By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel will continue to offer a fourth COVID-19 vaccine shot despite preliminary findings that it is not enough to prevent Omicron infections, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday, predicting contagions stoked by the variant will wane in a week.
With his government scaling back Omicron counter-measures to ease the strain on the economy, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sought to cast Israel's still-high case numbers primarily as a result of an en-masse testing drive rather than infection rates.
The fastest country to roll out vaccinations a year ago, Israel last month started offering a fourth shot - also known as a second booster - to its most vulnerable and high-risk groups.
A preliminary study published by an Israeli hospital on Monday found that the fourth shot increases antibodies to even higher levels than the third but "probably" not enough to fend off the highly transmissible Omicron.
Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash described those findings as "unsurprising, to a degree" as Omicron infections had been logged in some fourth-dose recipients.
But "protection from serious morbidity, especially for the elderly population and at-risk population, is still afforded by this vaccine (dose), and therefore I call on people to keep coming to get vaccinated," he told Army Radio.
As elsewhere, Israel has seen COVID-19 cases spiral due to Omicron. But it has logged no deaths from the variant, and Ash said there had been no increase in COVID-19 patients on ECMO machines - a gauge of the most critical cases.
"In another week we will begin seeing a drop in the numbers, but we still have two or three difficult weeks ahead," he said, adding that some Health Ministry computers had been overloaded by the volume of testing data since Sunday, disrupting updates.
Briefing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Bennett said Israel was testing as many as 5% of its 9.4 million population for COVID-19 each day, "and that's why the case numbers are so high, not because necessarily so many people are infected".
"By doing these tests we can isolate folks and slow down the pace of infection," he said.
Israel on Monday cut the mandatory quarantine period for COVID-19 carriers to five days. To conserve PCRs and reduce queuing at public testing sites, it has encouraged more use of home antigen kits. On Tuesday, the government said 25 million to 30 million kits would be issued to Israelis for free.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Steven Scheer; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Frank Jack Daniel, William Maclean)