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Shin Bet said set to probe COVID-19 patients suspected of lying to investigators

Home Front Command reportedly says 30% of carriers claim they didn’t come in contact with anyone; under new plan, suspicious cases will earn scrutiny of security agency

Members of the Israeli COVID-19 task force, part of the IDF Home Front Command, attend a meeting at the task force crisis headquarters in Ramla on September 30, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
Members of the Israeli COVID-19 task force, part of the IDF Home Front Command, attend a meeting at the task force crisis headquarters in Ramla on September 30, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

In an attempt to improve its contact-tracing mechanism, the government will reportedly involve the Shin Bet security agency in its epidemiologic investigations in cases where authorities suspect coronavirus patients have lied that they didn’t meet anyone to avoid sending friends and family into quarantine.

Israel swiftly responded to the novel coronavirus when it first emerged in the spring, and limited its spread through lockdown measures and restrictions on international travel, but likely reopened too quickly, leading to a severe second wave outbreak.

An investigation broadcast last month into Israel’s failure to contain the pandemic blamed the lack of an effective contact tracing program to cut infection chains. Most experts believe that effective contact tracing, combined with isolation of infected and exposed people, is key to stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

According to a Wednesday morning report in the Israel Hayom daily, the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command estimates that around 30 percent of confirmed carriers do not cooperate with the epidemiologic investigations or claim they haven’t come in contact with any person in the days before receiving the positive result.

Such cases will from now on be sent to the Health Ministry for an additional inspection, and if suspicions are raised that the person may have met their relatives, the case will be handed to the Shin Bet, which will employ classified technological means — not straightforward phone-tracking, which is already used — to probe the movements of these patients’ nuclear family members, the report said.

Then-economy minister Eli Cohen at a meeting in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2019. (Flash90)

The newspaper said the new procedure was formulated during a Tuesday visit by Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen at the Home Front Command’s coronavirus headquarters, and that at first it will only be a pilot program with 500 people.

“Preparations are underway in the Home Front Command, 2,800 investigators together with the Shin Bet tracking tools and new digital technologies will ensure infection rates will continue going down,” Cohen was quoted as saying.

Another initiative raised during the meeting was to replace police visits to the homes of those in quarantine with video calls, while tracking where they are, according to the report, which said a similar system is in place in other countries.

Israel has for months been using Shin Bet location tracking technology, but the program has been accused of being faulty and sometimes misidentifying people as being near carriers, forcing them into quarantine unnecessarily.

It wasn’t until the second wave outbreak in Israel was in full swing, in mid-August, that the military, with its manpower and knowhow, was tasked with devising and operating a system to cut infection chains.

The decision likely came too late, as the outbreak was already out of control. The military-run program will only be fully operational by November, Israel’s virus czar, Ronni Gamzu, has said.

Illustrative: A woman talks on her mobile phone at a bus stop, in Tel Aviv, on August 24, 2012. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90/File)

Channel 12 reported that even when the Home Front Command’s system is in place and working at full capacity, it will be able to trace the contacts of fewer than half of all new infections as thousands of cases are discovered every day.

Even at maximum efficacy, the contact tracing program will be inadequate, the report said, blaming the Health Ministry for neglecting the system for six months and not cutting infection chains when the low numbers made it still possible.

The so-called coronavirus cabinet unanimously voted Tuesday night to extend the current lockdown until next week, pushing off any decision to start easing the sweeping restrictions now in effect across the country.

The lockdown, Israel’s second since the pandemic began, started on September 18 and had been slated to end automatically Wednesday.

The Health Ministry has a phased exit plan spanning four months that would see the country gradually return to normal activity, starting with increased freedom of movement and eventually reopening daycares, schools, synagogues, malls and other venues. The scheme would only kick into gear when the national daily tally dips below 2,000 cases and the person-to-person spread is slowed.

Health Ministry figures released Wednesday morning showed 2,255 new cases were diagnosed the day before, nearing the 2,000-a-day target and significantly lower than the over 8,000 cases a day that were seen several weeks ago.

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