IDF looks to clamp down as COVID-19 cases spread through its ranks
Military expanding operations in coronavirus-stricken cities

IDF looks to clamp down as COVID-19 cases spread through its ranks

With growing number of soldiers sick or quarantined, army bars servicemembers from gatherings of more than 5 while on leave, considers halting furloughs for combat troops

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

Illustrative: Soldiers from the Golani Brigade wearing face masks, on May 12, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Illustrative: Soldiers from the Golani Brigade wearing face masks, on May 12, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday rolled out new restrictions and initiatives in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus in its ranks, including barring troops from taking part in gatherings of more than five people while on leave, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said.

The military is also considering confining to their units combat soldiers and other troops who serve on closed bases (where soldiers do not return home on a daily basis). These service members are already required to remain on their bases through the end of next week, so IDF top brass will wait until Monday to make a decision on the matter, Zilberman told reporters.

As of Thursday evening, 673 conscripted soldiers, officers, non-commissioned officers and civilian employees of the IDF were sick with the COVID-19 — all of them with light symptoms — while roughly 11,500 troops were in quarantine after coming into contact with a confirmed carrier of the coronavirus, according to the military.

That is roughly five times more confirmed cases and nearly three times as many people in quarantine than the military saw during the peak of the initial coronavirus outbreak. In recent weeks, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and a number of major generals from the IDF General Staff have been forced into quarantine after meeting with people who were later found to have contracted the coronavirus.

However, the military has not yet put in place many of the restrictions on troops that were enacted during the period of March-April, such as barring all use of public transportation and canceling leave for combat troops, though they are being considered, Zilberman said.

The spokesperson said despite the large number of ill and quarantined troops, the military’s ability to function and conduct operations has not been seriously affected.

The IDF in recent days has also stepped up its operations in cities and towns with high rates of the disease, mostly through providing information to residents of those areas and distributing food and other necessities to their at-risk populations.

IDF troops deliver food to residents of the city of Bnei Brak in central Israel during a lockdown, on April 5, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

This includes the towns of Ramle and Lod, some neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, Zilberman said.

Roughly 1,000 reservists, mostly from the Home Front Command, have been brought in for this effort, though the military has been authorized to bring in more than twice that by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

The military has also deployed over 100 soldiers to coronavirus wards in hospitals across the country to assist the staff there — not to treat patients — and is prepared to send an additional 200 if needed, Zilberman said.

As of Thursday evening, the IDF was also operating 19 coronavirus hotels: 15 of them for people with the disease who have light symptoms and four of them for people who require quarantine and are unable to isolate at home.

The Health Ministry on Thursday evening said it had recorded 1,939 new infections over the previous 24 hours, bringing the country’s total number of confirmed cases to 45,607, with a death toll of 383.

As a result of the large number of cases, the government was considering a full national lockdown on weekends and other restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

Tackling the virus in the IDF

In light of the growing number of cases within the military, the IDF reopened one coronavirus hotel in Ashkelon — a converted military retreat center where up to 500 soldiers with light symptoms can recover — with plans to open two more locations to bring the military’s total capacity of beds up to nearly 1,200, Zilberman said.

Soldiers who are currently recovering from the disease at home can to request to be transported to the military’s coronavirus hotels through a smartphone application, and can then be taken there in specially-designed vehicles with hermetically sealed compartments, to prevent the driver from contracting the virus, the spokesman said.

Israeli troops operate a laboratory to test soldiers for the coronavirus on March 23, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

In light of the growing number of confirmed cases, the IDF was also working to expand its internal ability to conduct coronavirus testing. The military’s in-house laboratory is currently capable of testing between 700 and 800 swabs each day, Zilberman said.

IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Eyal Zamir, who was tasked with leading the military’s coronavirus response, ordered the lab to expand its operations and as a result additional equipment has been purchased for it and efforts are being made to speed up the process of delivering swabs to the facility, Zilberman said.

The spokesman said the IDF estimated that roughly half of the soldiers who contracted the disease were infected while outside the military.

According to Zilberman, this assessment — which he stressed was an estimation, not based on purely empirical data — led to the decision to bar soldiers on leave from being in groups of more than five people besides direct family members, as well as an internal increased enforcement of the so-called “capsule system” in which groups of soldiers within a unit are isolated from one another to ensure that even if members of one group contract the disease, other groups can continue operations as usual.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers seen at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, on May 10, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

IDF chief Kohavi also planned to hold a meeting on Monday to potentially keep combat soldiers and troops serving on closed bases confined to their units. In the initial outbreak of the coronavirus, these soldiers remained on their bases for over a month — an uncommonly long amount of time in the IDF, where many troops are accustomed to going home at least every other weekend.

Looking forward, the military was beginning to stockpile flu vaccinations and additional medical equipment for the winter, the spokesman said.

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