Health Ministry shortens contact tracing period; will reduce quarantine numbers

Health Ministry shortens contact tracing period; will reduce quarantine numbers

Contacts of carriers will now be examined 4-10 days back, instead of 14, depending on symptoms exhibited; health officials say it will let them focus on higher-risk individuals

A medical worker holds a sample at a mobile testing station for COVID-19 in the city of Rehovot on June 25, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
A medical worker holds a sample at a mobile testing station for COVID-19 in the city of Rehovot on June 25, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Friday announced significant changes to its quarantine and contact tracing policies for the coronavirus, which are expected to greatly reduce the number of people required to self-isolate at any given time.

Since the start of the pandemic, health officials carried out contact tracing for confirmed carriers for the 14 days prior to their diagnosis. Anyone who was exposed to the carrier within that time frame was ordered into preventive quarantine.

Going forward, the ministry will divide patients into different categories, narrowing the window for contact tracing, and therefore the number of people they find who were exposed to the carrier. Any person sent into quarantine will still be required to do so for a 14-day period, as before.

For patients with a clear onset of symptoms, contact tracing will be carried out for the four days prior to symptoms appearing, and only contacts within that window will be ordered into quarantine. Tracing for patients with no clear start to symptoms will go 10 days back since a positive diagnosis. Tracing for asymptomatic patients will go back seven days since their positive test result.

The Shin Bet domestic security service’s tracing program, which uses cellphone and other data, will go back 10 days for all patients. Previously Shin Bet tracking went back 14 days.

The controversial Shin Bet tracking program has come under fire in recent weeks as hundreds of Israelis complained they were notified that they must enter isolation, despite not being  near the locations cited in the Shin Bet alert.

Prof. Sigal Sadetsky, the outgoing head of public health services in the Health Ministry, who announced her resignation earlier this week, said the new regulations, which have been employed in other countries, would allow health officials to focus on higher-risk individuals while limiting the number of people sent into quarantine.

“There is a price to giving up [quarantine of] contacts who may become sick later, but the data shows that price is acceptable when compared to the benefit,” Sadetsky said in a missive on the changes.

Prof. Siegal Sadetsky head of public health services at the Health Ministry, speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus, Tel Aviv, February 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Friday evening reported 1,504 new cases over the past 24 hours in Israel as lockdowns came into effect in neighborhoods in five towns and cities hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.

According to the ministry, the number included 840 infections since midnight, with two people dying in that period, bringing the overall death toll to 351.

There are currently 130 patients in serious condition, including 42 on ventilators.  Another 91 people were in moderate condition and the rest have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. The total number of active infections was 16,739 and total cases were at 36,266.

Lockdowns came into effect at 1 p.m. on Friday in neighborhoods in five towns and cities, a day after cabinet ministers approved the measure as the number of new cases in Israel continued to surge.

Parts of Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Lod, Ramle and Kiryat Malachi became “restricted zones” for seven days. The restrictions will be lifted at 8 a.m. on July 17.

A joint statement Thursday evening by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry said entries and exits of the restricted areas will be limited, as well as traffic and business activity inside the areas.

The last few weeks have seen the reversal of many of the gains made in the fight against the coronavirus in recent months. The country had been placed on a nationwide lockdown for several weeks at the start of the outbreak, but removed most of its restrictions by May to reopen the economy.

Israeli police at a roadblock in the Hephzibah neighborhood in Beit Shemesh that is currently under a lockdown in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, on July 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The current rate of increase in infections in Israel is one of the highest in the world, according to a chart published Monday afternoon by the Health Ministry.

With hospitalization rates taking a few weeks to show a rise following increases in cases, the Health Ministry on Thursday told hospitals to prepare for a coming influx of patients.

The government on Monday passed a raft of restrictions to contain the renewed outbreak, including limiting the number of people at restaurants and synagogues, reducing the number of passengers on public transportation, hiking fines for not wearing face masks, and shutting down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars and nightclubs.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has reportedly warned the country could return to a nationwide lockdown if the number of daily virus cases surpasses 2,000.

Sadetsky, in announcing her resignation Tuesday, criticized the authorities’ handling of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and described a chaotic and ineffective approach to tackling the crisis.

“Israel is heading to a dangerous place,” she said.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“To my regret, for a number of weeks now, the handling of the outbreak has lost direction,” she wrote. “Despite systematic and regular warnings in the various systems, and discussions in various forums, we watch with frustration as the hourglass of opportunities runs low. Against this backdrop, I have come to the conclusion that in the newly created conditions under which my professional opinion is not accepted — I can no longer help to effectively cope with the spread of the virus.”

Sadetzki wrote that “too much time is invested in debates, discussions, consultants, forums and those acting for themselves, while the level of operation and details required for the success of the various operations do not receive the proper attention.”

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