Move is precaution to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed

Army told to set up three facilities for Israelis with mild coronavirus symptoms

As alternative to hospitalization or home quarantine, defense minister orders centers — like ‘hotels with medical staff’ — for civilians lightly suffering from the virus

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Workers inside a building at Tel Aviv's Tel Hashomer Hospital, which was converted into a coronavirus isolation unit, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Illustrative: Workers inside a building at Tel Aviv's Tel Hashomer Hospital, which was converted into a coronavirus isolation unit, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In a precautionary move, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Friday ordered the creation of three facilities to house potential thousands of carriers of the coronavirus with mild symptoms, in order to free up space in hospitals for more seriously ill patients.

These centers — one in the north, one in the center and one down south — were due to be set up “within the next week, preferably sooner,” Bennett told reporters.

The defense minister said this order was meant as a precaution in case the number of carriers increased exponentially — a situation that could overwhelm the country’s health care system if all of those infected, including those with light symptoms, were sent to hospitals.

The move is the latest in a series of efforts by the government to curb the spread of the disease and to prepare for a potential larger and faster outbreak. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Thursday evening that “tens of thousands of Israeli lives” were at stake, and intimated that the pandemic could kill tens of millions worldwide if it is not thwarted.

At least 127 Israelis have been diagnosed with the coronavirus as of Friday evening, with seven patients in moderate or serious condition. There have been no fatalities. Tens of thousands have been quarantined.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett visits an IDF Home Front Command exercise simulating the spread of the coronavirus on March 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

“But we don’t know how many unknown carriers there are. There could be another 150, another 500 or another 1,000,” Bennett said.

The new facilities will be created in empty hostels, student villages or resorts and will be designed to hold 1,000 people each, with the ability to hold up to 3,000, if needed, he said.

Bennett said that holding coronavirus carriers with limited symptoms at these quarantine facilities will both free up space in hospitals and avoid the possibility of them infecting their relatives if they were instead kept at home, which the government has also considered.

The defense minister said the decision was made in light of the extended amount of time — roughly five weeks — that it takes for the virus to completely pass through a person’s system, before they can no longer infect anyone else.

“Five weeks at home is very difficult for families, especially if you live in an apartment,” Bennett said.

Having these patients spread out throughout the country is also more difficult for the medical personnel charged with monitoring them, he said.

Workers wearing protective suits disinfect a bus as a preventive measure amid fears over the spread of the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The military and other government offices under his ministry were tasked with finding the facilities that could be used for these centers, outfitting them with equipment and locating medical professionals to run them.

Bennett said he “wanted the conditions to be good,” imagining a “one- or two-star hotel, where there will be medical staff.”

He acknowledged that setting up these quarantine centers would be “a very complicated logistical operation” and that running them would also require strict safety protocols as the medical staff working there would be healthy and looking to remain that way.

Bennett said it had not yet been decided if everyone infected with the disease (but with only light symptoms) would be sent to these quarantine centers, or if only most people would be.

“I’m not the one to decide. Maybe the health system will decide that some people should go to home recuperation,” he said.

Bennett said it was also not yet clear who would make up the medical staff, if it would only come from existing doctors and nurses or if they would be joined by conscript or reservist medics. But he said it would be unlikely that doctors and nurses who serve in the IDF reserves would be brought in, as they mostly work in hospitals and clinics around the country that need them.

“Calling up doctors [from the reserves] doesn’t make sense. A doctor is a doctor is a doctor. They’re coming from the same pool,” he said.

As a result of the virus, international travel into and out of Israel has been heavily reduced, event venues have been closed, gatherings of over 100 people have been banned and schools across the country have been shuttered.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Thursday, Netanyahu called the pandemic “a global event unlike anything” the country had seen. He warned that “the potential number of deaths is very high and we must take action to prevent that.”

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said his ministry was aiming to greatly expand the number of Israelis tested every day for COVID-19, from the current 600 to 2,000 and more.

The World Health Organization has declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.

After emerging in China late last year, the virus has now infected some 134,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 5,000, most of them in China, Italy and Iran, though cases have been reported in countries and territories around the globe.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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