Doctors union head suggests health minister’s virus response driven by elections
Ministry official defends bringing Israelis back from Japan

Doctors union head suggests health minister’s virus response driven by elections

After 1st confirmed case in Israel, Hagai Levine accuses Yaakov Litzman of placing ‘high-profile media events’ before public health concerns in ministry’s handling of coronavirus

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman visits Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2020. (Flash90)
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman visits Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2020. (Flash90)

The head of a doctors union on Friday knocked Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s handling of Israel’s efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, accusing him of acting to get media attention ahead of the upcoming national elections.

The criticism came after an Israeli who was on a cruise ship quarantined off Japan tested positive for the virus after returning to Israel, marking the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Jewish state.

“When there is an outbreak of a dangerous infectious disease, it’s essential to make decisions on the basis of the best scientific evidence and in accordance with principles of public health, in an orderly process that is led by professionals in public health and not political or other elements,” Dr. Hagai Levine of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians told the Walla news site.

Levine, an epidemiologist with the Hadassah School of Public Health, said health professionals and academics were being sidelined and questioned the factors influencing the decision-making process in response to the virus.

Professor Hagai Levine at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s-Hadasssah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

“There needs to be caution toward an exaggerated emphasis on political and media considerations in preparing for the new coronavirus, especially in the sensitive period before the elections,” he said.

Levine added: “The question is not whether one decision or another is correct, because it is possible to make [decisions] with a mistaken understanding. The question is whether the process is sound.”

Litzman, who has led the Health Ministry since 2015, is a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, a key member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance of right-wing parties. The parties are trying to secure 61 seats in the March 2 elections after falling short of a majority in the previous two rounds of voting this year.

“It’s unfortunate that the health minister’s attention is directed toward specific high-profile media events like the Israelis who returned from the ship in Japan, while critical issues in the public health system we have warned about are not being dealt with,” Levine said.

The criticism by Levine was the first by a top medical figure in Israel of the Health Ministry’s response to the coronavirus.

Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, director-general of the Health Ministry, on Friday defended the decision to fly the 11 Israeli travelers back from Japan.

“We were uncertain whether it was right to bring the Israelis back, knowing the first sick person [from the virus] was likely to be from the group. In retrospect, we are sure that we made the right decision,” he wrote on Twitter.

All 11 Israelis had been tested before departing Japan and all showed up as negative. They were tested again upon arriving at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, where they will spend the next 14 days in quarantine, with one woman testing positive for the virus.

Medical staff at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan monitor Israelis who were quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan due to the spread of the coronavirus, February 21, 2020. (Flash90)

Several other people from around the world who tested negative for the virus in Japan have been found to be carrying the disease after arriving in their home countries, raising questions about Tokyo’s policy of allowing evacuees to return home after testing negative.

Fifteen Israelis had been among the over 3,000 passengers and crew quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess since February 4. Four of them remain hospitalized in Japan in good condition after being diagnosed with the virus.

The Israelis aboard the ship and their families had pleaded with authorities in Israel and Japan to release them from the ship quarantine, fearing exposure to the deadly virus and complaining of less than ideal conditions aboard the ocean liner.

An Israeli flag can be seen in one of the portholes (left) of Diamond Princess cruise ship at the Daikaku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port on February 16, 2020 (Behrouz Mehri/AFP)

On Wednesday, Japan ended the quarantine for anyone who tested negative for the disease and on Thursday the majority of Israelis disembarked.

The new virus appeared in China late last year and has been diagnosed in tens of thousands of people, mostly in central China’s Hubei province. The 634 cases confirmed among the Diamond Princess’s original 3,711 people on board are the most anywhere outside China.

As of Saturday, more than 77,000 worldwide have been infected by the virus. The vast majority of the cases have been in mainland China, where 2,345 people have died from the pathogen.

Israel has cancelled all flights to and from China, and is requiring Israelis returning from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore or Thailand to be quarantined at home for two weeks.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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