‘It’s not over’: Top MDA medic warns Israelis won’t heed rules in 2nd virus wave

Emergency service medical director says that though the state won the battle, it lost support for the wider war by overburdening the public with restrictions

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A couple wearing masks for protection against the spread of the coronavirus hold Israeli flags during a protest against the government, at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A couple wearing masks for protection against the spread of the coronavirus hold Israeli flags during a protest against the government, at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israelis won’t comply with rules like “good children” during any future coronavirus spikes because restrictions were too extreme this time around, the Magen David Adom emergency service’s medical director has claimed.

Refael Strugo told The Times of Israel that there is a premature feeling of victory against the pandemic, for which he blames the state.

“It’s not over,” he said. “It’s the wrong feeling. And I think it’s wrong because of the way the government handled it with the public. The state never told the public it’s going to be a marathon, but rather, like a [short] run.”

Strugo was one of the central figures in Israel’s coronavirus fight for more than two months, as MDA was responsible for testing, home hospitalization of patients and several other key roles. It fulfilled these functions as Israel’s emergency service during the thick of the crisis, and has been increasingly transferring them to health maintenance organizations in recent weeks.

Health Ministry officials have warned repeatedly that they anticipate a second wave, but Strugo believes that due to their policies to date the public won’t step up to the challenge again.

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing disinfect their ambulance after taking care of a patient with a possible coronavirus infection on April 14, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“Because we handled the first wave very early and roughly, I believe we’re going to have a problem with the second wave,” Strugo said, stressing that he thinks a second wave is almost inevitable. “I don’t think the public will listen in the way it did with the first wave.”

He said that in a future outbreak, public cooperation will again be important to ensure that cases don’t spread quickly and health services can avoid a sharp curve.

But he said that after the “harsh” measures used until now, “people won’t act like ‘good children’ as they did in the first wave.”

Strugo commented: “I don’t think the health system will have enough time to prepare for the second wave without the public on our side. And the public is not going to be on our side as it was with the first wave. People say the number of dead isn’t more than from a winter influenza, but with an enormous price from society, and other health prices with people not having cardio appointments, not doing sport [exercise] etc.”

Refael Strugo (courtesy of Magen David Adom)

He said that Israel “fought well against corona[virus] but paid a very large price in other areas of our life,” which leaves him pessimistic about public cooperation in the future.

Israel implemented strict regulations, punishable by fines, to fight coronavirus. Israeli schools and universities were closed on March 12, soon followed by most workplaces, and Israelis were ordered to stay close to their homes for weeks.

Restrictions have now been eased, with workplaces and stores reopened, and schools operating again, albeit not for all age groups.

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov has insisted that his hard-line approach was necessary and without it, Israel could have ended up like Belgium, which has a population slightly larger than Israel’s and a death toll of more than 8,700. Israel’s current death count is 258.

But Strugo thanks that similar results could have been achieved with “less extreme steps,” and said the government should have been “more selective” in terms of the tools it used.

He said it would have been better had the government “not used quarantine all over the country but in ‘red’ areas, and used it for elderly and high risk but not the whole population, and let go early.”

Broadly speaking, the government’s approach was right, he said, but “too strong and too harsh, and I fear we’re going to pay for this during a second wave.”

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