Medical labs say they’re not being allowed to work at full capacity on Shabbat
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'The virus doesn't take a break; this is a scandal'

Medical labs say they’re not being allowed to work at full capacity on Shabbat

Health Ministry insists laboratories operating 24/7 to process coronavirus tests, but reports say numerous facilities working reduced hours over the weekend, with fewer staff

Medical technicians perform a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a lab at a Leumit Health Care Services branch in Or Yehuda on March 19, 2020. (Flash90)
Medical technicians perform a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a lab at a Leumit Health Care Services branch in Or Yehuda on March 19, 2020. (Flash90)

The head of the Israel Association of Biochemists, Microbiologists and Laboratory Workers on Friday accused the Health Ministry of not allowing medical laboratories around Israel to operate at full capacity during Shabbat, limiting the number of coronavirus tests they can perform.

“The virus doesn’t take a break on Friday and Saturday, this is a scandal,” Ester Admon was quoted saying by Channel 13 news.

While praising the Magen David Adom emergency service for increasing the number of samples it can take in a day, Admon said laboratories need to operate at full capacity to process these tests and get results.

“The question isn’t how many tests were taken today, but how many are tested in the laboratory,” she said.

The Health Ministry denied the assertion, saying the labs were operating 24/7.

“The laboratories are open on Shabbat. Tests are taken and answers are given on Shabbat as well. Right now people are receiving answers. We all work seven days a week,” Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, director-general of the Health Ministry, wrote on Twitter.

However, according to the Ynet news site, the main laboratory in the Haifa area, which can perform 330 tests a day, has been waiting since Wednesday to receive permission to operate on the Jewish day of rest.

Numerous laboratories were working limited hours during Shabbat, while others had a reduced workforce, the website said.

A Magen David Adom paramedic in protective clothing takes a sample at coronavirus drive-through testing site in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Admon said the Finance Ministry agreed to allow increased work at laboratories over Shabbat, but the Health Ministry was opposed.

“Now with the drive-through [testing] masses of samples are arriving,” she said, warning they could not all be processed if there were not enough lab workers.

MK Nitzan Horowitz, head of the left-wing Meretz party, called on the Health Ministry to allow laboratories to work at full capacity during the Sabbath.

“The virus doesn’t observe Shabbat. These are people’s lives and the laboratory workers understand the weight of the responsibility on their shoulders during a crisis,” he said.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, a right-wing secularist, called the reduced testing capacity at laboratories over Shabbat a “scandal” and slammed Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

“Litzman must decide if he’s the health minister or national kosher supervisor,” he wrote on Facebook.

Liberman, who has campaigned against religious influence on state institutions and public life, cited the Jewish principal of pikuach nefesh, the imperative to save lives, saying this should take precedence over Shabbat observance.

As of Friday, there were 20 labs around Israel approved to process the tests, with the Health Ministry saying additional labs were set to be trained for testing in the coming days.

The Health Ministry also said Friday that it has authorized Jerusalem-based firm Novamed to produce swabs used in testing kits for the coronavirus.

According to a ministry statement, the company, which makes products used to test for infectious diseases, will initially produce 5,000 swabs, beginning Sunday.

Bar Siman-Tov ordered additional manufacturers of components for the test kits to be found, the ministry said.

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov is seen at a coronavirus drive-through testing site in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Deputy Director-General Itamar Grotto said Thursday that medical officials were most in need of more swabs to increase testing for the virus.

After a delay of several days, a new drive-through facility opened in Tel Aviv Friday for Israelis to receive on-the-spot testing for the coronavirus while they wait in their cars.

The facility, run by the Magen David Adom ambulance service, is at the Expo Tel Aviv compound, and is open only to those with specific doctors’ referrals. If the pilot testing project proves successful, additional facilities will be opened in other major cities.

In recent days, the Health Ministry has boosted testing for the virus from some 500-700 tests a day to around 2,200 per day and officials have said the number of tests would increase to 3,000 per day by Sunday and 5,000 per day by the following week.

The number of confirmed sick in Israel stood at 705 on Friday morning. Ten were in serious condition and 18 in moderate condition.

Israel has imposed far-reaching restrictions to contain the virus, including legally enforceable limitations on movement that took effect Friday.

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