Health Ministry says fall in number of tests caused by switch to local chemicals

Officials say they expect to soon reach 20,000 tests a day, cite Passover holiday as another reason for slowdown in screening

Medical workers wearing full protective clothing at a site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in south Tel Aviv on April 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Medical workers wearing full protective clothing at a site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in south Tel Aviv on April 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said Saturday that a significant drop this week in the number of coronavirus tests throughout the country was caused in part by a deliberate move to switch to locally produced chemical reagents used in the tests, and said it expected that number to rise considerably in the near future.

Figures released by the ministry on Saturday showed the number of coronavirus PCR test results published per day continued to decline in recent days — with only 5,980 results published Friday, down from a high of almost 10,000 on April 3.

The ministry gave several explanations for this: first, it said, the number of Israelis applying for tests had dropped due to the Passover holiday; second, it noted, the numbers published were of tests analyzed, not of those administered across the country, which were higher; finally, it explained that it had initiated a reduction in order to make a switch to local chemicals.

It said the slowdown was necessary in order to allow labs to adapt machines to the use of the local reagents — a process that required to halt the work of each lab for up to a day.

Another reported cause for the slowdown in recent days has been a critical shortage of chemical reagents from abroad — substances used for chemical analyses that are required for tests.

Many medical authorities have pointed to a robust testing campaign as critical to tracking and preventing the spread of the coronavirus. An efficient testing program is also seen as critical to allowing a slow reduction of social distancing restrictions.

Israel announced last week that it had signed a NIS 90 million ($25 million) deal with Chinese firm BGI to buy equipment that will allow the country to conduct at least 10,000 additional coronavirus tests a day.

The Health Ministry has said the new equipment will be installed in six different labs over the next few weeks, and will carry out testing alongside Israel’s current testing facilities.

The ministry said that, in all, it expected to soon reach some 20,000 tests a day.

A lab technician at Barzilai Medical Center in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, wears protective gear as he handles a coronavirus test sample on March 29, 2020. (Flash90)

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered defense officials to acquire enough kits to perform 30,000 tests a day. Health Ministry officials previously sought to bring Israel up to 10,000 tests a day.

This past week the Health Ministry said it had decided to expand testing in nursing homes for the elderly. In any such facility with a confirmed coronavirus carrier, all residents and employees will now be tested, the ministry said in a statement.

Homes for the elderly have been a hotspot for the virus in Israel and other countries.

On Friday, a senior official in the Health Ministry admitted to Channel 13 that his office was not equipped to deal with the growing number of outbreaks in nursing homes. On Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office said that the Defense Ministry and Home Front Command would assist the Health Ministry in handling the crisis at nursing homes.

On Saturday, the death toll from the virus in Israel rose to 97. So far 10,525 Israelis have been diagnosed with the virus.

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