IDF puts troops back in separated pods as COVID tears through army

Military says confirmed coronavirus cases quadrupled to over 3,000 in a week, may shorten quarantine to avoid staff shortage; army chief tests negative after aide infected

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 has once again begun to separate soldiers into pods to deal with a skyrocketing number of cases of troops infected with the coronavirus, the military said Sunday.

Over the course of a single week, from December 30 to January 6, the number of confirmed cases in the military jumped more than fourfold, from 771 to 3,160. All of the infected service members had mild or no symptoms, the IDF said. Nearly 3,600 soldiers, officers and civilian employees of the IDF were forced to quarantine after coming into contact with an infected person, as of Thursday, the last day that the military reported the statistics.

One of those infected was an aide to IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, the military said Sunday. In accordance with policy, Kohavi was tested twice and both times came back negative, first with a rapid antigen test and then with a more accurate PCR test, the IDF said.

In light of the sudden rise in coronavirus cases, the military rolled out a number of fresh restrictions on troops out of concern for a yet larger outbreak.

Beginning last Friday, the IDF returned to the pod system it used in previous waves, which is designed to ensure an outfit can function even if a soldier within it contracts the coronavirus. Under this model, units were divided into separate groups, theoretically with no direct physical contact between them, to decrease the likelihood that one infected soldier can spread the disease to an entire unit.

This restriction was put into force within companies for ground troops, on ships for the navy, in departments for Military Intelligence and for squadrons in the air force, the IDF said.

The military was also reportedly considering shortening the length of time that soldiers who test positive for the coronavirus need to remain in quarantine out of concern that the Omicron variant may spread so quickly that within a few weeks there may be no unit within the IDF that is not affected by the outbreak.

According to the Maariv daily, which first reported on the proposed policy, soldiers who test positive but do not have symptoms would be able to return within just a few days, in place of the current policy in which a quarantine of at least 10 days is required, in most cases.

Such a move would require approval from the Health Ministry, which it has yet to receive.

According to Maariv, the military was also considering offering fourth vaccine shots to all service members in an effort to prevent serious illness within the IDF.

In the meantime, in order to lighten the burden on civilian facilities, the IDF also announced on Friday that it would begin offering coronavirus tests in military clinics, in addition to providing free rapid antigen tests at Magen David Adom sites.

Recent days have seen record-high coronavirus diagnoses in Israel, with 17,521 new cases reported on Saturday after 18,831 were diagnosed the day before — the highest number yet.

With the new cases, there were 115,010 active patients in the country as of Sunday.

The number of seriously ill patients also jumped to 206 as of Sunday, nearly double the amount there were the week before.

The death toll remained at 8,259, with no change since Friday.

Officials have said that Israel is dealing with both the faster-spreading Omicron and more dangerous Delta strains of the virus, expressing fears that the health system could get overwhelmed with a rise in flu cases taking up room in hospitals as well.

The government has urged the public to vaccinate and shots are available to all those aged five or above.

Of Israel’s 9.5 million population, 6,621,321 have had at least one vaccine dose, Sunday’s Health Ministry figures showed. Of those, 5,963,196 have also had a second shot and 4,322,783 a booster as well.

Last week Israel begin distributing extra boosters to its elderly population and health workers, the first country in the world to do so. As of Saturday, 254,000 people had gotten the second booster.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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