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COVID czar: Non-essential medical treatment may need to be halted in Omicron wave

Salman Zarka says he cannot promise that a lockdown will not become necessary if hospitals are overwhelmed

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Healthcare workers wear safety gear as they work in the COVID ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, on January 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Healthcare workers wear safety gear as they work in the COVID ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, on January 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Government coronavirus czar Salman Zarka said Thursday that as COVID infection rates soar and increasing numbers of medical staff are infected, non-essential treatments may need to be temporarily frozen.

During a live online briefing, Zarka said that the numbers of absent health workers, as well as rising numbers of COVID, flu and other patients, has placed immense pressure on the health system.

Rising infection “brings us immense challenges in terms of preserving essential services,” said Zarka, and health officials are therefore considering “minimizing non-essential treatments.”

Zarka said that such decisions are likely to be made on a hospital-by-hospital basis, depending on the availability of medical staff and hospital beds.

As of Thursday morning, there were 5,657 medical staffers nationwide in quarantine due to infection or exposure, according to the Health Ministry, including 767 doctors and more than 1,500 nurses.

As of Wednesday, 86% of hospital beds nationwide in all wards were occupied, an uptick from the same time last year, and close to 82% of beds in internal medicine wards across the country were occupied, compared to 74% at the same time last year.

Certain hospitals are already stretched past their limits, with Hadassah Ein Kerem in Jerusalem standing at more than 100% total occupancy and at 110% occupancy in internal medicine.

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Urging the public to get vaccinated or get booster doses, as well as wear masks and stay home if they feel unwell, Zarka said the Omicron COVID wave is expected to peak in the next few weeks.

He also said that, moving forward, at COVID testing stations nationwide, special lines will be set up for the elderly and high-risk, and their tests will be given preference at labs.

Currently, there are close to 260,000 active COVID cases in the country, with 879 of them hospitalized, and 283 of those in serious condition. The current rates of serious cases are still far from the peaks seen at the height of the Delta wave last year, when up to 1,200 people were seriously ill with the virus at one time.

But Zarka warned that those rates could continue to rise, in particular among the elderly and high-risk.

“We’re starting to see it, we’re starting to see more people hospitalized, some with Omicron, some with Delta,” said Zarka. “I’m worried that the wave, in terms of serious cases, will only start now, and we’ll see [a rise in] those seriously ill [patients] and those on ventilators.”

Zarka rejected allegations that the country is operating under a de facto policy of encouraging mass infection in order to forge some sort of herd immunity among the Israeli public.

“We have no policy like that, and it’s dangerous,” Zarka said. “Nobody knows what will be with those infected by Omicron months from now. We’re worried about long COVID, we’re worried about PIMS [Pediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome]… and nobody can promise that those infected with Omicron will not be infected in future waves.”

He said that the government is currently operating under the advice that limiting gatherings “won’t necessarily change the spread of the contagion.”

However, he said, he could not rule out the possibility that a lockdown will be instituted in the future.

“I can’t promise there will not be a lockdown,” said Zarka. “There is a rise in pressure on the health system… if we won’t have a choice, we will have to consider it.”

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