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Lockdown is slowing virus spread, but hospitals still have it ‘worse than ever’

Netanyahu has expressed ‘cautious optimism’ over falling infections, but doctors say it could take weeks before there is any relief on their COVID-19 wards

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

A coronavirus ward at Galilee Medical Center (Ancho Gosh Jini Photo Agency via Galilee Medical Center)
A coronavirus ward at Galilee Medical Center (Ancho Gosh Jini Photo Agency via Galilee Medical Center)

The situation in Israel’s hospitals is at its most dire, and could remain bad for weeks, according to doctors, despite signs that the lockdown is working and coronavirus cases are dropping.

“It’s worse than ever,” Dr. Guy Choshen, director of the coronavirus department at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

“If we see a decline in national numbers testing positive, we’ll only feel it in two to three weeks,” he added, noting that it often takes a significant amount of time after diagnosis for patients to deteriorate into a state that requires hospitalization.

At the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Eyad Jeries said he was pessimistic about the prospect of his workload easing, and commented: “I really never thought we’d get to this situation, even when the second wave started.”

Jeries, head nurse in the department for the most serious COVID-19 patients, expressed doubt that the number of patients, especially those on wards like his for critical cases, would drop before the so-called twindemic effect — some health experts predict flu season will begin while the population continues to battle the coronavirus — kicks in.

“I’m not optimistic, even though infection numbers are falling,’ he said. “I think within a month, because of flu, I’ll actually be caring for more ventilated patients than I am now.”

A coronavirus ward at Galilee Medical Center (Ancho Gosh Jini Photo Agency via Galilee Medical Center)

Two and a half weeks after Israel became the first country to reimpose a lockdown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday expressed “cautious optimism,” after seeing the number of positive diagnoses falling well below the all-time high of 9,053 seen a week ago. Also on Tuesday, the share of coronavirus tests coming back positive fell to its lowest level in weeks, according to Health Ministry figures.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein cautiously said that the lockdown appears to be having a positive effect.

There is one particular success story the contributes to the drop in new cases: a reduction in virus spread among Arab Israelis. Dr. Arnon Afek, a former Health Ministry director general, told Times of Israel: “Among Arab Israelis you see a very substantial drop in infections, and it’s due to the stopping of weddings during the lockdown.”

Arnon Afek of Sheba Medical Center (Shai Pereg).

Afek, who is currently deputy director of Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, also said indications suggest that the elderly have been well protected as cases spiraled in recent weeks. “The general trend of people who are severely sick is younger than in the first wave, which is positive as it indicates that the elderly are being safeguarded,” he commented.

But the figure that matters most to hospitals — the number of patients — simply isn’t changing yet. The overall number of hospitalized patients is 1,612, with around half of them in serious condition, similar to the level seen so far in October.

Jeries said that, tragically, the only notable drop in numbers he currently sees is when people die. “Two weeks ago I had just six ventilated patients here; this morning there were 14 and one just died, 15 minutes ago,” he said on Wednesday afternoon. “So now there are 13. That’s the fifth death our hospital has seen in 24 hours.

“Our patients span all ages, including a 26-year-old without underlying conditions who is currently in critical condition and sedated.”

A worker from Hevra Kadisha, Israel’s official Jewish burial society, prepares a body before a funeral procession at a special morgue for COVID-19 victims in the central Israeli city of Holon, near Tel Aviv, September 23, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Afek urged against talk of lockdown victory. “We must be very careful not to jump to conclusions,” he said, suggesting that test data from more days is needed. “And we’re not sure with certainty what the general trend is.”

Guy Choshen (courtesy of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center)

Choshen, of Sourasky Medical Center, stressed that hospitals have space for more patients, but said: “Things are still very intense for us; we don’t feel the decline in [cases] in hospitals.

“Normally there’s a lag of two to three weeks between changes in infection levels and changes on the ground in hospitals.”

Afek offered a similar picture, saying that at his hospital, “we do not see a reduction in the number of severely ill patients, and I don’t think we’ll see it for a week or more, but there is a general stability.”

He added: “The government is right in deciding to wait before drawing general conclusions, and in being more careful than it was during the first lockdown.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

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