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IDF plans to run 2 coronavirus wards in Haifa hospital as outbreak worsens

Army spokesperson says deploying soldiers with police is ‘not effective’; military working to step up contact tracing

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

A medic works in the underground parking lot of Rambam Health Care Campus, which was transformed into an intensive care facility for coronavirus patients, in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on September 23, 2020 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
A medic works in the underground parking lot of Rambam Health Care Campus, which was transformed into an intensive care facility for coronavirus patients, in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on September 23, 2020 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces is preparing to open and run two coronavirus wards in Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center amid concerns that the number of patients requiring hospitalization will rise sharply in the coming weeks, a military spokesperson said Thursday.

It would appear to be the first time in the country’s history that the military was formally charged with providing medical treatment to civilians, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters.

Though the military has completed its planning for the measure — collaborating with the Health Ministry and the medical center to work out the details — the plan requires final approval from the government before it goes forward. Zilberman said the military expects to begin opening the wards in the next two to four weeks.

The wards would be run by military medical professionals — doctors, nurses, paramedics and medics — and would treat “many dozens” of patients with moderate symptoms in a converted underground parking garage in the hospital, he said. The precise number of patients and staff had yet to be determined, the spokesperson added.

According to Zilberman, the personnel — likely upwards of 100 people — will come primarily from training bases and special forces units. Some of the troops were meant to be released from the military (likely due to them reaching the end of their service period) but will stay on in a special capacity, he said.

An IDF soldier tests a coronavirus sample in a military lab in an undated photograph, released on August 4, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the phone briefing, Zilberman discussed a number of issues connected to the military’s coronavirus response, both its own internal issues and its role in the national effort.

In understated but unmistakable criticism, the spokesman indicated the military was not in favor of loaning troops to the police to assist in enforcement of the national lockdown.

“It’s not one of our most effective missions,” Zilberman said.

Currently, 500 soldiers are taking part in such operations. In some cases, this has put them at the heart of political arguments, most recently on Tuesday when protesters demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu filmed themselves at a roadblock outside the Knesset scolding a soldier for helping run a barricade aimed at breaking up the protest alongside police.

In light of the incident, the military and police agreed to remove all IDF troops from Jerusalem, where protests are more likely.

A protester argues with a soldier at a roadblock outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 29, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

“We are not putting them in points of friction,” Zilberman said. “And if new points of friction come up, we’ll talk to the police.”

There has also been criticism that police have generally not been enforcing the lockdown efficiently, setting up roadblocks on major highways without actually preventing people from violating the restrictions, creating massive traffic jams for no clear reason.

Zilberman also discussed the military’s “Alon” task force, which is meant to coordinate the IDF’s coronavirus activities. The detachment, which is meant to assist the government in both testing and contact tracing, was formed in late July and has been growing larger over the past two months, with the goal of full operations in November.

Experts have pointed to a lack of effective contact tracing — tracking the spread of the virus from person to person — as a factor in the country’s current wave of infections.

According to Zilberman, there are currently 1,700 soldiers conducting epidemiological surveys as part of the Alon task force, with plans to add 700 more in the coming weeks and another 400 next month.

Illustrative: In a video released by the IDF on July 29, 2020, soldiers man the phones at the IDF Home Front Command’s headquarters during a visit by coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)

He also noted the military’s internal efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

As of Thursday, the IDF had 1,016 confirmed coronavirus cases, all of them presenting light symptoms. Another 13,500 troops and civilian employees of the IDF were in quarantine as of Wednesday, according to the military.

In an attempt to bring those numbers down, the military this week announced it was canceling all leave for combat troops and soldiers serving on training bases and other “closed bases,” where soldiers spend the night on base.

Zilberman said the military was also rolling out a new internal advertising campaign, in which soldiers who violated coronavirus restrictions admit to their offenses and explain how they harmed the people around them in some way.

In one, a soldier says she thought she only had a cold when she had in fact contracted the virus and came to work anyway, infecting two of her friends and forcing half of her unit into quarantine.

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