Top health official hopes IDF can take over contact tracing by next week
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Top health official hopes IDF can take over contact tracing by next week

‘We’re doing everything… so this will happen,’ Prof. Chezy Levy says, as Health Ministry announces nine more deaths from virus

Illustrative: In a video released by the Israel Defense Forces on July 29, 2020, soldiers man the phones at the IDF Home Front Command's headquarters during a visit by coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: In a video released by the Israel Defense Forces on July 29, 2020, soldiers man the phones at the IDF Home Front Command's headquarters during a visit by coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)

The director-general of the Health Ministry said Friday that he hoped the military would take over Israel’s laggard contact tracing program next week.

“I hope we’ll complete all the steps for transferring the epidemiological investigation system to the IDF by next week,” Prof. Chezy Levy told Army Radio. “We’re doing everything… so this will happen.”

Levy pushed back when asked if the transfer of responsibility for contact tracing from the Health Ministry to the Israel Defense Forces was being delayed.

“There are all sorts of things that still need to be explained, including legal matters. It’s not being delayed. This isn’t a small operation,” he said.

Health Ministry director general Prof. Chezy Levy speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020 (Flash90)

The Health Ministry’s contact tracing efforts have come under scrutiny amid a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic, with reports that its system for epidemiological investigation of those diagnosed has been far outpaced by the spread of COVID-19. In Israel, there is one epidemiologist for every 300,000 people.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the newly appointed point man for the country’s response to the outbreak, said earlier this week the IDF would take over the tracing process. He has also vowed to ramp up testing and limit the use of government restrictions to contain the virus.

Gamzu met Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials to discuss ending the closure of stores and malls over the weekend. A decision to remove the restrictions was pushed off until next week following opposition from ultra-Orthodox ministers, who were reportedly angered that limitations on synagogues wouldn’t also be eased.

Science Minister Izhar Shay, who suggested imposing strict restrictions during the weekend, also reportedly opposed ending the mandatory closure of stores and malls.

The weekend rollback is part of a plan being formulated by Gamzu that will include other steps to scale back restrictions and meet the needs of businesses who say they have been hurt by the pandemic. Gamzu has referred to the current restrictions as confusing and harmful to public trust.

Later Friday, the Health Ministry said Levy and other ministry officials would begin meeting with Gamzu next week to put together a “uniform rule” for restrictions on gatherings, including at businesses, cultural venues and synagogues.

A ministry statement said the “roundtable” talks would include relevant officials from other government offices and that they would be held at least three times a week “to organize the issue of restrictions in an effective and coherent manner.”

The ministry also said Health Minister Yuli Edelstein would present “a proposal on necessary steps on the matter” when the so-called coronavirus cabinet convenes on Monday, without further elaborating.

In the interview with Army Radio, Levy was asked whether he believed the ultra-Orthodox parties opposed lifting the restrictions to prevent businesses from operating on Shabbat, which is forbidden under Jewish law.

“I don’t rule this out. I assume they have motivations and an agenda,” he said.

While expressing concern about the high number of new COVID-19 cases each day, Levy said “there is some place for optimism” as the infection rate appears to have stabilized.

Israelis shop at the Malha Mall in Jerusalem in on July 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Levy’s comments came as the Health Ministry said 1,785 new virus cases were recorded on Thursday. Though down from the over 2,000 new infections a day seen earlier in the week, testing also dropped, with 20,850 tests performed Thursday.

According to the ministry’s latest figures, there have been 70,582 cases since the start of the pandemic, 26,260 of which were active. There were 319 people in serious condition, with 100 on ventilators.

Nine more fatalities were recorded overnight, bringing the national death toll to 509.

After initially appearing to tamp down on the spread of the virus, with new daily cases dropping to the low dozens in May, Israel has seen a renewed outbreak of the pandemic, with new infections surging to around 2,000 a day.

However, a Hebrew University report published Thursday said Israel had begun to gain control of the virus, crediting existing restrictions with helping flatten the curve. While the report recommended the government not add additional restrictions on movement and crowding, the researchers warned that the number of total new daily cases still remains high and that there remains a risk of another wide-scale outbreak as a result.

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