East Jerusalem hospital officials fret over prospect of rise in virus cases

Health Ministry official says does not expect ‘eruption’ of infections in area; heads of medical institutions say their facilities lack supplies to treat COVID-19

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinians leave the Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem, September 9, 2018. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
Palestinians leave the Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem, September 9, 2018. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

Hospital officials in East Jerusalem expressed concern on Monday about a possible increase in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, as medical authorities ramp up testing of Palestinians in the area.

According to the Israeli Health Ministry, thus far, dozens of cases of the virus have been recorded in East Jerusalem, where many residents live in densely populated neighborhoods and tight living quarters. Though its residents are Palestinians, East Jerusalem is under the control of the Israeli government, which is responsible for providing them with services.

“We are very worried we will see more cases in the coming days,” Walid Nammour, the chief executive officer of Augusta Victoria Hospital, which is located on the Mount of Olives, said. “We will hopefully receive more clarity about where the situation stands in the next 48 hours, as testing results become available.”

Medical authorities opened four testing stations in East Jerusalem late last week and have since — according to the Health Ministry — tested many Palestinian residents of the city for COVID-19.

Magen David Adom worker wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, arrives to test a patient with symptoms of the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, on March 28, 2020 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Nammour stated that until the testing stations opened, many East Jerusalem residents had not known how to receive a test.

“It was not clear to many people,” he said. “They were not sure where to go or who to call.”

Haitham Hassan, the director-general of the Makassed Hospital, which is also situated on the Mount of Olives, said he was frightened by the possibility of a surge in the number of cases in East Jerusalem.

“I am very afraid that we will wake up to an explosion soon,” he said. “We have seen this scenario play out in other places. One person passes it on to 20 of his family members and neighbors who give it 300 others.”

Dr. Asher (Ashi) Shalmon, head of international relations in Israel’s Ministry of Health (Photo: WhatsApp)

Hassan said that the recently opened testing stations in East Jerusalem were important, but he stressed that authorities were obliged to establish more of them.

“We need to test as much as possible because we do not want cases to go unnoticed,” he said.

Asher Shalmon, the Health Ministry’s director of the international relations, stated that it was possible that authorities had not detected some people infected with the virus in East Jerusalem, but he downplayed the prospect of a significant jump in cases in the area.

“We may be missing part of the population,” Shalmon stated, noting that some East Jerusalem residents have refrained from being tested over fears of being stigmatized for carrying the virus. “As we expand testing, we will see more cases, but I don’t think we will be dealing with a massive eruption.”

Shalmon also said that he thought East Jerusalem residents have largely been following the ministry’s restrictions on movement and gatherings, but noted there had been some instances of people convening in contravention of them.

“There is generally a good level of obedience,” he said, adding that he did think the ministry and other authorities needed to boost their efforts to explain the dangers of the virus to residents.

Several people living in East Jerusalem neighborhoods concurred that most residents were following the ministry’s instructions, with some stating that their areas have witnessed greater adherence to them in the past week.

But Ismail Khatib, an activist from the Shuafat refugee camp, estimated that only half of the people in his neighborhood were abiding by the rules.

“There are a lot of people spending time outside, especially kids, and some stores that should be closed are open,” he said. “The police have been coming into the camp to hand out fines, but they usually leave after an hour.”

A woman prays in front of the closed Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 25, 2020. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

Asked about Khatib’s comments, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that officers were active in all communities to ensure that “the public is aware of the specific rules and regulations preventing movement and keeping distances.”

Hospitals face shortages

The East Jerusalem hospital officials said they were rallying to prepare their institutions to accept patients diagnosed with the virus, but stressed they were still in need of more equipment and supplies.

“There is a gap between what we have and what we need,” Maher Deeb, the medical director of the Saint Joseph’s Hospital, which is located in Sheikh Jarrah, said. “We have shortages of many of the items required to treat patients with the virus.”

Only 22 ventilators in all were available to treat people with coronavirus at Augusta Victoria, Makassed and Saint Joseph’s, Nammour stated.

Nammour stated that Augusta Victoria will only be providing care to those already coming to its facilities for cancer and dialysis treatment, while Makassed and Saint Joseph’s will be offering their services to the broader public.

As of Monday, Augusta Victoria has allocated 12 hospital beds for carriers of the contagion, while Makassed has designated 22 and the Saint Joseph’s 28.

Makassed, Hassan said, was also in need of more protective suits as it was only in possession of 600 of them.

“They will last us a short period of time,” he stated.

The Health Ministry has decided to transfer NIS 2 million ($560,000) each to Makassed and Saint Joseph’s, for virus-related expenses, Hassan and Deeb stated.

Hassan, however, argued that it would be better for the ministry to send Makassed supplies and equipment instead of funds.

Walid Nammour, the chief executive officer of the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem. (Screenshot: Canadian Lutheran World Relief)

“Some of these items will take months to arrive, if I order them now,” he said. “There is intense global competition for them and we don’t have time to wait.”

Deeb remarked that Saint Joseph’s was in need of support beyond the NIS 2 million, but he stated that he thought the ministry was “overwhelmed” by the outbreak of the virus and was “doing its best to help.”

He added that Saint Joesph’s would likely see its first virus patient in the coming days.

Shalmon agreed that the East Jerusalem hospitals needed more resources than they currently had to treat carriers of COVID-19, but added that those who they could not accommodate would be able to go to medical institutions in the western part of the city.

He also noted that the hospitals were facing “a severe debt crisis,” which he said has made it even more challenging for them to deal with the outbreak of the virus.

Augusta Victoria, Makassed, Saint Joseph’s and three other hospitals in East Jerusalem used to receive $25 million annually from the US, but the American administration announced it would no longer provide them with the funds in September 2018, following a major decline in its ties with the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership.

Hassan said that while Makassed was indebted to suppliers to the sum of NIS 73 million ($20 million), it was owed by patients and their sponsors NIS 83 million ($23 million).

Civil society contributes to fight against virus

Palestinian civil society in East Jerusalem has also stepped in to contribute to efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.

Eighty-two Palestinian organizations have formed The Jerusalem Gathering, a coalition seeking to spread awareness about the virus and help Palestinian neighborhoods deal with it, Khaldon Nijm, a coordinator of the campaign, said.

“The occupation has failed to take care of our neighborhoods,” Nijm stated. “So we are trying to do everything we can to prepare the people.”

Authorities have long neglected neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, with the Jerusalem Municipality only investing between 10-12 percent of its budget in them —  though their inhabitants make up some 38% of the city’s more than 900,000 residents, according to Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem affairs expert.

Nijm said the group was holding online seminars about the contagion with experts and posting information about it on its Facebook page; he also said it had arranged for the St. George Hotel near the Old City to serve as a quarantine facility.

The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on September 9, 2019. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)

Asked whether the coalition was working with authorities, Nijm said it was communicating with the Jerusalem Municipality and reiterated his dissatisfaction with Israel’s efforts to combat the virus in East Jerusalem.

“We told them we need to test more people, find more places to quarantine people and spread more awareness, but they still aren’t doing enough,” he said.

The municipality did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but it has made some efforts to keep East Jerusalem residents informed about the virus and authorities have designated the Olive Tree Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah as a quarantine facility.

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