Israel facing its 'greatest ever national civilian crisis'

‘We’ve lost control’ of pandemic, top Israeli adviser says as active cases spike

‘We can no longer disrupt the chain of infection,’ warns Prof. Eli Waxman, adding that if serious steps aren’t taken this week, ‘within two weeks we’ll have to impose a lockdown’

Magen David Adom medical workers perform COVID-19 tests at a mobile testing station for COVID-19, in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Magen David Adom medical workers perform COVID-19 tests at a mobile testing station for COVID-19, in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the advisory panel helping to craft the government’s response to the latest coronavirus outbreak warned on Sunday that Israel had “lost control of the pandemic.”

“In terms of the number of infected, and the fact that they’re scattered throughout the country, we don’t know the sites of infection for most of the infected, so we’re unable to control the outbreaks,” Prof. Eli Waxman, a physicist who heads the panel of experts advising the National Security Council’s deliberations on combating the pandemic, elaborated in a Channel 12 intervew.

“In today’s situation, with 1,000 infected [daily], we can no longer disrupt the chain of infection — even if there were a working system to do that, and there isn’t.”

He warned: “We are facing Israel’s greatest ever national civilian crisis.”

The Health Ministry announced Sunday evening that there have now been 29,958 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel since the start of the pandemic, with 788 coming in the last 24 hours. The number of active cases rose since late Saturday by over 600 to 11,677.

Police officers patrol outside the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem to enforce emergency COVID-19 regulations, on July 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There were 86 people in serious condition and 68 moderately ill as a result of the coronavirus, the ministry said, a day after a team of experts warned that Israel’s hospital system was in danger of collapse at current infection rates.

The death toll rose by one to 331.

The Health Ministry reported that it had conducted 16,749 tests on Saturday and 16,271 more by late Sunday.

“The number of confirmed carriers today means that even if we stop the spread [today], the next three weeks will see 300 seriously ill,” said Waxman. “If we stop the spread in a week, that’s 600 more, and a week after that is already 1,200 — that endangers our hospitalization system’s capabilities, puts the whole system in danger of collapse.

“Since we’ve lost control of the pandemic, we can’t stop it except through social distancing. We need immediate social distancing orders geared toward minimizing the major risks, but with actions whose economic cost isn’t high. In other words, to prevent all gatherings of over 20 people, and all social and leisure activities. In the summer school period we can shut down all older grades, say from 4th grade, and keep the younger grades going, because they affect the parents’ ability to work and [shuttering them] carries a high economic cost.”

Prof. Eli Waxman, head of the advisory council helping the National Security Council and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formulate Israel’s coronavirus response, in an interview on Channel 12 on July 5, 2020. (Channel 12 screenshot)

Waxman, a longtime scientific advisor to the government, lamented the lack of preparedness despite the four months that have passed since the pandemic reached Israel.

Managing the crisis now would require “the ability to activate many operational agencies on tight timetables, data collection in real time, fast decision-making, and the ability to implement changes quickly. All those capabilities don’t exist today. Four months into the crisis, and they haven’t been built yet.”

One key element missing from Israel’s coronavirus response capability, he said, is “an efficient and functioning investigative body…. That’s part of the problem with our inability to deal with this. If such a body is established, and it creates a real ability to collect data and disrupt infection chains quickly…then as soon as we drop the number of sick to 100 a day, that sort of body can suppress outbreaks and allow us to return to an almost complete routine. If we don’t build such an organization, we’re condemning ourselves to a third, fourth and fifth wave.”

He urged turning to the military as a fast solution for the government’s organizational shortcomings. “The only way to do this efficiently at the moment is to bring back the control center the army built inside the Health Ministry [earlier in the crisis], to appoint a senior major general to manage this event, to bring all the resources of the army to bear and to give instructions to all the operational bodies in the Health Ministry and outside it, like the police, the IDF’s Home Front Command, local councils and so on.”

If the government failed to do so, he warned, “within two weeks we’ll have to impose a lockdown.”

“We have to understand that the alternatives that lie ahead of us are to act fast now, to suppress the rate [of infection] in order to avoid a general closure later on. This will have an economic cost, and the government will have to compensate those who are hurt by it.”

Police officers guard at the entrance to a neighborhood in the central city of Lod that was placed on lockdown due to a rise in coronavirus cases, July 3, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The army has already started to reassign resources back to the coronavirus fight, it said on Sunday.

The IDF will provide 300 soldiers to the Health Ministry to help conduct epidemiological surveys to track the spread of the virus, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said.

All training exercises for reserve battalions, brigades and divisions are likely to be halted, and soldiers’ furloughs will be reduced to once every three weeks, Zilberman said.

In addition, recruits enlisting in the military next month will be asked to go to recruitment centers without their parents in order to prevent large gatherings. Guests will also be barred from military ceremonies.

The Knesset’s coronavirus committee voted on Sunday to approve new government regulations limiting gatherings in bars, event halls and synagogues to 50 people.

Knesset coronavirus committee meets on April 5, 2020 (Channel 12 screen capture)

The new restrictions will go into effect at 8 a.m. Monday, after seven out of 10 lawmakers on the special panel backed the restrictions. The regulations will not apply to restaurants, offices, malls or other retail centers.

It was not immediately clear if the regulations apply to outdoor spaces as well as indoors. Announcing the restrictions last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had specified that they would apply to indoor spaces.

Israel has seen cases of COVID-19 reach new levels in recent days, leading the government to reconsider its May rollback of virus restrictions, which saw almost all limits on gatherings rescinded. Event halls and clubs were only given the okay to reopen in mid-June, and officials have pointed to them as a major driver of new infections.

On Monday, the cabinet is slated to discuss re-imposing additional restrictions on restaurants, beaches and cultural events, which will also be sent to the Knesset’s coronavirus committee for final approval, Hebrew media reported.

The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases has surged to around 1,000 a day on some recent days, but the government has been reluctant to reimpose blanket lockdowns or shut down retail spaces and childcare services, fearing further damage to the already battered economy.

A medical worker holds a sample at a mobile testing station for COVID-19 in the city of Rehovot on June 25, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Instead, the government has pushed for increased enforcement of mask-wearing and other social distancing regulations, and has sought to bolster contact tracing efforts via the use of phone tracking technology.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Sunday he was pushing the government to develop a civilian tracking application to replace Shin Bet surveillance. Israelis will be required to download the app to their phones to have access to public spaces, he said.

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