Israel’s deadly COVID-19 indecision

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The result is an increasing number of sick people.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting

(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The hundreds of Israelis falling sick with COVID-19 on a daily basis has left the government fumbling with indecision, rather than inspiring it to take charge of the growing health crisis that experts warn is rapidly spinning out of control.

The coronavirus cabinet met for two hours on Sunday but left with no decisions, ensuring that the status quo will continue, and that the virus will keep spreading throughout the country.
It is not a positive sign for Israel, whose prime minister lauded himself for maintaining the first wave of the virus, and through a series of extreme but necessary measures, limiting the number of severely ill and dead.

“There is no change in the virus,” stressed Prof. Jonathan Gershoni from Tel Aviv University’s School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology. “The virus has not weakened.”

He said that the only difference is that Israel now has hundreds of sick people in every city and the precautions that need to be taken to prevent a lockdown are not being taken seriously by the public, the Health Ministry or the government.

Moreover, it is becoming ever more apparent that the government did not use the lockdown to prepare for life in the shadow of coronavirus, which most experts understand is here for at least another year. Rather, there has been little or no strategic planning, as was evidenced by the rapid decision to open schools without any testing procedure in place.

The result is an increasing number of sick people.

While the numbers show that younger people are being infected now – perhaps because the “second wave,” if one wants to call it that, started in the schools – Gershoni pointed out that for every 400 to 600 people infected each day, around 40 of them are over the age of 65. As such, it is only a matter of time until, with the increase of general numbers, the country sees an increase in serious cases and deaths. Hopefully, he said, that increase will not be uncontrollable or untreatable, as has always been the fear.

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Nearly all health experts offer the same strategy: Test widely, carry out quick epidemiological investigations to stop the infection chains and isolate the sick. At the same time, the government must step up enforcement of Health Ministry regulations, fining people who gather in large crowds and who do not wear masks.

Under newly appointed Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, the Health Ministry has increased daily testing. Last week, there was a day in which more than 19,000 people were screened for coronavirus. However, the number of tests taken per day is not the only issue. The labs must process these tests quickly and provide a response to those who take them.
Over the weekend, head of public health, Dr. Sigal Sadetsky, said that the labs have not been able to keep up with the workload amid the recent rise in infection rates due to a lack of manpower.

Moreover, although the Health Ministry said it hired 300 new epidemiological trackers, there has yet to be any change in the time it takes to complete each investigation, which can sometimes be as long as five days, according to Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the coronavirus cabinet to reduce the epidemiological investigation process time – from the time of the patient’s detection to the introduction of all his isolation contacts – from 48 hours to 12 hours.

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But as Gershoni pointed out, until now there has been a lot of talk and less action.

Moreover, there are daily news reports of crowds on Israel’s beaches, at soccer games or wedding halls.
The government must increase enforcement of those who break the rules, health experts continue to stress. While there has been an increase in fines, according to Police, it is clearly not enough.

Hadar Marom, deputy director of Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital, told The Jerusalem Post in a separate interview that the government must attack mask-wearing the way it approached the use of seat belts in cars.
“Remember we started to use seat belts while driving our cars?” she asked. “It was not easy to implement and people did not understand that they needed to use them.”

She said that the government ran a robust advertising campaign targeted toward the country’s different sectors and police would pull over cars and fine drivers who were not buckled up.

“Now we get inside our car and put on our seat belt,” she said. “It has to happen with masks, too.”

Finally, it is time that the Health Ministry appoints a director of “hasbara,” someone who can better communicate the need to comply with the directives to the various sectors, and who can explain the dangers that will emerge if compliance is not put into effect.

Edelstein lashed out at his colleagues for populism on Sunday evening and claimed that at the coronavirus cabinet meeting in the morning he had warned them to start taking the virus more seriously.

But the fact that the cabinet did not make even one decision on Sunday makes it appear that Edelstein’s words fell on deaf ears.

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“I believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the tunnel is rather long,” Gershoni stressed. “We have to learn to live with corona. If not, we are going to run into trouble.”

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