's ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, where people have been reluctant to roll up their sleeves.

On Monday, Bennett personally escorted a 9-year-old girl to a vaccination center at a shopping mall in the central town of Modiin. The event was broadcast live on Channel 12, with Bennett wearing a microphone throughout the visit.

Bennett stopped with the girl and her mother at a candy shop to buy her chocolate before the jab. As he paid for the candy, he made sure the women behind the counter were vaccinated.

“We’re going to get through this together,” he told the girl as they entered the center.

Israel's decision to begin authorizing home antigen testing came in response to the long lines at overworked testing centers. That, however, has led to a run on the test kits at drugstores, which have struggled to keep their shelves stocked.

It has also meant a spike in business for Wolt in Israel, one of two dozen countries in which the company operates, according to Lior Eshkol, general manager of Wolt in Israel.

“People want to stay at home, people don't want to risk being exposed, or risk exposing other people,” she said.