Corona chief: Public health services failed; gov’t made foolish decisions

Prof. Eli Waxman tells the ‘Post’ that the country has lost control of the pandemic, and must stop all gatherings or risk overwhelming the health system.

The coronavirus cabinet during a meeting on Wednesday (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
The coronavirus cabinet during a meeting on Wednesday
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Public health services operate poorly and many of the coronavirus decisions made by the government were not based on “rational considerations” – and now, “the government has lost control of the pandemic,” Prof. Eli Waxman, former chairman of the National Security Council’s expert advisers committee concerning the coronavirus outbreak, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Waxman said the country’s public health services “function poorly” and the “decisions they have taken are the major reason for us being without the capability to cut off the chains of infection today.
“Their resistance is a major cause for this situation,” he continued. “But it was supported by the former director-general of the health minister. They had a manager that should have taken action but failed.”
Waxman, who has the ear of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, newly appointed Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat, is once again counseling the team on how to handle the coronavirus crisis, as the numbers continue to surge with seemingly no strategic plan in place.
A month ago, Israel was lauded for its ability to contain the spread of the coronavirus and its low death rate per capita. However, despite a staged exit strategy – which Waxman helped define – the government made impulsive decisions to open too fast.
As of Monday afternoon, the number of serious patients had already reached 90 – up more than 30 people from the week before, and sure to increase by press time. Waxman said around 2% of the roughly 1,000 people being diagnosed with the novel virus daily will exhibit severe symptoms, putting the health system at risk of becoming overwhelmed.
“I believe that many of the decisions [by the government] are not taken properly considering risk versus benefit, and this is a major issue,” Waxman told the Post ahead of Monday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting. “There are steps taken due to pressures and not based on rational considerations… I am afraid some of the ministers still do not understand” that they cannot leave certain activities open and still suppress the pandemic.
“This will not work,” he said. “If they don’t take these steps now, we will need to take much more severe steps later, which will cause much more damage.”
Waxman predicted that within the next three weeks the country will see at least 250 to 300 serious patients – even if new measures are rolled out immediately. He said different people from the health administration have different estimates as to what number of intensive care unit patients will break the system, but the number is somewhere between 500 and 1,000.
“The main issue is manpower,” he explained. “There is a lot of manpower required to support proper care when someone is in the ICU.”
THERE ARE three signs that the government lost control: the number of new daily patients tops 100; the infection rate is doubling every seven days (and it should not double in less than 10); and the infection source is known for only 10% of carriers who were diagnosed in recent days.
“We need to be at around 80%,” he stressed. “Control means you can suppress outbreaks by isolating the relevant people extremely fast and cutting off the chain. If you do not know the source of 90% of people, there is no chance of gaining control.”
At this point, he said, there is no alternative to social distancing. While the rate of infection is doubling every seven days (as opposed to every three days in March), Waxman advocated for shutting down all large gatherings of any sort, a move that the government made later in the day.
“This would not damage the economy severely and may enable us to suppress growth without taking more stringent measures,” he said.
Moreover, he pushed the government to put in place an “emergency management authority” run by the IDF and overseen by the Health Ministry, which would be given the necessary tools and authority to take responsibility for the pandemic and remove the oversight and implementation of testing and contact tracing from the public health services. Edelstein announced Monday night that he plans to appoint someone to head this authority in the coming days.
He said one of the Health Ministry’s major failures was not building an effective contact tracing system when the number of patients per day was low.
Bottom line: Can Israel still resurface from this crisis?
“The only thing I can say is I hope that now things are becoming clearer and the risks involved are clearer to cabinet members,” he told the Post. “I believe the prime minister and the health minister are aware of and understand the situation, and will do the right thing.”