COVID-19 in Israel: Hospitals under strain as schools remain open

Hospitals across Israel report strain on medical workers as Omicron cases rise * Children begin first school day under new isolation policy * 3 million antigen kits to be distributed to kindergardens

 Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on January 20, 2022.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on January 20, 2022.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The rise in the number of Omicron cases in Israel has taken a massive toll on medical workers, Wolfson Medical Center director Dr. Anat Engel said on Thursday. “Every day there are staff members who announce that they are sick,” making it more difficult to offer quality care to patients and straining the hospitals.

“The loads are heavy,” she told 103FM. “It’s a combination of the morbidity that is rising because we see the amount [of] verified [cases] in the population, as well as the morbidity of staff, many of whom are in isolation.”

Engel noted that the vaccinated staff only report mild illnesses such as runny noses and slight pains.

“It is very important that the public knows and recognizes this,” she said. “You hear the talk: the talk about elective surgeries, of stopping them or not, because these things are important, but the quality of life is harmed. Even with surgeries that can be postponed, it is not recommended. But at the peak when we have to respond to an emergency, we will act on it as best we can.”

Other hospitals besides Wolfson are similarly losing medical staff, according to Israeli media. Hospitals like the Galilee Medical Center and the Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem are also reportedly understaffed.

 The Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon. (credit: SACH) The Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon. (credit: SACH)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman made a joint announcement that 45 additional beds will be supplied to hospital intensive care units across the country. They said that should alleviate the burden on hospitals in dealing with the Omicron variant.

“The healthcare system works around the clock, day and night, to maintain public health,” said Bennett. “We are aware of the burden on the system, and are working to help and strengthen it.”

Horowitz said that Israel is “providing all the tools to maintain public health during this pandemic. Along with vaccines, medications and tests, strengthening the health system is a key component of our strategy. We will continue to do everything we can to make it easier for the patients and staff in the hospitals.”

Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute, who has also been advising the government, estimated that Israel is “at the peak of morbidity, and the decline has begun or will begin very soon. We’ve estimated that we will not cross the threshold of 1,200 critically ill patients, and from there it will begin to decline.”

The Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva said on Thursday that it is currently caring for 100 corona patients with 54 in critical condition, two of whom are on respiratory support. The center’s Hasharon Campus reported they have nine corona patients with five in critical condition.

Also on Thursday, Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel tested positive for COVID.

Hendel tweeted that he “will work from home in accordance with the Health Ministry’s guidelines,” while he, like Engel, is also encouraging Israelis who still are unvaccinated to get their shots.

“This is why the symptoms of most patients in Israel are mild,” he wrote.

לאחר שהתגלו סימפטומים בצעתי אמש בדיקה ונמצאתי חיובי לקורונה.אמשיך לעבוד מהבית בהתאם להנחיות משרד הבריאות.כצפוי קפה וריצות בוקר לא מועילים נגד קורונה, אבל חיסון כן. צאו להתחסן, זו הסיבה שהסימפטומים, של מרבית החולים בישראל, קלים.

Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo also tested positive, and Bennett and his staff later took antigen tests that came back negative.

Meanwhile in the IDF, 10,223 soldiers were infected with the novel coronavirus as of Thursday, according to the IDF Spokesperson's Unit.

Earlier on Thursday morning, the Israeli Labor Court blocked the decision to put educational institutions on strike and cancel school on Thursday, although previous reports said that school would be canceled due to the snowstorm.

New coronavirus regulations were issued for the education system in Israel on Thursday, including an exemption for newly recovered children and children in the special education system concerning antigen tests.

Under a new quarantine policy issued for the education system, students who come into contact with a confirmed patient will still be able to attend classes, provided that they take antigen tests at home.

Students from nursery school up to high school are now also required to take an antigen test every Sunday and Wednesday. They will only be permitted to attend classes after a negative test, and will not be denied even if they came into contact with the virus.

Newly recovered children will be exempt from required antigen tests for 60 days from the date that they recovered. Children in special education institutions will be exempt from the twice weekly antigen tests required in most schools.

Children in schools taking part in the Magen Hinuch program will not be required to do two antigen tests each week as long as they do one PCR test per week at their school.

The testing plan for children will not apply to teaching staff and all unvaccinated staff will still need to do antigen tests twice a week and will have to quarantine for five days if exposed to a confirmed patient, with a negative antigen test on the fifth day required to leave quarantine.

Unvaccinated children who are exposed to a confirmed patient will need to enter quarantine for five days counted from the last day they had contact with the patient and will be released from quarantine after receiving a negative antigen test.

The Health Ministry announced that three million antigen test kits will be distributed to kindergartens across the country on Tuesday, which will be done in cooperation with the Home Front Command.

Engel noted that trying to improve the mental health of children has been tossed aside for the sake of locating sick children. He said that for kids who are isolated at home, it is “just like other diseases where sick children have to stay at home. When you balance what the risks and benefits are, I think it is right to return children to their regular routine. Should the isolation of an asymptomatic child who has been exposed be removed? Should we wait another week or not? The high amount of cases is not going to go away in another week. It might go in two to four weeks.”

Engel said that a sick child should stay at home, as with any other illness. “Instability is not the correct path for children,” she said.

Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.