Israel managed to increase its hospital capacity by just 19 beds since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a Knesset committee heard on Monday, as the heads of two Jerusalem medical centers reported that they were overstretched and in dire financial straits.
According to data from the Knesset Research and Information Center (RIC), in February the country had a total of 16,302 beds, which had increased to just 16,321 by July, the Ynet news site reported.
The RIC report was presented to the Knesset’s Special Committee for Public Petitions, which held discussions on overcrowding in hospitals during the pandemic.
According to the report, some beds for coronavirus patients were taken from other departments, rather than overall capacity of the hospitals being increased.
“Occupancy in each ward of each hospital is calculated on the basis of the number of hospital beds set per ward in the hospital license,” the report read. “Coronavirus wards do not have assigned beds — they are opened as needed and according to various considerations… Some coronavirus beds are new (extra) beds and some beds have been converted from other wards.”
According to Health Ministry figures, three major hospitals are over 100 percent capacity in their coronavirus wards, while two more are at 94 percent.
Two of the overfull hospitals, Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center Ein Kerem and Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, also called Sourasky, are also at over 100% capacity in total, while the third, Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, is at over 90% overall.
There are 783 hospitalized coronavirus patients in Israel, according to Health Ministry figures released Monday morning, including 334 people in serious condition, of whom 100 are on ventilators.
The director general of Shaare Zedek, Prof. Ofer Marin, told the committee that his hospital was in crisis and was turning patients away.
“The internal medicine departments are busy and we do not have [enough] staff. Yesterday we canceled surgeries and sent patients home because intensive care is full. It is a shame and a disgrace. The wards are completely full,” Marin said.
“I have to pay salaries but I have no money. Not because we are not being run properly, but because all the hospitals are in huge deficits,” he said. “We can’t survive. Instead of dealing with the coronavirus, we are busy paying salaries and suppliers.”
The CEO of Hadassah Medical Center painted a similar picture.
“The economic damage to the hospital is estimated at more than NIS 200 million, partly due to the closure of medical tourism. The ministries of Health and Finance should understand that if we do not receive NIS 60 million to pay August salaries, our suppliers and workers will leave,” said Prof. Zeev Rotstein.
The government has faced criticism that it wasted any possible advantage after the first wave of infections ebbed, squandering time that could have been used to increase capacity in the healthcare system as well as improve virus testing and epidemiological contact tracing.
In 2018, Israel spent $2,780 per capita on health expenditures, far below the OECD average. There are an average of three hospital beds per thousand inhabitants.
In May, the Calcalist financial daily reported that the Health Ministry was seeking to order 2,000 more hospital beds and significantly stock and upgrade Israel’s ICUs to the tune of NIS 1.5 billion.
“We have to be prepared for the next wave and take advantage proactively of the time we have to set things up as much as possible,” the newspaper quoted then-Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov in a letter to National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat.
Israel’s acquisition efforts during the pandemic had already raised questions after the Mossad led an operation airlifting some 100,000 coronavirus test kits to Israel, though Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto told the media afterward that the agency had brought the wrong materials, specifying that what was lacking were swabs.
A State Comptroller’s report drafted before the coronavirus crisis struck revealed a lack of strategic planning, funding, equipment and general readiness of the health service.
The report warned of a lack of hospital beds and isolation rooms, ill-equipped intensive care units, and a lack of cooperation between the health and defense ministries.
Based on an audit of various ministries that was conducted between February and October 2019, the report, titled “The Health System’s Readiness to Deal with Pandemics,” dealt with the possibility of a COVID-19-like outbreak, but also reviewed the government’s preparedness for other epidemics that have happened more recently, such as measles and leishmania.
The report revealed that the Health Ministry did not have a plan to supply its hospitals with enough beds and staff for such scenarios.