Ministry says testing glitch underreported COVID positivity rate for weeks

Nachman Ash insists airport tests problem being taken care of, says no current plan for new restrictions to deal with renewed outbreak

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

A technician tests a passenger for COVID-19 at Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
A technician tests a passenger for COVID-19 at Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Newly ensconced Health Ministry director Nachman Ash said that a temporary glitch has been skewing the number of negative COVID tests reported at Ben Gurion Airport, making it seem as if the current outbreak is somewhat more contained than it actually is, the new head of the Health Ministry admitted Monday.

Nachman Ash, who took over the ministry a day earlier, told reporters that for a period of several weeks, negative tests that were carried out at Ben Gurion Airport were accidentally counted twice in the Health Ministry statistics. The misreported number served to lower the percentage of cases coming back positive, a key number used by decision-makers to determine how widespread the disease is.

The error began when the company conducting tests at the airport was replaced by a new organization in mid-June, Ash said. He promised that the issue was being taken of, since its recent discovery.

“We discovered that the negative tests [at the airport] were being counted twice, and therefore there were a distorted number of tests reported recently,” Ash said. “We found the source of the glitch and we worked to fix it.”

Ash said that the corrected numbers will be visible starting with the publication of Health Ministry COVID figures on Tuesday morning.

Shortly after he spoke Monday, the Health Ministry’s data dashboard went offline.

He said the data will also be retroactively fixed in the system to correct all the figures reported over the past several weeks.

Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash visits the coronavirus department at the Ziv hospital in Tzfat, northern Israel. December 24, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Despite the number of new daily cases spiking from a handful in early June to over 400 on Sunday, the percentage of tests coming back positive has remained low, only rarely reaching 1 percent.

Last week, the Health Ministry was scrutinized for incorrectly counting the number of seriously ill patients. In that instance, the number of people hospitalized in serious condition was found to be inflated.

The government has been repeatedly criticized over its handling of testing at the airport. Last month, thousands of passengers were allowed to enter the country without being tested when the airport’s facilities were overwhelmed by incoming travelers. The opening of the airport has been blamed for Israel’s renewed outbreak.

During a visit to Ben-Gurion Airport on Monday morning, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz hit back at some of the criticism of the government’s handling of testing.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (R) oversees medical technicians testing passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on July 12, 2021. (Flash90)

Horowitz said that increased testing at the airport had succeeded in helping health officials “find the Delta variant and stop its intrusion,” rejecting allegations that the government erred in not shutting down the airport entirely. “We did not make any mistakes.”

The Health Ministry said Monday morning that 423 new cases were detected on Sunday. There were 4,097 active cases and 47 serious cases. The death toll was at 6,438 after seven deaths were confirmed in the last few days, following almost two weeks of no fatalities.

Ash told reporters that there is no current plan to institute new sweeping restrictions, despite the Delta variant taking hold in Israel as new cases pile up. Ash stated that the ministry is “considering making entry into large indoor events,” such as weddings, contingent on either being vaccinated or presenting a negative test. But he admitted that such a plan may be difficult to enforce.

Ash also noted that the ministry is already looking ahead to the start of the new school year in September. Cases have been particularly high among unvaccinated children, and the initial outbreaks last month were centered in schools.

Israelis, some wearing face masks, walk in Tel Aviv on July 11, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We’re preparing for the new school year together with the Education Ministry,” Ash said. “What will happen in September depends a lot on the morbidity at that time,” he noted, adding that “we can’t make a final decision now.”

He offered a similar prediction for the holiday period that begins with Rosh Hashana on September 7 and stretches through the end of the month. “We hope we won’t need more restrictions,” he said. “We will have to see what the situation is then.”

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