As government struggles with rising COVID cases, IDF rejoins fight

Senior Home Front Command officer says hundreds of troops being sent to hospitals, clinics to boost medical system, helping perform serological tests of children for schools

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A Home Front Command soldier guides residents to a COVID-19 testing tent in Netanya on February 7, 2021, following the easing of a nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
A Home Front Command soldier guides residents to a COVID-19 testing tent in Netanya on February 7, 2021, following the easing of a nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces will deploy hundreds of reservists to hospitals and clinics in order to boost the country’s medical system amid a growing outbreak of coronavirus cases throughout the country, a senior officer in the Home Front Command said Thursday.

The military had scaled back its involvement in the government’s COVID-19 response as case numbers dropped this spring and summer, but it was called back in with the ongoing spread of the Delta variant, which has been found to be more infectious than other versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Israel on Thursday saw nearly 6,000 people test positive for the coronavirus, alongside a steadily growing number of serious COVID-19 cases. This outbreak has principally hit the country’s unvaccinated population, raising concerns about the reopening of Israeli schools, whose younger students — those aged three to 12 — are not currently eligible for inoculation.

In an effort to address this issue, the IDF Home Front Command will conduct serological tests of Israeli children — checking to see which of them have the antibodies for the coronavirus — alongside local authorities. Children found to have coronavirus antibodies will receive a so-called Green Pass allowing them free entrance to schools and indoor spaces without that the need for a negative test, as those without antibodies currently require.

So far the military has begun testing in four cities with high ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, populations as their schools opened this week with the start of the Jewish month of Elul. This will expand in the coming weeks before the rest of Israel’s schools open on September 1, the senior Home Front Command officer told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to IDF figures, nearly a fifth of the children who have been tested carried coronavirus antibodies, though in some areas it is even higher, with over 34% of children in certain parts of Beit Shemesh testing positive for antibodies, indicating that infection rates in those areas were likely higher than initially suspected.

Magen David Adom worker carries out a serological test for COVID-19 in the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Ye’arim, August 9, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel was hit disproportionately hard throughout much of the pandemic, with critics charging that outbreaks were often driven by a lack of adherence to coronavirus regulations in some Haredi communities.

The officer said parents have been surprisingly receptive to these serological tests, which require a blood sample.

In order to assist in the government’s ongoing vaccine drive — specifically aimed at the country’s teenage population, most of which has not been vaccinated despite being eligible to do so — the military has also sent hundreds of troops, most of them reservists, to clinics throughout the country.

Nearly 450 soldiers have been dispatched to these vaccination sites, with plans to send over 150 more by then end of the month, according to the IDF.

In light of growing concerns that hospitals will not be able to handle the growing number of serious coronavirus patients, the IDF has also sent some 200 reservists to 20 general hospitals and seven geriatric hospitals throughout the country.

Health workers in the coronavirus ward at Ziv hospital in Safed on August 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The IDF has also stepped up the country’s testing efforts, preparing the various laboratories it works with to be able to perform some 150,000 tests per day, up from the roughly 100,000 tests they can currently perform, the officer said.

As of Thursday, there were over 42,000 people with active COVID-19 diagnoses in Israel, with some 750. Of those, 421 were in serious condition. Nearly 6,600 Israelis have died of the coronavirus since the outbreak of the disease in early 2020.

In light of the rising number of cases in recent weeks, Israeli health officials and politicians have warned that a national lockdown may be required to prevent a collapse of the healthcare system, potentially for the upcoming Jewish high holidays in September, though they have stressed that this would be a last resort.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett approved a plan prepared by the education, health and defense ministries and his office for reopening the next school year.

Under the plan, all 1.6 million kids in kindergarten and grades 1-6 will undergo a serology test to check if they have COVID-19 antibodies. Those who are found to have recovered from the disease will receive a Green Pass that exempts them from quarantine if they are exposed to confirmed carriers, among other benefits.

If a student tests positive for COVID-19, that student will enter quarantine, and their entire class will be required to get tested for the virus. Those who test positive will also enter quarantine, and those who test negative can stay in class as long as they get tested every day for seven days. Those who refuse to be tested daily will have to enter quarantine.

Students in schools in cities and towns that are considered “orange” or “red” under the traffic light system will all be tested once a week.

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