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Hospital infusion plan welcomed, but some ask where more doctors will come from

Experts say bringing in thousands more medical staff to deal with pandemic is a good idea, but finding fully trained professionals will be a challenge and scheme will take time

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Health workers in the coronavirus ward at Ziv hospital in Safed on August 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Health workers in the coronavirus ward at Ziv hospital in Safed on August 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Healthcare professionals welcomed Wednesday a plan to boost investment and staffing in Israel’s hospitals in order to manage the pandemic, but expressed skepticism over how realistic the scheme is.

On Wednesday Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced an investment of NIS 2.5 billion ($773 million) in health infrastructure in order to fight back against the ultra-contagious Delta coronavirus variant.

He said the government will recruit 2,000 more doctors, nurses, hospital staff and paramedics in order to “prepare for a significant increase in hospitalized COVID patients.” The new hires, which are set to be permanent, will help Israel “buy time until the vaccination system will begin to lower the outbreak.”

This was a reference to vaccine booster shots, which are being given to immunocompromised Israelis and those aged 60-plus, and are being consider for younger citizens.

Implementing the plan is a race against time, with health officials predicting that Israel could see hospitals overrun with 4,800 coronavirus patients, half of whom would be suffering from serious bouts of COVID-19, within a month. But senior doctors have been left asking where the doctors and other health workers will come from.

“This is a very important step, but I don’t think we can immediately recruit the staff,” Prof. Ehud Grossman, head of internal medicine at Sheba Medical Center, told The Times of Israel.

Doctors at the coronavirus isolation ward of Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, June 30, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Grossman, who is also dean of the medical facility at Tel Aviv University, said that Israel doesn’t have huge numbers of out-of-work doctors and nurses.

“When there are people, it takes time to recruit and train them,” he said.

“It’s a great move, it’s very helpful and a good idea, but it won’t make an immediate difference,” Grossman added. “It will help, but not in the way it’s presented, as if it’s the solution. This is not the solution, but rather another means to give us a bit more time to cope with the pandemic.”

Israel does have a pool of potential staff, from doctors who are working in high-tech instead of medicine, people who have retired, and those who have trained abroad and who are waiting for approval before they can work. But this won’t fill all the posts immediately.

Alex Weinreb. (courtesy)

“If [Bennett is] looking for fully qualified doctors and nurses, I don’t know how he’ll pull it out of the hat,” said Prof. Alex Weinreb, a health expert and research director at the Taub Center policy think tank.

“If the government is happy to recruit, in large part, students who are going into medicine, those with some training from medical and nursing schools, then the plan is realistic. And such people can take on many of the tasks that need doing right now in hospitals,” he said.

The hospital plan is an outgrowth of the government’s decision to avoid a lockdown or other heavy-handed restrictions aimed at lowering case numbers.

Weinreb noted that public fatigue after already going through three lockdowns would likely have made a fourth round of stay-at-home orders unrealistic.

“Lockdown could be a solution but only if the public would tolerate it and I’m not sure that it would any more,” he said. “So I think that with this plan, the prime minister is being realistic in terms of where the public is at right now.”

A woman wearing a face mask walks past closed shops at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Grossman said that with numbers of infections and serious cases rising, and questions hanging over recruitment for the new plan, he is “concerned,” but not panicking.

He “definitely” expects booster shots to calm the crisis, and noted that patients listed as seriously ill are not in as severe a condition as during the previous wave, when many of them required intubation.

“It’s less worrying than it was in the last wave,” he said. “Now we’re seeing severe patients, but in several days they tend to overcome the disease, seemingly because the vaccine helps them to fight it.”

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