Health Ministry: 'We will not engage in defamation'

Health and education ministries clash over antigen tests at schools

Health Ministry announces 3,200 staffers will test kids and teachers, but in letter to school district superintendents, education minister says move wasn’t coordinated

A COVID-19 rapid antigen test being carried out at a Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem, on December 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A COVID-19 rapid antigen test being carried out at a Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem, on December 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Health Ministry announced Wednesday that it would be administering rapid antigen COVID tests at elementary schools across the country, but on Thursday morning the Education Ministry instructed principals not to implement the plan.

Education Ministry officials said the Health Ministry’s move was not coordinated with them.

“We would like to emphasize that the decision on the matter was not coordinated with the Education Ministry, and did not even include a formal legal procedure prepared ahead of time, which is required for its implementation,” a letter to school district superintendents read.

“On this issue, the Health Ministry was required to cooperate with the Education Ministry before it was made public. Therefore, we ask to wait for written instructions from the ministry and for briefings at all levels, as this involves further coordination with the Health Ministry,” it continued.

The Education Ministry told the district officials to update school principals not to conduct antigen tests on school grounds until an agreement between the ministries is reached.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton told Channel 12 news in a statement that she supports conducting antigen tests at schools, but the problem was announcing the move without prior notice. According to the minister, the rollout is expected to start next week.

In response to the reports, the Health Ministry rejected the Education Ministry’s comments as “defamation.”

“Last night, an agreement was reached between the ministries of health and education on a short postponement of the implementation of antigen tests, in order to ensure optimal and complete preparation in elementary schools throughout the country,” the statement read.

It added that the two ministries decided to immediately get to work to formulate relevant procedures.

“The Health Ministry is entirely devoted to dealing with the wave of infection, and will not engage in defamation,” it said.

“Only with hard work and sincere and genuine cooperation can we ensure the implementation of the move already at the beginning of the week,” the Health Ministry statement concluded.

In a joint statement later in the day, the two ministries said Health Ministry Director General Nachman Ash and his counterpart in the Education Ministry, Dalit Stauber, spoke and “agreed to strengthen cooperation between the ministries for the benefit of the health of Israeli children.”

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton seen during a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Shasha-Biton, the education minister, has been outspoken in her criticism of much of the government’s approach to the coronavirus. While she initially resisted vaccinating children on school grounds, she eventually somewhat walked back her sharp opposition.

Shasha-Biton has been the target of threats over the past few months, and initially rose to prominence as a vocal and outspoken member of the coronavirus cabinet in the previous government who fought against many restrictions.

She has also repeatedly clashed with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz over coronavirus restrictions in schools and has been the subject of multiple anonymous attacks in the press.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry said 3,200 staffers would be conducting the tests on any students or teachers who were potentially exposed to a COVID case.

Under new regulations, those who are over 60 or at high risk will be prioritized at PCR testing stations and those who are under 60 and fully vaccinated can conduct a rapid antigen test, either at home or at a testing station, in order to be exempt from quarantine.

People, some wearing protective face masks, line up for PCR and Rapid Antigen COVID-19 coronavirus tests in Tel Aviv, Jan. 4, 2022 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israelis have been swamping drugstores to purchase home antigen tests as the new rules take effect and cases skyrocket, though some health experts warn that they are much less accurate than PCR tests — particularly when it comes to detecting Omicron.

The US Food and Drug Administration said last week that such tests are more likely to give a false negative with the heavily mutated Omicron variant compared to earlier strains.

In a statement, the FDA said it was studying home antigen tests against patient samples containing live versions of the Omicron variant. “Early data suggests that antigen tests do detect the Omicron variant but may have reduced sensitivity,” the agency said.

Channel 13 news said it had received internal Health Ministry figures suggesting that only 50 percent of those who have Omicron will test positive on rapid antigen tests, with even higher false-negative rates among those who are unvaccinated. The figures could not be independently verified.

AFP contributed to this report.

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