Health Ministry’s epidemiological chief resigns, claims IDF tracing a failure

Liora Valinsky says army operation to cut chain of infection is weak, unprofessional, ineffective and sending thousands into quarantine for no good reason

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

IDF soldiers perform contact tracing for coronavirus patients. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF soldiers perform contact tracing for coronavirus patients. (Israel Defense Forces)

The head of the Health Ministry’s epidemiological department resigned Wednesday while launching a scathing attack on the army’s handling of coronavirus epidemiological probes, which it has been tasked by the government to carry out, saying it was running an ineffective, unprofessional system that is sending thousands of people into quarantine unnecessarily.

Liora Valinsky, Director of Public Health Nursing at the ministry, wrote in her resignation letter that army personnel did not seek professional advice from ministry experts on how to set up their epidemiological operation.

As a result, thousands of people, she claimed, were being ordered into quarantine needlessly, leading to an unprecedented number of appeals; there was little information on the location of infection sources “and mostly a lot of suffering on the part of those involved.”

The contents of the resignation letter, which Valinsky filed with the ministry’s head of public health services, Sharon Alroy-Preis, was published by Hebrew media outlets.

With her resignation, Valinsky will be the fourth senior official to leave the Health Ministry since June, following former director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, former deputy director-general Itamar Grotto, and Siegal Sadetzki, the former director of public health services. All three played prominent roles in battling the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

Screen capture from video of Liora Valinsky, director of Public Health Nursing at the Health Ministry. (YouTube)

In resigning, Sadetsky accused political leaders of directing virus policy based on populism rather than the advice of health experts.

Epidemiological investigations are seen as a key element in preventing virus spread. After the Health Ministry’s trained investigators were utterly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of diagnosed patients earlier this year, the Israel Defense Forces was given the job, drawing on its larger available manpower.

In early August, the IDF was formally tasked with “cutting the chain of infections” for the country — finding and testing those suspected of having contracted the disease and putting them into quarantine. This included taking responsibility for the country’s testing efforts and conducting epidemiological surveys: the practice of speaking with confirmed carriers to retrace their steps in the days following their infection to identify and warn those they may have unwittingly passed the disease on to.

After the task was handed to the IDF’s Home Front Command “regrettably, they did not dedicate time to learn the system, its strengths and weaknesses,” Valinsky wrote. She went on to say that the military did not listen to advice the ministry’s professionals offered based on their previous experience.

“In a single stroke, army officials became undisputed experts on the subject of epidemiological investigations, this without them having any knowledge of the subject or professional training,” she wrote, adding that in her opinion decisions were taken “without professional considerations and without understanding the consequences.”

The outcome, she said, could be seen in the current situation.

Then-Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

“The investigation system is weak, unprofessional, ineffective and relies on a system that is not suited to the tasks,” Valinsky wrote.

Her resignation is expected come into effect in four weeks, the station reported.

The Health Ministry confirmed in a statement that Valinsky was leaving, saying it thanked her for “her dedicated and hard work during the coronavirus crisis.

“We were very sorry to hear that she is leaving,” the statement said.

Regarding the claims that people were being put into quarantine for no good reason, the ministry said that “sometimes errors occur and in a case when a person knows that they were not exposed to a virus patient, they can file an appeal via the Health Ministry’s call center.”

In November, as the country’s first coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu ended his months-long tenure, he criticized the behavior of the country’s political leadership throughout the pandemic.

Gamzu was replaced by Nachman Ash.

The same month, deputy director-general of the Health Ministry Grotto also resigned. Grotto, an epidemiologist, did not offer any public criticism and said the move was because he believed it was time for “new blood.”

Screen capture from video of Israel’s former coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu during the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual Center for National Security and Democracy conference, held online, November 24, 2020. (Israel Democracy Institue)

Previous ministry director-general Bar Siman-Tov resigned as Health Ministry director in May after leading the nation’s response to the first wave of the coronavirus. His resignation came days after the cabinet voted, against his recommendation, to significantly ease virus restrictions throughout the country, a move now widely seen as a mistake.

In November he warned that the government’s policy on exiting Israel’s second national lockdown was misguided and would lead to another wave of infections, the third since the start of the outbreak.

Since then daily infections have rocketed upwards, surpassing 3,000 a day in recent days.

On Wednesday night the cabinet convened to consider a third national lockdown, urged by health officials, that would likely begin within days and last several weeks.

Since the start of the outbreak earlier this year, 384,728 have been diagnosed in Israel with the coronavirus. There were 29,807 active patients Wednesday evening, of which 502 were in a serious condition. The death toll stood at 3,141.

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