As the Omicron coronavirus variant runs rampant across Israel and officials worry of a surge in hospitalizations, the country's medical centers are already ringing the alarm, as they find themselves already overwhelmed with patients.
"Our six internal wards are already packed, we're talking about a 150% occupancy and there are departments where it is even higher," says Prof. Masad Barhoum, head of Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya.
"We've turned all the dining areas into inpatient rooms. That is no way to treat patients."
Asked what is behind this rise in patients, Barhoum said it was mainly seasonal ailments such as the flu, bronchitis and pneumonia among older people.
Israel on Sunday reported an alarming spike in flu cases recorded in the past few weeks. The Health Ministry since the start of this winter some 1,088 people have been hospitalized with flu, of whom 401 are children and 70 are pregnant women.
"Their ability to consume oxygen is lower, which is why they fill up the wards," he said. "We saw this happen almost every year, except last year. We thought the face masks protected us. This year we see a rampant rise in sick people. So far, we don't have anyone who was hospitalized for Omicron."
Director of Internal Medicine at Rambam Health Care Campus Dr. Eyal Brown reported a similar struggle with overcapacity.
"Rambam is currently treating three coronavirus patients, two of them are connected to a ventilator. Most of the patients at the hospital are due to seasonal ailments, both in internal medicine and pediatrics," he said.
Brown stressed that despite the high number of patients, there is a stark difference between those who are ill with coronavirus and those with the flu.
"Flu patients are pretty much the same, a drop in their respiratory ability, but most of them get better within a day or two," he said. "On the other hand, coronavirus patients can deteriorate very quickly and be hospitalized for a long time."
Commenting on reports from South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, regarding a rise in pediatric coronavirus hospitalizations, Brown said that children's wards in Israel are already at overcapacity regardless of the virus.
"We still aren't witnessing a rise in children ending up in hospitals due to coronavirus, but we are prepared for anything," he said.
"We are talking about a disease that targets the unvaccinated, especially when it comes to Omicron, and the Health Ministry is preparing for a rise in seriously ill children... within a week or two it is likely that some of these children or the two million unvaccinated Israelis will end up hospitalized.
He said the staff is anxious about a potential new variant that could be even more aggressive. "That is why the vaccine is very important. Go get vaccinated, vaccinate your parents and vaccinate your children, the vaccine is very safe."