Changing course, IDF to let troops quarantine at home after massive outbreak

Parents of soldiers on Base 80, where over 100 people have contracted COVID-19, complain of unsanitary, unsafe conditions that allowed the disease to spread freely

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

Illustrative. Israeli army technicians carry out a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a military lab in central Israel on July 15, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative. Israeli army technicians carry out a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a military lab in central Israel on July 15, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces has reversed course on one of its coronavirus policies, allowing soldiers to quarantine at home, rather than on base, after a disastrous outbreak of the disease on the military’s non-combat basic training Base 80 put nearly 200 soldiers in what their parents described as unsafe and unsanitary conditions that allowed the virus to spread freely.

After blowback over the outbreak, the military decided to allow troops who live on so-called closed bases to quarantine at home, providing they are able to do so safely, as soldiers and their parents have demanded from the start of the outbreak on Base 80, formally known as Basic Training Base Dotan, late last month.

“In light of an ongoing situational assessment in the IDF, it was decided that beginning yesterday in closed units, home quarantine would be the preferred option,” the military said in a statement Wednesday.

Soldiers unable to quarantine at home — meaning they lack a separate room and bathroom — would be able to isolate either on base or in a military facility.

A military spokesperson confirmed that the decision was specifically in response to the outbreak on Base 80, outside the town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur, which saw some 190 soldiers forced to quarantine on base, whereupon more than half of them contracted the coronavirus. Recent weeks have seen a series of major outbreaks on bases and within units, as well as accompanying allegations of mismanagement, ineffectual safety protocols and insufficient testing.

An Israeli soldier wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus takes his position on board the Navy Ship Lahav during a rare tour of Israel’s offshore Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, September 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Dozens of soldiers on the Nahal Brigade’s training base were diagnosed with COVID-19 this week, at least 36 sailors on board the INS Lahav corvette were also confirmed as carriers, and more than two dozen soldiers in the elite Duvdevan Unit also tested positive after an officer in the unit allegedly violated his quarantine and prayed with troops in an enclosed space during the Yom Kippur holiday.

In total, 1,192 soldiers and civilian employees of the IDF have been diagnosed with the disease, most with light symptoms, as of Tuesday. Five servicemembers were in moderate condition.

The biggest outbreak in the military appears to be the one on Base 80, where at least 104 soldiers have been confirmed as carriers as of Tuesday night, after one soldier apparently became infected while at home on leave during the Rosh Hashanah holiday in September.

“They completely screwed this up in every possible way,” the mother of one soldier on the base told The Times of Israel on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern that contacting the press would cause problems for her daughter with the military.

She accused the army of placing people with coronavirus symptoms in quarantine alongside those who did not have symptoms, virtually ensuring that everyone in the group would eventually contract the disease.

“They were just having them sit and fester. They were getting sick and getting each other sick,” she said.

According to the mother, despite her daughter feeling tightness in her chest and other minor symptoms, she has been kept in quarantine with other soldiers who have not presented any indications that they have the disease, nor has she been permitted to get a coronavirus test.

They were just having them sit and fester. They were getting sick and getting each other sick

The IDF denied that soldiers who had symptoms were being housed with those who did not.

“There is separation between soldiers with symptoms and those without symptoms, in their sleeping quarters, showers, bathrooms and where they eat,” the military said in a statement.

“Those in quarantine with symptoms are given separate rooms, bathrooms and showers for their use and they do not mix with the rest of their platoon’s capsule, even during meals,” the IDF added.

The military did not comment on the allegation that troops with symptoms were being denied coronavirus tests.

Currently, the military — which performs its tests in-house — has much stricter policies regarding who is eligible for a check than the rest of the population. In the case of the INS Lahav outbreak, according to Army Radio, the disease was first detected after an infected soldier paid for a test out of his own pocket after having been denied one by the military.

Initially, the IDF performed its own tests in order to make things easier for the civilian healthcare system. However, the discrepancy has come under increased scrutiny of late as civilian laboratories are currently able to perform far more tests than are currently needed by the general population.

The military also said that all soldiers in quarantine would receive medical check-ups daily.

The mother of the soldier in quarantine said this was not the case, and that there was “a real crisis of health and safety.”

Israeli soldiers wear face masks at a police roadblock in Tel Aviv during the nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, September 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“I am sending an oximeter to her today since she is having labored breathing and there is no one there to seek medical attention [from],” she said Wednesday.

“My daughter can’t breathe properly right now,” the mother said. “I just want to make sure that she’s okay.”

As coronavirus rules require people to remain in quarantine for two weeks after coming into contact with a confirmed carrier, each new case would reset the clock for the rest of the people in their quarantine group.

“This was a totally broken system — a failure of quarantine and a failure of hygiene,” the mother said.

Throughout their isolation quarantine period, many of the soldiers’ parents have asked the military to allow their children to isolate at home.

“Everyone feels strongly about that,” the mother said, citing conversations in a parents WhatsApp message group. “We want them at home so we can take responsibility for their quarantine.”

In some cases, parents have gone to the base itself to speak to their children’s commanders. In one incident, on October 7, the military called the police on the parents, accusing them of blocking the base’s front gate.

The soldier’s mother, who was there that day, denied that the parents blocked the entrance, saying they had been having a civil conversation about the conditions on the base.

Informed of the fact that the military was changing its quarantine policy on Wednesday, the mother said that it will not be relevant for her daughter or the other soldiers currently in quarantine.

“The girls were told yesterday that they are starting another two-week quarantine,” she said.

An IDF spokesperson said they were looking into whether the change in policy would apply to soldiers currently in quarantine.

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