Report: Health Ministry draws ire by warning of 5,000 on ventilators in 2nd wave

Report: Health Ministry draws ire by warning of 5,000 on ventilators in 2nd wave

One minister lambastes the figures as fear-mongering that is ‘detached from reality,’ and other ministries are said to predict far lower numbers

A man checks the temperature of a customer to see if he has a fever at the entrance to a market in the northern Israeli city of Safed, on June 3, 2020. (David Cohen/ Flash90)
A man checks the temperature of a customer to see if he has a fever at the entrance to a market in the northern Israeli city of Safed, on June 3, 2020. (David Cohen/ Flash90)

Health Ministry officials have been warning that a second outbreak of the coronavirus could hit harder than the first time around with thousands requiring ventilators, painting scenarios that one minister criticized as unnecessary scaremongering, Channel 12 news reported Monday.

The so-called coronavirus cabinet met during the day to discuss measures needed to counter an increasing rise in infections that began after Israel rolled back many lockdown measures aimed at curbing the spread of the disease. The cabinet is a forum of relevant ministers tasked with combating the virus outbreak.

Ahead of the meeting, Channel 12 said, Health Ministry officials warned that a second wave could be far more serious than the initial outbreak which has so far seen nearly 300 people die of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

It presented a scenario in which a second outbreak would see at least 5,000 people requiring ventilators, the station reported.

The report did not say where or in what format the Health Ministry warning was made and noted only that a “very small” number of ministers were shown the information.

One minister who did see the presentation criticized the Health Ministry for its alarm.

“This is an unending campaign of fear,” said the minister who was not named in the report. “There’s no need to go to extremes to show that we need to prepare, especially after the scenarios [predicted] in the first wave didn’t happen.”

The initial lockdown restrictions, introduced in mid-March, were applied at the urging of the Health Ministry that at the time warned 10,000 people could die of the virus. The measures brought Israel’s economy to an almost total standstill.

The minister said the Health Ministry prediction was “detached from reality and feels like they are covering their butts. It is possible and necessary to discuss a possible second outbreak wave, but this is a wild exaggeration.”

People wearing face masks walk in Jerusalem on June 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

An unnamed health official told Channel 12: “Our decision as a government is that we must prepare for dire scenarios too. We aren’t relying on miracles or wishful thinking. As a system, we need to prepare for all scenarios, both mild and difficult.”

Other ministries are predicting much smaller numbers of infections in the second wave, the report said.

At the cabinet meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government was going to “hit the emergency brake” on lifting any more lockdown restrictions, due to the rise in infections.

Netanyahu said that experts “showed us that there has been a very steep increase in morbidity. It could be that we are already seeing the doubling of the rate of infection within 10 days. I very much hope not.”

“What we decided to do, first of all, is to hit the ’emergency brake,’” he said. “We stopped all moves to ease restrictions that we were going to apply in the coming days. We will check this again next week.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that 800 new cases were identified in the past week, as opposed to about 300 infections confirmed in the preceding two weeks combined.

“We can’t stay complacent in the face of this number,” he told the forum.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

The government on Monday evening reported 179 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours, in what appeared to be the highest such figure in over a month. There were no new fatalities, with the death toll remaining at 298.

According to figures released by the National Security Council, there were 2,620 active virus cases, with 18,049 infections recorded since the start of the pandemic.

On Saturday, Channel 12 news reported that the outgoing director-general of the Health Ministry had urged senior staff to operate under the assumption that the country is in the midst of a fresh coronavirus outbreak, while acknowledging that the magnitude of this “second wave” was unknown. Moshe Bar Siman-Tov denied making the comments and told the network a second wave is not inevitable “if we operate properly.”

“But we are in the midst of a rise in cases. It is definitive, real and tangible, and it will take time for us to understand its full extent,” he added.

Former Health Minister Yaakov Litzman last month accused the government of overreacting in its response to the pandemic, aiming his criticism squarely at Bar Siman-Tov, who has resigned and is due to leave, with the appointment of a new minister.

Litzman, who in the freshly formed unity government switched to the Housing Ministry, is widely seen as having allowed Bar Siman-Tov to take the lead on Health Ministry policies in dealing with the virus outbreak.

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