Israel’s newly appointed coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu on Tuesday unveiled his plan to combat the pandemic, saying the military would be tasked with contact tracing, while acknowledging the Health Ministry’s failure to adequately perform epidemiological investigations to stem the spread of the virus.
In a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Gamzu vowed to ramp up testing while keeping government restrictions to a minimum. He also expressed confidence the virus rates could be brought under control.
“We can beat it,” he said of the pandemic, adding that success would require a unified effort by Israelis.
Gamzu said the Israel Defense Forces would take responsibility for epidemiological investigations, predicting it could set up a unit responsible for the task within two weeks. The IDF “has the capabilities, it has the technologies,” to cut the chain of infection, he said.
“This is the heart of stopping the pandemic,” Gamzu added.
“This is an essential change, because the Health Ministry hasn’t managed to do it,” said Gamzu, a former director-general of the ministry.
Lamenting the erosion of public trust in the government’s moves, Gamzu said he was presenting a “new contract” between the government and citizens, under which the government would be transparent in its decision-making, and offer clear and consistent information.
“We will limit the restrictions as much as possible,” he said, adding that there would be no “illogical” government rules that “harm the economy” on his watch.
Gamzu also emphasized the importance of wearing masks, rolling out charts that he claimed showed how effective they can be. One chart showed that some 70 percent of Israelis are using masks, which Gamzu said is good, “but not enough.”
He also said that Israel had a long way to go with social distancing and that people were being infected because of gatherings.
In an interview after the press conference, Gamzu told Channel 12 he would work to lift some of the government restrictions that he considers unreasonable, but declined to elaborate.
Netanyahu, Gantz and Edelstein all pledged support for Gamzu’s plan at the press conference.
The prime minister said the plan can be summed up in one word: “Together.”
“Together we will beat the coronavirus,” said Netanyahu, adding that he expected all of his cabinet ministers to back the plan.
Gamzu, who heads the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv (alo known as Sourasky Medical Center), was appointed the country’s point man in dealing with the pandemic last week.
Ahead of the press conference, Channel 12 said Gamzu will propose expanding coronavirus testing to 60,000 tests per day in two months’ time and 100,000 a day by winter. Additional labs will be built to meet this target, the network reported.
That figure was not listed in his presentation, though the virus czar said testing would be ramped up. The network also said he would shift away from imposing nationwide restrictions, instead adapting the rules to cities and towns based on their local rates of infection.
The country’s daily testing rate dipped considerably over the weekend, after hitting nearly 30,000 each day. Those rates rose again Monday, when nearly 27,000 samples were taken.
Netanyahu said last week that Gamzu would be given “all the authority” to curb the COVID-19 outbreak and will have full authority over testing, epidemiological investigations and quarantines.
Gamzu has previously spoken out against nationwide lockdowns, despite an uptick in cases in the country as it undergoes a so-called “second wave” of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Gantz ordered the military to form a “coronavirus command” to track and improve the national response to the pandemic.
It would be country’s third task force overseeing the fight against the disease.
“This special command will work to shorten test times, improve laboratories processes, operate a large network of epidemiological surveyors; it will ensure rapid quarantining of patients and will assess and analyze the spread of the disease in order to establish policies,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Earlier this week, the ministry was tasked by Gamzu with performing epidemiological surveys for the country, tracking the spread of the disease by retracing the movement of confirmed carriers.
“We have to make every effort to cut off the chain of infection, to bring down the rate of disease — and in that way to prevent a full national lockdown. The IDF knows how to defeat security [related] foes and it will know how to defeat the coronavirus,” Gantz said.
The army’s coronavirus command will be formed under the IDF Home Front Command, which has led the military’s response to the pandemic.
According to the Health Ministry, 2,210 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 between Monday evening and Tuesday evening, bringing the number of active cases to 33,148.
The ministry said 316 people are in serious condition, 97 of them on ventilators. Another 153 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.
Six more people died of the virus since Tuesday morning, bringing the death toll since the start of the pandemic to 486.
On Tuesday, Israel overtook the United States to become the fifth country in the world in terms of new daily cases per million people, with over 200 a day at that ratio. Experts have blamed a too-speedy reopening and the lack of an effective contact tracing program as main factors in the renewed spread of the virus in Israel.