1 epidemiologist per 300,000 people: Why Israel’s contact tracing lags behind

Health Ministry seeks to boost figure tenfold, but that would still pale in comparison to US, UK and Germany

Magen David Adom medical workers test Israelis for the coronavirus at a drive-through site in Lod, on July 10, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Magen David Adom medical workers test Israelis for the coronavirus at a drive-through site in Lod, on July 10, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, along with many US states, the per capita number of epidemiologists conducting contact tracing investigations of those who have contracted the coronavirus is 100 times higher than in Israel, figures released Thursday by the Military Intelligence Directorate showed.

A key tool in containing the spread is epidemiological, or contact, tracing —  investigations that seek to identify and send into quarantine all those who may have been exposed to patients in the days before they were diagnosed, hopefully cutting off the spread.

In Israel, there is one epidemiologist for every 300,000 people. The Health Ministry is looking to beef up its team to one epidemiologist for every 30,000, but even if that improvement is made, the numbers would still lag far behind many countries around the world, according to the figures published by Channel 12.

In Germany there is one epidemiologist for every 4,000 people. In the UK, the rate is even higher, with one epidemiologist responsible for 2,200 people.

In New York, each epidemiologist is responsible for 6,200 people and in Michigan, the rate is one epidemiologist for every 1,400 residents.

In Austria and the UK, citizens are able to report on a designated phone app where they had been before contracting the virus in what has further helped speed up contact-tracing investigation times in those countries.

“The existing epidemiological investigation system in Israel is limited compared to ones around the world,” the Military Intelligence Directorate wrote in its report. “The small number of investigators makes it difficult to respond within the relevant time frame to investigations, if at all.”

The report recommended that the Health Ministry take advantage of “various technological means in the investigation to streamline and strengthen its capabilities” and to establish a computerized investigation system that will allow most carriers to “investigate themselves” in order to save time, as is currently the case in some countries.

Faced with the difficulty of keeping up with contact tracing, the government has reintroduced a controversial Shin Bet security service program that identifies those who may have been exposed to the virus by using digital means to retrace the movements of patients before they were diagnosed, primarily cellphone data. Although the Shin Bet itself has said it is reluctant to use the technology, which is usually reserved for combating terrorism, the government has insisted it is the only way to stay on top of the virus spread. The program was used during the initial virus outbreak but then halted for a short period.

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