Knesset committee chair rips into lockdown plan, questions COVID death toll

Yifat Shasha-Biton says government should reinforce hospitals, not shut down country; Health Ministry deputy says healthcare system overwhelmed, denies overcount of fatalities

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton chairing the Knesset Coronavirus Committee on June 17, 2020. (Instagram)
MK Yifat Shasha-Biton chairing the Knesset Coronavirus Committee on June 17, 2020. (Instagram)

Officials quarreled Monday at a meeting of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee over the country’s death toll, which some have claimed is artificially inflated.

Committee chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton said during the discussion that she had received data from an unnamed hospital that 23 percent of reported COVID-19 deaths were actually caused by other factors while the patient was infected with the virus.

She gave an example of an elderly patient with advanced pancreatic cancer whose cause of death was listed as COVID-19.

That angered Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto, who disputed the claim and threatened to leave the meeting.

Israel’s death count stands at 1,126, with the ratio of fatalities out of total cases one of the world’s lowest.

Shasha-Biton, a Likud party member but a critic of the government’s decision to announce a three-week lockdown starting Friday, also cited the opinion of some hospital managers who have objected to a closure and said they aren’t nearing maximum capacity.

“There were some who said this morning that no health consideration stands behind the lockdown decision,” said Shasha-Biton. “My wish is that someone here will come to their senses and understand that we need to invest in the health system and not close down the public.”

Prof. Itamar Grotto at press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

But Grotto said hospitals were flooded and overworked, adding that it was also affecting non-coronavirus patients. He said he had been forced to intervene in a case where a man had a stroke but there was no emergency bed for him at Rambam Hospital in the northern city of Haifa.

Shasha-Biton asked him whether the lockdown — unlike the one in March-April — will this time help Israel avoid another surge and third nationwide closure.

Grotto answered that the health system will this time be “several steps ahead,” with a contact-tracing mechanism and 1,500 more nurses in the winter months.

Last week, an opposition lawmaker, Yesh Atid-Telem party MK Yoel Razvozov, called for a recount of coronavirus fatalities, claiming Health Ministry guidelines for registering deaths were including many who may have died of other causes, inflating the toll, panicking the public and pushing decision-makers to apply lockdown measures.

Yesh Atid party member Yoel Razvozov speaks to supporters in Tel Aviv, ahead of general elections, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

“These worrying findings cast doubt on the entire method used by hospitals to register the number of people who die of the coronavirus in Israel,” he warned.In response, the head of public health at the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, told the Kan public broadcaster that “it makes me angry that someone is trying to paint the Health Ministry as an entity that inflates the mortality rates.”

“It is simply incorrect,” Alroy-Preis said. “I, the director-general, and the minister do not have an interest in alarming the public. The opposite is true.”

Sharon Alroy-Preis. (Courtesy)

The Coronavirus Committee has in the past clashed with the government over its virus campaign, overturning restrictions ordered by the cabinet.

Last month the Health Ministry admitted to undercounting COVID-19 fatalities, issuing a statement saying that it had failed to include dozens of deaths at senior living homes during July and August in its official count.

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