Israel was aware of the potential for a coronavirus crisis as early as January 20 but did not increase the number of respirators or emergency room beds to prepare for the outbreak, Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman Tov admitted on Thursday, shortly before three more Israelis died. In total, eight Israelis have died from the virus. At the first meeting of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, members and the director-general reviewed a report prepared by the Knesset Research and Information Center that showed for the first time that there are only 1,437 available respirators in Israel and only 758 ICU beds.
In addition, the report showed an acute shortage of protective masks and other gear for healthcare workers. As of March 25, there were 3,600 healthcare workers in isolation, including 926 doctors and 1,192 nurses.
Bar Siman Tov was quick to defend the ministry: "This event is a tsunami that could not have been prepared for,” he said, explaining that the numbers in the report did not show the whole picture.
"We have in stock about 1,500 usable and available respirators," he said. "There are another 70 respirators in the private system that we will use as well. We currently have 2,864 machines above those currently in use, assuming they are all in working order."
He added that the country is also trying to establish production of ventilators in Israel with the goal of reaching as many as 3,000.
But whether that number will be enough to handle all the country’s expected critical patients was unclear from the discussion. In order to ensure that the health system does not buckle under the pressure, Bar Siman Tov said that the aim is to "flatten the curve" – to prevent a sharp peak of cases but rather spread out the infection over a longer period of time.
"We want to take hard steps now to allow us some degree of freedom after Passover to try to free the economy a little in a managed and controlled way... We especially want to reduce the number of patients who are suffering and conquer the illness significantly," he said. "We are very scared of what will happen on Passover and Ramadan when people come out and meet each other – this is the most dangerous thing there is. The next two weeks are critical for our success against the disease."
As of Thursday at press time, Israel had 2,693 people who had been diagnosed with the virus - 46 in serious condition. The Knesset report showed that between March 20 and March 25 - 5 days - the number of patients in serious condition more than doubled.
"We are in a situation where the number of sick is doubling every three days," said Bar Siman Tov. He estimated that within a week, the country will have about 200 severely ill patients.
"This is serious – a matter of days; I don't like the word lockdown, but we are close to a full closure," he said.
Israel’s economy is already flailing under the pressure of the partial closure. The total of unemployment benefit claimants currently stands at over 880,000, including over 720,000 new applications since the start of March. Some 90% of new applicants are employees placed on unpaid leave. The Israeli Employment Service said the unemployment rate had risen from 4% before the crisis to 21.2% as of Thursday afternoon.
"We are closely watching how the additional restrictions to combat the coronavirus will impact the labor market, and we are already preparing ourselves for the next stage - the gradual return of the economy to full operations," said Employment Service director-general Rami Gagor.
"Our estimate is that 20% of all the employees who have exited the workforce will not return to their place of work."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to consider two emergency financial assistance plans prepared by the Finance Ministry on Thursday night, after political developments postponed the adoption of much-needed measures to support businesses severely impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.
While Finance Ministry director-general Shai Babad refused to share details of the plans with the Knesset's Finance Committee on Thursday morning, Channel 13 reported that Netanyahu is set to choose one of two plans developed by the Finance Ministry.
According to a "narrow" plan written by the ministry's Budgets Department, businesses and self-employed workers will be provided additional government-backed loans worth billions of shekels, similar to a model rolled out during the 2008 financial crisis. Businesses forced to close will be exempt from paying municipal tax for several months, in a move worth NIS 1.5 billion, and local authorities will receive compensation for losses associated with the decision.
An alternative, wider plan has reportedly been developed by National Economic Council chairman Prof. Avi Simhon and MK Nir Barkat. According to the reported plan, loans will be replaced with grants worth billions of shekels per month.
Babad told the Finance Committee that the ministry has already provided NIS 40b. in economic aid to combat the crisis, including NIS 10b. for individuals seeking unemployment benefits, NIS 8b. in low-interest loans for small and medium-sized businesses, and regulatory relief measures valued at NIS 20b.
Describing the outbreak as "one of the biggest, if not the biggest crisis" since the founding of the state, Babad presented the financial impact of a range of containment scenarios. A partial shutdown of the economy for five weeks would increase the fiscal deficit to 6.5%, while a full shutdown of the economy for as long as 12 weeks would increase the deficit to 15.5%.
The Health Ministry reported that most Israelis have mild cases of the virus: 2,502. Some 67 people are in mild condition and 70 people have recovered. The latest victims are a 91-year-old woman who was hospitalized at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, an 89-year-old woman had been treated at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, and an 83-year-old man who was passed away under the care of Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak.
Part of the reason for the uptick in sick people is that Israel has increased the number of people it is testing for the virus. Until March 25, Israel had tested around 33,000 people, but increased from an average of 1,000 tests per day to more than 5,000. In total, around 6% of those screened for COVID-19 have tested positive, however, that is since testing began last month. As more tests are being done per day, the country is seeing an average of 9% of people tested being diagnosed with the virus. If the percentage of infected people keeps rising to even 10% or 12% then Israel will become among the worst countries in the world.
Of specific concern are elderly patients. Bar Siman Tov said that there are around 26,000 beds in geriatric centers and the people who fill them are at the greatest risk.
"We are trying to bring the Home Front Command into these institutions," he said. "We requested assistance from the Defense Ministry."
But Head of National Security Meir Ben-Shabbat admitted during the meeting that the NSC was also not prepared for the coronavirus crisis: "We had to formulate the management mechanism on the go," he said. "These are not perfect decisions… There is no official format for how the government should behave in a situation like this."
"Public confidence in the system is critical,” MK Ofer Shelah, who chairs the committee said. "Every answer is more worrying than the previous one... The government does not have a national, economic and health strategy for managing our lives beyond Passover, and basic shortages are not being addressed,” Shelah concluded.