Israel’s contact tracing system said to be vastly overwhelmed by virus spread

As number of diagnosed cases continues to surge, nurses tasked with following up on those who may have been exposed are unable to keep pace

Screen capture from video of a nurse at the Ramle Health Office conducting an epidemiological investigation with a known virus carrier. (Channel 12 news)
Screen capture from video of a nurse at the Ramle Health Office conducting an epidemiological investigation with a known virus carrier. (Channel 12 news)

The Health Ministry’s system for epidemiological investigation of those diagnosed with coronavirus is being far outpaced by the spread of the virus, Channel 12 news reported Saturday.

The number of cases has been rapidly spiking in recent weeks after the country rolled back lockdown measures applied during the initial outbreak of the virus earlier in the year. By Friday, the number of active cases had surged past 10,000 for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A key tool in containing the spread is epidemiological, or contact tracing —  investigations that seek to identify and send into self-quarantine all those who may have been exposed to patients in the days before they were diagnosed, hopefully cutting off the spread.

But with just 27 epidemiological nurses across the country trying to investigate an outbreak that has swelled to around 1,000 new cases a day, thousands if not tens of thousands of people who may have been exposed are unaware of it, the report said.

Staff at the Ramle Health Ministry District Office, which is responsible for epidemiological probes in the central region of the country, told the station that many of those who are diagnosed are unhelpful in completing the investigations and that hardly anyone has installed the Magen phone app that automatically notifies others users if they were in the vicinity of confirmed virus carrier.

“We are crying out for manpower. It is chaos,” nurse Iris Avital told the station.

It takes up to a day to get approval for a virus test and to be checked, up to three days to get the test results and up to another two days to complete the epidemiological investigation, the report said, meaning it could take six days until someone who may have been exposed to the virus even finds out of the danger.

In order to help with the workload, the Health Ministry has drafted nurses from other fields, impacting vaccine and ongoing family health services.

The Health Ministry put out a statement saying that since March there have been 25,000 investigations, 4,000 of them in the previous week alone.

“We are continually increasing and improving the system to shorten times and cut off the chain of spread,” the statement said.

The ministry said that in addition to the 300 nurses who have been trained to carry out epidemiological probes, another 200 students have also been trained and started working in the past week. There are plans to bring in even more students and nurses, the ministry said.

However, the ministry warned that improving the system “is not a substitute for population behavior and keeping to the rules” of proper hygiene practices and social distancing.

A group of people, wearing face masks due to the coronavirus outbreak, tours in Jerusalem, July 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Faced with the difficulty of keeping up with contact tracing, the government has reintroduced a controversial Shin Bet security service program that identifies those who may have been exposed to the virus by using digital means to retrace the movements of patients before they were diagnosed, primarily cellphone data. Although the Shin Bet itself has said it is reluctant to use the technology, usually reserved for combating terrorism, the government has insisted it is the only way to stay on top of the virus spread. The program was used during the initial virus outbreak but then halted for a short period.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that Israel was in the midst of a “major outbreak” after the number of active coronavirus cases reached 10,060.

He said new restrictions that took effect Friday morning were necessary to contain the outbreak and called on Israelis to adhere to social-distancing guidelines, among them mandatory mask-wearing in public places.

“I know that wearing a mask irritates all of us in the Israeli heat of July, but there’s no choice,” the premier said.

After the number of daily cases dropped to low double-digits in May following weeks of a nationwide lockdown, new infections surged in June in the wake of the reopening of the economy and schools, leading the government to reintroduce restrictions.

On Friday morning, renewed limitations on public gatherings came into effect, with most indoor events capped at 20 people, though synagogues, event halls, bars and clubs can have up to 50 people.

Though it has limited gatherings, closed off highly infected areas, and reinstated the controversial Shin Bet security service surveillance of carriers, the government has refrained from reimposing a nationwide lockdown to stem the outbreak due to the economic damage such a step would cause.

As of Sunday morning there had been 29,366 confirmed virus cases in Israel of which 17,847 people recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. There have been 330 fatalities.

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