IDF goes into higher state of readiness as it aids in fight against coronavirus
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IDF goes into higher state of readiness as it aids in fight against coronavirus

Military is helping civilian authorities combat disease and preparing to do more, including enforcing a lockdown if needed, while working to keep troops virus-free

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A soldier checks the temperature of a comrade as he enters a military base during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
A soldier checks the temperature of a comrade as he enters a military base during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Dubbing its efforts against the coronavirus “Ray of Light,” the Israel Defense Forces on Thursday said it was moving to a higher state of readiness, one normally reserved for preparation for an enemy attack, which the military stresses was not in light of external threats but rather because of the pandemic.

The IDF Chief of Staff made the decision to move the military to the heightened level — code-named “Latch,” or in Hebrew Bariach — from its normal state of routine preparedness — “Porthole,” or in Hebrew Eshnav — following a situational assessment that was held with the General Staff via videoconferencing on Thursday evening. There are two more states above the current one in the military’s scale.

The implication of the higher state of preparedness is mostly in the number of soldiers that need to be at hand, as well as the state of each unit’s inventories.

IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said the military was working on multiple fronts both to assist civilian authorities combat the disease and to prepare for the possibility of needing to further intervene and support the public if the situation deteriorates further.

As the military said last week, this includes preparing for the possibility of helping police to enforce a full lockdown of the country or quarantines of individual cities and towns. Zilberman said he was unaware if or when such a measure would go into effect.

The military has also been working to ensure that it can continue to operate as normal despite the pandemic. Currently 10 soldiers have tested positive for the disease, and roughly 5,600 service members are in quarantine. Yet Zilberman said the military’s operation preparedness has not been affected.

A soldier in Military Intelligence’s technology unit works on a project to convert CPAP machines into ventilators to help combat the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The primary IDF unit involved in the efforts to combat the disease is the Home Front Command, which has been working with hospitals, local governments and the Health Ministry. Zilberman said other units have increasingly been brought in to help, including recently the Military Intelligence Directorate’s 81st Technological Unit, which has been working to develop protective gear and improvised medical equipment to assist health care workers.

Helping the home front

The military was continuing to work with civilian health authorities, mostly the Magen David Adom ambulance service — staffing a joint emergency response call center, creating “recovery hotels” for coronavirus carriers with light symptoms, and operating an information website and hotline.

The IDF will roll out a new initiative next week to support the health care system, sending hundreds of soldier-teachers from the Education Corps to teach the children of medical professionals in light of the closure of the country’s schools, Zilberman said.

This initiative, which is meant to free up doctors, nurses and staff from childcare so they can focus on their sorely needed jobs, will begin on Sunday at Ramat Gan’s Sheba Medical Center and expand throughout the country, the spokesman said.

Soldiers answer emergency hotlines to assist people during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military has also been assisting the Magen David Adom perform coronavirus tests, both in the ambulance service’s drive-through facility in Tel Aviv, as well as in at-home visits, by driving the MDA testers around the country.

Zilberman said 100 military cars have so far been dedicated to this effort and 50 more will take part beginning next week.

The IDF has also called on soldiers to donate blood — 7,000 units of it — to support the MDA’s blood banks, which have received fewer donations because of the coronavirus.

“That’s a big number. We hope to do it in the next few days. If the MDA want more, we’ll donate more,” said Zilberman, who donated blood earlier in the day.

Zilberman said the Home Front Command’s ABC Unit, which helps respond to atomic, biological and chemical disasters, was also readying to be called in to sanitize public areas and buildings where infected people have visited.

IDF medical personnel were preparing to step in to assist civilian hospitals if necessary. “The IDF has a lot of medics,” Zilberman noted.

Soldiers wrap up pallets of equipment as part of preparations for the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF’s Logistics Directorate was also ready to be called in to support the country’s supply lines if civilian companies no longer can, to supply food, medical gear and cleaning products.

In addition, the military was working with local governments to consider how soldiers could assist elderly Israelis and other populations in need of special assistance.

Protecting itself

In addition to assisting the rest of the country respond to the coronavirus outbreak, the military has also been focused heavily on ensuring that it remains as unaffected by the virus as possible.

Zilberman said a major effort at this stage was ensuring that previously issued safety orders were being implemented, acknowledging that in the beginning of the week there were a number of cases of large gatherings and close physical contact between troops that violated the Health Ministry’s — and the military’s own — regulations.

Soldiers and medics operate a call center specifically meant to respond to cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus on March 15, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military also rolled out additional safety precautions on Thursday. With few exceptions, soldiers will no longer be permitted to ride on public transportation and will instead travel on a system of IDF-controlled buses, with at most 25 passengers who will be forced to sit in a staggered arrangement to maximize the distance between them, Zilberman said.

The IDF also adopted a system of having soldiers work in two or three self-contained shifts, or “capsules,” which do not physically interact with one another. The idea is that by having soldiers work in separate shifts, if troops in one of these shifts get infected with the virus, the other one or two shifts are not at risk and can maintain “operational consistency,” Zilberman said.

He offered the example of an air force squadron, in which each so-called capsule includes everyone needed for routine operation: pilots, ground crews, maintenance personnel, etc.

Zilberman said the military was nearing completion of establishing its own quarantine facility at a vacation resort in the coastal city of Ashkelon in a bid to “relieve the pressure on the civilian health care system.”

An IDF soldier has his temperature checked. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The hotel will be used to house soldiers who contract the disease and have light symptoms. The military established similar hotels elsewhere in the country for civilians, but the Ashkelon facility will only be for soldiers.

The spokesman said the military was pressing on with the drafts planned for this month, but planned to do so in a slightly different format than usual.

Instead of all recruits coming to the military’s main Tel Hashomer enlistment base in Ramat Gan at the same time — a system that led to large densely packed lines at the entrance to the base — they would instead be sent to one of four different facilities throughout the country at different times throughout the day.

Zilberman said recruits would be sent to Tel Hashomer, Hakfar Hayarok outside Tel Aviv, Latrun near Jerusalem and the memorial site in Yehud in central Israel.

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