Health boss says shortening isolation risky, with 500 serious cases

Ministry chief Nachman Ash acknowledges quarantine was cut to 5 days mainly due to public pressure, says outbreak peak still a week away, hospitals ‘stretched to the limit’

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash speaks during a meeting at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on October 24, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash speaks during a meeting at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on October 24, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director General Nachman Ash cautioned Tuesday morning about the risk of the government’s decision to shorten COVID-19 quarantine to five days, saying in interviews that the number of serious cases has passed 500 and estimating that the peak of the current outbreak was still about a week away.

The Health Ministry hasn’t updated its official coronavirus statistics since Monday evening, when there were 446 serious patients. Speaking with Army Radio, Ash said that was due to the health system being strained, with testing sites and hospitals overcrowded. He also said the daily caseload has continued to hover around the 50,000 mark.

“There is a rise in the number of patients in serious condition, which stands around 500, with almost 100 on ventilators,” he said. “In a week we will start seeing a decrease in the numbers, but we still have a difficult two or three weeks ahead of us. The illness is less severe, but the system is very strained, especially emergency wards.”

In a separate interview with Radio 103FM, Ash elaborated that “the strain on hospitals, the health system, service centers and computer systems is immense. With these numbers, the whole system is stretched to the limit. We have the capacity to accept patients at hospitals, but it has the cost of slowly having to cut down on other activities.”

Ash acknowledged that Monday’s decision to shorten the mandatory quarantine period for asymptomatic patients from seven days to five was due more to public pressure than to health policy.

“The high number of confirmed carriers and quarantined people is putting a burden on the economy. There was public pressure — of course this is part of the issue. Had we neutralized that and only acted in accordance with the pure health consideration, this decision may not have been made,” he said.

Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital staff wear safety gear as they work in a coronavirus ward on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“When we shorten quarantine, we prematurely release more people who are likely still infected to their daily activities,” he said.

“Even today, very many potential infecters are out there,” he added, estimating that they are twice or even thrice the number of confirmed patients. Still, he said, “I believe the morbidity we are adding here isn’t big. It exists, but it isn’t big.”

Ash dismissed a proposal by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to further shorten quarantine to three days, saying from a health perspective there would barely be a difference between that and canceling quarantine altogether.

On Monday, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced the quarantine shortening, which also shortens the isolation period for people exposed to a confirmed coronavirus carrier, who currently must quarantine for at least a week if they are unvaccinated or did not recover from COVID (those with immunity are already exempt from quarantine if they test negative after being in close contact with an infected person).

Vaccinated or recently recovered people who are infected but asymptomatic will need two negative antigen tests, on the fourth and fifth day, to be released from quarantine. Unvaccinated asymptomatic people will need the test on the fifth day to be conducted at a recognized testing facility, and cannot rely on a home test.

Those still displaying symptoms are required to keep isolating for a total of 10 days.

The new rules are set to take effect Wednesday.

“The goal is to enable the continued functioning of the economy and of [public] activity as much as possible, while continuing to maintain public health,” Bennett said in a statement.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz hold a press conference at HaKirya military base in Tel Aviv, November 26, 2021. (Moti Milrod)

The health minister added that the government is planning a mass handout of home test kits for public use.

Additionally, the Health Ministry intends to allow people regarded as essential workers to go to work even if they have COVID-19, Channel 12 news reported.

Such workers — if they don’t have symptoms — will reportedly be required to drive to and from work in a private vehicle, alone, and work in a private place or in a public place that is at least 10 meters away from others. They will have to wear a face mask throughout the work day, wash their hands frequently, and take breaks only outdoors without eating near other people.

The approval to go to work will only be given by the Health Ministry, and will be issued on a daily basis, without a blanket approval. It won’t be given to those who serve customers in person, and will only be given to employees for whom no replacement has been found by the workplace.

The moves came as an increasing number of Israelis, including students and educators, have been required to self-isolate due to a surge in infections driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

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