IDF’s virus squad, now fully operational, readies for feared winter outbreaks

Military task force close to having capabilities for 100,000 tests and 4,000 tracing probes a day, but efforts may be harmed by high levels of non-cooperation among public

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF soldiers perform contact tracing for coronavirus patients. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF soldiers perform contact tracing for coronavirus patients. (Israel Defense Forces)

With the Israel Defense Forces’ coronavirus task force fully operational, the military is working to ensure that it is prepared to handle outbreaks expected in the coming winter, the commander of the unit said Thursday.

“We’ve had good achievements in recent weeks. We’ve doubled, even tripled the capabilities of the State of Israel in terms of sampling, testing and epidemiological surveys. We are in the last two weeks of developing our abilities and then we’ll enter into our efforts for November in preparation for our missions for the winter,” said Brig. Gen. Nissan Davidi.

In the coming weeks, the military plans to be able to perform 100,000 coronavirus tests and conduct upwards of 4,000 contact tracing probes each day, which it believes will allow it to prevent widespread outbreaks.

Before elementary schools begin to reopen, the IDF will offer coronavirus tests to all of the relevant staff, including teachers from grades one to four. However, it is legally prohibited from requiring that all teachers be tested before they return to work, so the effort will be on a voluntary basis.

But while the task force has high hopes and grand ambitions, it is also keenly aware of the limitations of its powers: If people don’t cooperate with the tracing surveys, don’t give honest and full answers, and if those they’ve been in contact with don’t go into quarantine, all of the military’s efforts will be for naught.

The military’s ‘Alon’ coronavirus task force on the Home Front Command’s base in Ramle. (Israel Defense Forces)

Indeed, roughly half of those questioned for contact tracing are believed to not give full or truthful answers, according to the military’s estimate.

On Wednesday, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi called for cooperation with the contact tracers in order to ensure that they are able to find people who may have contracted the virus and prevent further outbreaks.

“This task force will not be effective if there is not cooperation [from] the public. I am here asking: Work with the task force, give full reports. We can beat this, but that requires cooperation,” Kohavi said.

The task force has also recently detected a potentially worrying trend regarding self-isolation: Currently, nearly 40 percent of people who are meant to go into quarantine do not report to the Health Ministry that they are doing so, according to military findings.

Currently, when a person is informed via text message that they are required to go into quarantine because they have been in contact with a confirmed coronavirus carrier, they are meant to visit the Health Ministry’s website and file a report that they are self-isolating, where and for how long.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) bumps elbows with Brig. Gen. Nissan Davidi, who was tasked with leading the military’s Coronavirus Command on August 4, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

That 39% of people who are meant to go into quarantine do not file these reports does not necessarily mean that those people are not quarantining themselves, but rather that they are not providing that information to authorities as they are legally required to do. This makes it more difficult for police and the Health Ministry to ensure that they are remaining in home quarantine for the required amount of time.

To better predict flareups, the coronavirus task force — dubbed “Alon” — also plans to shift its focus to a more granular level, looking not at cities as a whole but at neighborhoods and streets. The city of Tel Aviv, for instance, may be considered a “green” city, with relatively few overall cases, but some neighborhoods within it could be hotspots that could potentially cause wider flare-ups.

In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the military intends to streamline the process of diagnosing carriers of the disease and instructing people with whom they may have been in contact to go into quarantine. The IDF plans to be able to direct these potential carriers of the coronavirus to self-isolate within 30 hours of a person being diagnosed through rapid questionnaires and high-speed testing — much faster than the multiple days that it currently takes.

A medical worker in protective clothing tests a man for coronavirus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on October 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The military is also gearing up for potential winter outbreaks by ensuring that it can perform large numbers of tests of suspected carriers while also being able to perform regular survey screenings of schools and retirement communities.

As of Thursday evening, the number of active cases in Israel stood at 17,869, after plummeting in recent weeks as a month-long lockdown has managed to significantly curb infection numbers.

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