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‘I see death daily’: Under record strain, doctor describes misery of Omicron wards

Ariel Rokach speaks to ToI minutes after yet another patient dies; hospitals will cope, he says, but doctors are being pushed to their limits, emotionally and physically

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

Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in a coronavirus ward on January 20, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in a coronavirus ward on January 20, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

When Dr. Ariel Rokach answered the phone at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center on Wednesday, he had witnessed the death of yet another patient just a few minutes previously.

This time, he knew the man. “I tried to resuscitate him,” Rokach said sadly.

After people catch Omicron, they’re at a far smaller risk of serious deterioration than from any previous variant. As such, regulations are more relaxed, including the repeal of quarantine rules for children from Thursday.

Hospitals aren’t expected to become overwhelmed, but the sheer scale of infection, with 1-in-20 Israelis currently confirmed COVID-positive, means they’re still stretched — and sad.

“It’s really very difficult to be seeing death every day like this, and there was one night here with five deaths,” Rokach stated. Nationally, there have been 237 deaths since the start of January, compared to 79 over the same number of days in November, before Omicron hit.

Rokach, director of the Respiratory Support Service at Shaare Zedek, said that the hospital is under a greater strain than at any point in the pandemic. “It’s really very difficult,” he said, stressing that medical teams are taking an emotional pounding, as well as having a hard time keeping up with the physical pressure of their work.

There are 915 patients in serious condition across Israel and almost 100 of them are at his hospital.

The son of a patient diagnosed positive with COVID-19 prays as he reads psalms next to the bed of his father hospitalized at a Shaare Zedek hospital coronavirus ward on January 20, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Taking care of 90 patients with serious coronavirus is the equivalent in manpower of taking care of around 200 patients in regular medicine,” said Rokach. “This is because the patients are really very ill, with some needing ventilation.

“And while a nurse or doctor can work eight to ten hours in a regular ward, it’s very difficult to work for so long in the protective gear needed on a COVID ward. You’re sweating due to the gear, and it’s just not possible to work for as long.”

Coronavirus ward medical staff are supposed to work for three-hour stints and then rest, but tend to end up going non-stop for four hours at a time.

Caring for patients is also an uphill struggle because is many staff members are out of action, Rokach noted.

“One of the big challenges is working when 10 percent of the staff is off infected, and in recent days, another 10% had children in quarantine. There is a lot of work with a lack of physicians and nurses. The pressure is very very high — these are perhaps the most difficult days we’ve had.”

Nationally, across hospital and community clinics, some 8,520 medical staff are absent from work due to infection or exposure, including 1,213 doctors out of an estimated 30,000 doctors in Israel and 2,574 of the country’s estimated 40,000 nurses.

Dr. Ariel Rokach of Shaare Zedek Medical Center (courtesy of Shaare Zedek Medical Center)

Patients who are fully vaccinated are faring better than others, Rokach reported, voicing support for Israeli moves to broaden eligibility for fourth vaccine doses. “It’s true that the vaccine isn’t so effective in preventing infection, but we see that it makes a big difference in preventing severe disease,” Rokach said. “We’re really lucky that most of the population took vaccinations, and I think this is the reason Omicron is not causing many more cases of severe disease.”

Rokach thinks that while the current peak in coronavirus cases will push teams like his to their limits, they will cope — even if the national serious case count doubles to 2,000, far beyond predictions. “We are optimistic,” he said, “As we believe the next two weeks will be very very difficult but after that, it will be easier.

“I can’t be sure but I believe we still have some reserve power. It’s going to be difficult but I don’t think there will be patients who will die because we are unable to give treatment, and in managing the pandemic, that’s important.”

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