Phone tracking sends thousands to isolation, but many say system makes mistakes

Health Ministry acknowledges it has been overwhelmed by flood of complaints, insists isolation instructions must be obeyed and promises to bolster staff at appeals hotline

People walk wearing face masks walk near the Jaffa Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City on July 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People walk wearing face masks walk near the Jaffa Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City on July 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A controversial contact tracing program that gives the Shin Bet security agency access to the phones of confirmed coronavirus carriers is coming under fire due not to privacy concerns but to questions over its efficacy.

Tens of thousands of Israelis received text messages over the weekend warning them that they had been in contact with a confirmed carrier of the coronavirus, after the government relaunched the program Thursday in response to rising infection rates. However, a growing number of people say they are being forced into quarantine by mistake, likely due in part to technology that fails to discern whether two people were actually within six feet of each other, close enough to transmit the virus.

Calls to the Health Ministry — an appeals process was mandated by the law passed last week in the Knesset permitting the mass-tracking — routinely go unanswered as officials say the system has been overwhelmed.

“They sent me a message that I have to go into isolation because on June 28 between 2 and 3 p.m. I was near a confirmed coronavirus carrier. But I was home at the time,” Mazal Shai, a kindergarten teacher from Givatayim, told Channel 12.

A woman uses a cellphone as people wear face masks for fear of coronavirus in downtown Jerusalem, June 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Now I’m in isolation for five more days, and I have to work,” said Shai. “I’m a kindergarten teacher, and right now there’s a summer [day] camp that I have to be at. I have no symptoms, and I wasn’t near anyone, and now I’ve lost five days’ pay for no reason.”

Like many of the complaints heard on social media and in the press in recent days, Shai said she tried to appeal but could not get through to Health Ministry officials.

“I tried to appeal but there’s no one to turn to. Since last night I’ve tried to reach the Health Ministry hotline, and the calls just hang up. You can’t send thousands of people to isolation for no reason.”

One soldier currently enrolled in a command course in the IDF was ordered to isolate for purportedly coming into contact with a virus carrier while already in isolation, Channel 12 reported. The soldier was at risk of being dropped from the prestigious course, “and we couldn’t get an answer at the Health Ministry hotline. Only when we managed to bring in senior personal contacts in the army did the problem get resolved,” the soldier’s sister said Sunday.

No figures were available Sunday for the scale of the problem, but the Health Ministry seemed to confirm it was struggling to handle the flood of complaints, saying in a statement that it had received thousands of calls to its *5400 coronavirus hotline since the text messages started going out, overwhelming the system.

People wearing face masks as they shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on July 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We understand the difficulties this action is imposing on the public, but it’s important to remember this tool is very helpful in the conduct of epidemiological investigations, and it saves lives,” the ministry said.

Wait times are very long at its hotline, it acknowledged, but promised that staff would being added to the hotline to help shorten the wait.

“The Health Ministry emphasizes that receiving a message requires immediate isolation,” the statement said.

Itamar Grotto, deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, said the ministry erred by not setting up a more efficient appeals system.

“We made a mistake by not setting up adequate infrastructure that can give an answer to the phone [calls] about appeals. The system collapsed,” Grotto told Army Radio.

A similar issue with inaccuracy was reported for the Magen application, which traces users and tells them if they were in the vicinity of a confirmed virus carrier. However, the app relied on GPS, rather than more accurate Bluetooth technology.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Sunday he was pushing the government to develop a civilian tracking application to replace Shin Bet surveillance. Israelis will be required to download the app to their phones to have access to public spaces, he said.

Quarantines in Israel are mandatory and the same phone tracking technology can be used to track possible carriers and enforce self-isolation rules. Failing to comply can result in hefty fines or being sent to a supervised facility.

Israel has seen cases of COVID-19 reach new levels in recent days, leading the government to reconsider its May rollback of virus restrictions, which saw almost all limits on gatherings rescinded.

The Knesset’s coronavirus committee voted on Sunday to approve government regulations limiting gatherings in bars, event halls and synagogues to 50 people. Other gatherings will be limited to 20 people.

On Monday, the cabinet is slated to discuss re-imposing additional restrictions on restaurants, beaches and cultural events, which will also be sent to the Knesset’s coronavirus committee for final approval, Hebrew media reported.

Israel has seen the number of new confirmed coronavirus cases surge to around 1,000 a day, but has been reluctant to reimpose blanket lockdowns or shut down retail spaces and childcare services, fearing further damage to the already battered economy.

Instead it has relied on strict enforcement of mask-wearing and hygiene guidelines as well as the contact tracing program.

According to a Channel 12 report Saturday, Israel’s team of 27 contact tracers has become overwhelmed by the caseload, which has mounted to over 800 infections a day recently.

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