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West Bank hospitals under stress as 3rd coronavirus wave hits Palestinians hard

Congestion in ICUs reaches new heights, according to PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila; 25%-30% of tests in Bethlehem coming back positive, says PA health official

Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 03, 2021 (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 03, 2021 (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Coronavirus cases continued to surge among West Bank Palestinians on Thursday as the Palestinian Authority weighed instituting yet another lockdown.

“We’ve recommended a two-week lockdown, and the decision will be made by the Emergency Committee, which is considering the matter,” Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila said in a statement.

The West Bank’s health system is under strain as the number of cases in intensive care reaches new heights. Around 62 percent of PA ventilators are in use, al-Kaila said, setting a new record since the beginning of the pandemic. Across the West Bank, around 85.6% of hospital beds were in use, the minister added.

“We are approaching the maximum occupancy rate, and we are currently working to expand the capacity of government and private hospitals,” al-Kaila said.

Palestinians sit as PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh opens a hospital for COVID-19 patients in the West Bank city of Nablus, on January 16, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/ Flash90)

After weeks in which the virus’s curve was relatively stable, even declining, a third wave of the pandemic has surged with a vengeance in recent days.

According to the PA Health Ministry Thursday, 1,433 West Bank Palestinians had been diagnosed with coronavirus in the past 24 hours. Eight died, including three in Bethlehem, bringing the total number of deaths among Palestinians to 2,216 since the beginning of the pandemic.

“What makes this stage different is the quick spread of the virus. We’re seeing situations in which whole families are being infected,” said Dr. Shadi al-Laham, who directs the Bethlehem governorate for the PA Health Ministry.

While Israel has surged ahead in vaccinating its population, potentially allowing it to avoid a fourth wave, Palestinians have lagged behind and have yet to obtain a significant amount of vaccines, although some medical staff have been vaccinated.

Al-Laham told The Times of Israel that medical staff were overworked after a year of round-the-clock struggle against the virus. He added that the feeling was sharpened by the fact that, for the Palestinians, a mass vaccine rollout is still nowhere in sight.

“There’s enormous exhaustion. We’d hoped that the vaccine would arrive sooner. There’s frustration among doctors because people refuse to follow the restrictions and at the delay in the vaccine’s arrival,” al-Laham said.

Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel; February 03, 2021. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90

Around 22.6% of coronavirus tests — nearly one in four — came back positive across the West Bank on Thursday. In some governorates, this has risen as high as 30%.

“We’re seeing between 25% [and] 30% positive coronavirus tests in Bethlehem,” al-Laham said.

Health officials have blamed the rapid rise in infections on more contagious mutations of the virus. A recent random survey by the PA Health Ministry found that of 460 randomly tested patients, 352 had been infected with the so-called British variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom.

“In the earlier waves, maybe one family member would be infected, but the rest would not get sick. What we’re seeing now is that one person gets exposed and he infects his family and his neighbors,” al-Laham said.

Relatively few tests are being conducted, however. Israel, at around twice the Palestinian population, regularly tests over 70,000 samples a day. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have rarely tested over 10,000 a day in the West Bank and Gaza combined.

Al-Laham blamed the low testing rate in Bethlehem on the unwillingness of local residents to get tested for fear of losing their permits to work in Israel. In Bethlehem, he said, around 14,000 Palestinians have permits to work in Israel.

“We have the resources, we have the medical teams. But there’s a large part of the citizenry who is scared of being tested because Israel suspends the work permits of those exposed or who test positive for coronavirus,” al-Laham said.

Palestinians have received a few vaccine shipments, but have yet to begin a major immunization campaign among their citizenry.

PA officials had initially said they anticipated a vaccine shipment by mid-February that would enable them to start immunizing the public in the West Bank and Gaza. But PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said last week that the plans had hit a snag.

“There has been a delay in the arrival of the vaccine,” Shtayyeh told the Palestinian Authority cabinet last week, without elaborating.

Palestinians wear face masks amid an outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 21, 2020. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

The PA expects its first major shipment of vaccines — two million doses from the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company — by the end of the month. But the path has been riddled with delays, and numerous similar deadlines have fallen through before.

“These delays are not just in Palestine. There was a debate in Europe recently, where European countries condemned AstraZeneca for its delay. This is an international problem,” senior PA Health Ministry official Ali Abd Rabbo said last week.

Palestinians also hope to receive a shipment of vaccines from COVAX, an initiative backed by the World Health Organization which seeks to provide doses for free to poor and middle-income countries. COVAX has authorized around 37,000 Pfizer vaccines to immunize Palestinian medical staff, but the shots have been tied up in red tape.

Al-Kaila said the Health Ministry has prepared in advance to begin immunizing Palestinians as soon as the vaccine arrived. Around 45 vaccination centers have already been designated and equipped across the West Bank, she said.

“We’re ready to vaccinate 60,000 people a day in the West Bank and 40,000 a day in the Gaza Strip. We’ve ensured a cold-chain storage system and prepared our staff,” al-Kaila said.

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