Top public health official: No return to work after Passover
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Top public health official: No return to work after Passover

Tensions flare in Knesset hearing over virus tests; Health Ministry’s top doctor says government scouring the world for antibody tests to determine who had gotten over the virus

Israeli police officers, dressed in protective outfits, arrive at a yeshiva in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak on April 2, 2020, to ensure that social distancing measures imposed by Israeli authorities meant to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus are being respected. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)
Israeli police officers, dressed in protective outfits, arrive at a yeshiva in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak on April 2, 2020, to ensure that social distancing measures imposed by Israeli authorities meant to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus are being respected. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

Israel’s top public health official told lawmakers on Sunday not to expect a return to regular economic activity after the Passover holiday, which ends on April 15.

“We have no intention or ability to reopen the economy right after Passover,” Health Ministry deputy director general Dr. Itamar Grotto, the top physician in the national health system and an expert in epidemiology, told the Knesset’s coronavirus committee on Sunday.

“We have to see what happens on Passover, whether it brings a rise or a decline [in the infection rate], and that will take a few days [to determine],” he said.

Grotto’s boss, ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, had said Saturday night that it might be possible to ease the economic shutdown after Passover. “I really hope that if our collective efforts — those of the authorities and the people staying home — if they continue for the next two weeks and continue to bear fruit, we will be able, after Passover, to begin a return to economic activity in a measured and controlled way,” Bar Simon-Tov said.

During Grotto’s briefing to the Knesset committee Sunday, an angry outburst by Hadassah Medical Organization director Dr. Zeev Rotstein revealed the tensions among health officials over the government’s coronavirus testing policy, criticized by some as inadequate.

“As of now, 103,000 tests have been carried out, a rate that’s among the highest in the world,” Grotto told the committee.

Dr. Itamar Grotto, deputy director of Israel’s Health Ministry. (Wikipedia/Health Ministry/CC BY)

That prompted an interruption from committee chair MK Ofer Shelah, who cited a figure of 75,000 tests provided to the lawmakers by the Knesset’s research department and asked Grotto to explain the gap.

Grotto noted there were thousands of tests that were repeat tests for previously tested individuals.

At the point, Rotstein interjected, charging that “the Health Ministry’s figures are not correct, to put it mildly.”

Rotstein has demanded that the Health Ministry focus its testing on medical staff, a shift the ministry has resisted, citing a shortage of tests.

Grotto angrily rebuffed Rotstein’s interruption as “nonsense. My numbers are a hundred times more accurate than yours.”

Illustrative: Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center CEO Zeev Rotstein at a Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee meeting at the Knesset on the crisis at Hadassah on March 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“If this is a dialogue where I just listen to him then I’ll say thanks and leave,” Rotstein replied.

Grotto urged committee members to “decide whether you want me or Rotstein, who doesn’t even have a degree in public health.”

Virus test kits have been held up by problems in the supply chain, Grotto said.

“There’s a global arms race for materials and kits [for testing]. The orders failed [to materialize] because either the country of origin or the supplier decided not to supply to us. There’s no alternative but to rely on ourselves. There’s an Israeli company and an Israeli factory that know how to produce the reagent [chemicals] that hadn’t arrived. We’re now in the last phases of the experiment to ensure it works. We’ll know in the next few hours,” he said.

A youth is tested for coronavirus in Bnei Brak, March 31, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/ AP)

He explained that the ministry’s testing policy has focused on obtaining serology tests, which test for antibodies to establish who had gotten over the virus.

“There’s a myth that I want to bust here,” he told the committee. “Even if we could do 200,000 tests or a million tests a day, it wouldn’t help open up the economy. If I check a million [people for the virus] and find 100,000 are positive and then let the rest go to work, then tomorrow half of them will also be positive and continue to infect. That’s why we have to move ahead with releasing serology tests. We will have to rely on serology tests and symptoms [to contain the spread of the virus],” he said.

Israeli health officials and intelligence services were racing to find serology tests around the world.

“We’re working to locate every new test that hits the market, even if it’s at the level of [Chinese retail website] Ali Express. We’ve tested more than 20 such tests, and none of them answers our needs, not in terms of reliability nor operationally. There are good tests out there, but they don’t give answers on the spot,” he said.

Separately, the FDA in the United States announced Thursday it had approved its first serology test for the new coronavirus.

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