Sheba Medical Center has launched the first known coronavirus telemedicine program in the world this week, according to the hospital.The program, which is being tested on Israeli patients suspected of having the respiratory virus, is twofold, according to Dr. Galia Barkai, head of telemedicine services at Sheba. First, the hospital is using a Vici telemedicine solution designed by California-based virtual healthcare company Intouch Health, which looks like a robot and can enter the infected person’s room and be controlled by doctors or nurses from the outside. The robot can monitor the patient’s vital signs, including heart rate.“This is one way to use telemedicine to protect our staff,” Barkai explained. “By minimizing direct contact between the patients and medical personnel, we reduce the percentage risk of healthcare staff contracting the virus.”In addition, the hospital plans to provide its Datos Health-designed telemedicine application to less severely ill patients, who can then be monitored by medical professionals from the comfort and isolation of their own homes.Barkai said she envisions that if and when the virus comes to Israel, there might be multiple patients who are diagnosed with it at the same time. Sheba has only a limited number of isolation rooms, and if there are too many coronavirus patients, staff and patients could be at risk, even if extreme precautions are taken.“Less severe patients could be monitored outside the hospital,” she explained. “We would give them our telemedicine application and communicate with them via video at least twice a day. This would allow them to stay more comfortably in their homes and reduce risk within the hospital.”Barkai noted that, so far, Israel does not have patients who have tested positive for the new coronavirus, but that the hospital started testing the system Tuesday on those people who returned from China, reported to the hospital and were put on home quarantine for 14 days – the incubation period of the virus.“Although we don’t have any positive patients in Israel, we are always dealing with suspected patients and preparing for the worst-case scenario,” she said. “So, we are creating all these systems to help us deal with the occasion when we might have to deal with many patients.”The death toll from the monthlong virus outbreak has risen to close to 500 worldwide, all except a few occurring in China, and there continues to be a surge of new cases. Figures released Tuesday by the World Health Organization showed that, so far, 20,630 people in 23 countries are known to have been infected with the coronavirus. A Wednesday report by China’s Health Commission reported nearly 4,000 additional confirmed cases.On Tuesday, Sheba ran the first drill in its new field hospital, which could be used as a dedicated external unit for treating coronavirus patients. The modular unit can be erected quickly in a nearby open area, much like a military field hospital, and would include a special area for examining those people suspected of having the virus, as well as an isolation area for those who test positive.Doctors working in the unit, according to a release by Sheba, would be able to provide all the medical services available in the inpatient hospital building. However, patients hospitalized at Sheba for other reasons would benefit from keeping coronavirus patients outside the main building, as sick people are often immunosuppressed and could be more susceptible to catching the potentially lethal virus.OVER THE past week, the country has convened several high-level meetings to discuss the coronavirus threat. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with senior government, health and emergency service executives to help ensure that the country is prepared to protect itself from and combat the spread of the virus.“We are not taking any unnecessary risks,” the prime minister said Saturday night. “We are aware that the virus cannot be completely prevented, so we are preparing to deal with the virus after its first entry into Israel.”Sheba’s new methodology was announced on the same day that Magen David Adom said that it, too, would be implementing new safety measures to prevent any risk of blood transfusion patients getting infected by the coronavirus.“Although there is no indication that the virus can be transmitted by blood, we decided to take precautions to keep the blood-product patients safe,” said Prof. Eilat Shinar, deputy director of Magen David Adom blood services.MDA said a person who visited China, or was exposed to someone with the virus, or got sick and then recovered from coronavirus, would have to wait 28 days before being allowed to donate blood.WHO reported on the status of the virus in the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday night, disseminating a three-page situation report that showed no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the Palestinian territories.“Five confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV were reported in the Eastern Mediterranean region – all in the United Arab Emirates,” the WHO said, noting that it had developed and shared with the PA Health Ministry a protocol for the investigation of early cases, guidance for laboratory diagnosis and recommendations to reduce the risk of transmission from animals to humans.The ministry conducted meetings of the national emergency committee in the West Bank and Gaza and agreed on priority actions to prevent and manage an outbreak, WHO reported.It said that medical points at the King Hussein and Rafah border crossings have been established to screen incoming travelers. WHO is also providing technical assistance in development, printing and dissemination of public communication materials at these ports of entry and others.