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Citing logistics know-how, IDF offers to aid distribution of COVID-19 vaccines

Military’s coronavirus task force finds half of cases coming from schools, says people starting to be more honest about their interactions and aiding contact tracers

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

Anar Ottolenghi receives a dose of coronavirus vaccine developed by the Israel Institute for Biological Research at Jerusalem's Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, November 1, 2020 (Courtesy)
Anar Ottolenghi receives a dose of coronavirus vaccine developed by the Israel Institute for Biological Research at Jerusalem's Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, November 1, 2020 (Courtesy)

The Israel Defense Forces has offered to assist the Health Ministry in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines, citing its significant logistics capabilities, a senior military official said Sunday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy appeared interested in having the military take part in the effort. As several vaccine options have been proven effective against the COVID-19 virus in recent weeks, Israel has begun preparing for the massive organizational challenge of distributing them to millions of people, an effort that will require — among other things — powerful refrigeration in order to keep the doses at temperatures far below zero.

“This is a big operation, and the IDF has the capabilities to do it,” the officer said, without clarifying if they were also offering to help with the administration of the vaccine.

The offer came as the IDF’s Alon coronavirus task force has become fully operational, overseeing the national effort to curb the spread of the disease through contact tracing, sampling and testing.

The senior official from the IDF Home Front Command said the task force was currently capable of performing 60,000 to 70,000 tests daily and would be able to conduct roughly 100,000 per day in the coming weeks. Its roughly 3,000 contact tracers have also succeeded in tracking the spread of the disease, allowing authorities to inform people who have been exposed to a confirmed carrier that they must enter quarantine.

Healthcare workers take test samples from Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Lod, on December 1, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

According to the officer, the task force has determined that roughly half of current cases can be traced back to the education system, which fully reopened on Sunday. The other half have mostly been tied to various workplaces.

Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of students in grades 7-10 returned to class for the first time in over two months.

Grades 7-10 were the last students remaining at home since a second nationwide lockdown was imposed in mid-September. Starting late October, the government has gradually reopened the school system, permitting first younger students, and then high schoolers, to return to class several days a week.

The reopening of schools in May, and again on September 1, was blamed for a serious uptick in coronavirus cases around the country.

In October, the Alon task force warned that people were not fully cooperating with contact tracers, hiding interactions from the military and hampering its efforts at rooting out sources of outbreaks. On Sunday, the Home Front Command official said the public has been improving in this regard, though the military still believes that — for whatever reason — people still do not fully report their contacts with others.

In October, roughly a quarter of all those who spoke to contact tracers reported having zero interactions with other people. Now, just two percent of people report having no contact with other people, the officer said.

IDF soldiers perform contact tracing for coronavirus patients. (Israel Defense Forces)

The official said the task force’s improved capabilities have led to demonstrable cases of limiting the spread of the disease. The officer gave an example of an outbreak at a factory in the central city of Yavne where 150 people worked.

Within less than a day, the task force identified the factory as a possible source of the outbreak and tested all of the employees, finding that 30 of them had contracted the disease.

The official said the military had already begun testing in large factories where infections can spread rapidly, finding that those who abide by coronavirus regulations actually do succeed in preventing outbreaks with infection rates lower than the national average.

The Alon task force was planning to begin testing next at public transportation hubs — bus and train stations — to see if these contribute to the spread of the virus throughout the country.

There were 988 new virus cases diagnosed on Saturday, the Health Ministry said in a statement on Sunday morning. There were 25,308 tests carried out with a 3.9% positivity rate. Testing levels tend to drop over the weekend.

The number of active cases stood at 13,340, of whom 336 were in serious condition. The total number of diagnosed cases since the start of the pandemic stood at 344,288.

The death toll climbed to 2,916.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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