'The steep increase we’re seeing now will start to moderate'

Don’t panic! Israelis shouldn’t be ‘too worried’ by virus surge – hospital chief

Despite record new cases, Jonathan Halevy of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek confident Israel can curb outbreak, says hospitals better able to cope; stresses need for social distancing

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Staff at Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer wave national flags as the Israeli Air Force aerobatic team fly over the hospital during Israel's Independence day celebrations in a salute to medical teams fighting the coronavirus outbreak, April 29, 2020. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)
Illustrative: Staff at Sheba Medical Center wave national flags as the Israeli Air Force aerobatic team fly over the hospital during Israel's Independence day celebrations, as the country’s first coronavirus wave was waning, April 29, 2020. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

A Jerusalem hospital chief played down the severity of the current coronavirus spike, expressing confidence in the health system’s ability to cope with the rising caseload and arguing that it is possible to halt the surge without resorting to a renewed nationwide lockdown.

“I don’t think we’ll be overwhelmed. We are far from our reserve,” Prof. Jonathan Halevy, president of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center and a member of a Health Ministry public information team, said regarding the capacity of the country’s hospitals. “I’m confident about the next few months. I’m also optimistic about the winter.”

Israel’s coronavirus stats are at an all-time high and over 1,000 new patients are being diagnosed daily, prompting widespread concern and the return of some government restrictions. “People should not be too worried, but they have to keep social distancing,” Halevy said.

He believes that good health policies can bring down the number of cases and said this can be done without another national lockdown. “If they increase [the] number of tests, increase epidemiological investigations, and we discover contacts of verified patients earlier, I believe we’ll hear good news quite soon, by which I mean the steep increase we’re seeing now will start to moderate,” he said.

Jonathan Halevy, co-director general of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center (courtesy of Shaare Zedek Medical Center)

While the number of active cases is higher than it was in March and April, the situation in hospitals is far less concerning, according to Halevy. “The numbers are much smaller than Passover eve. We had 120 [coronavirus patients in Shaare Zedek] then, and we now have 33,” he said.

In early April, just before Passover, there were around 9,000 people diagnosed with coronavirus, with 708 in the hospital, 153 of them in serious condition. There are now 15,200 active cases, with 426 in the hospital, 118 of them in serious condition.

The patients who arrive at Shaare Zedek are showing a better chance of survival and are recovering more quickly than earlier in the pandemic, said Halevy.

“All in all the severity of the cases is less than in the previous wave, and it’s probably a combination of various things — a younger average age, which is why there are less severe cases, treatment, maybe the weather, and maybe the virus has become less virulent,” he said.

Halevy stressed the last two explanations are not yet backed by research. Scientists around the world are currently examining whether the weather has an influence on the coronavirus and a Tel Aviv University a lab is testing the hypothesis that the virus has mutated to become less virulent.

Shaare Zedek hospital medical team, wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Jerusalem on March 30, 2020 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Concerning treatment, Halevy said patients are faring far better now that doctors have become familiar with the disease and have learned various treatment methods to avoid a deterioration in health. Steroids are now given routinely and ventilators are now used far more sparingly and only at a later stage, he added.

View of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, March 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There are many fewer [people] on respirators,” Halevy said. “We explore every other modality for giving oxygen because we have learned early artificial respiration is not to their benefit.”

Israel’s government has received criticism from opposition politicians and also from some in the medical profession over its handling of the pandemic in recent weeks. Former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash blasted government policy in an interview with The Times of Israel on Sunday, but Halevy said he doesn’t agree with Barbash. In his opinion the country rolled back lockdown measures a “little bit too quickly,” but there were “absolutely not” major mistakes made.

“We had to open because lockdowns have their price, not only economic, but also in terms of the health of people,” he said.

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