Coronavirus czar says he may quit if not given tools to fight the virus

As many as 30,000 Israelis make the pilgrimage each year and forbidding them to attend this event has sparked an outcry, but Gamzu said he didn’t care.

Israel's new coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu  (photo credit: FLASH90)
Israel's new coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu
(photo credit: FLASH90)
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu expressed frustration in a press conference streamed on Facebook on Tuesday, saying, “If I see that I am not being given the tools to bring down morbidity, I have nothing to do in the position.”
He spoke emotionally about the high rate of infection in Israel, which he called “one of the highest in the world.”
According to the latest numbers from the Health Ministry, there have been 106,245 infections in Israel and there are currently 21,577 active cases. Among these are 424 serious cases, with 121 of these using ventilators – a number Gamzu said the hospitals could manage, but he warned that the system could have trouble keeping up with all the new cases if the high rate of infection continued. There have been 858 deaths.
He did express approval over the fact that testing remains high, with 30,037 tests carried out on August 24.
The Ukrainian city of Uman— and whether or not tens of thousands of Israeli hassidim will be able to visit it for Rosh Hashanah — continued to dominate the headlines in Israel and Gamzu reiterated his opposition to allowing 80 charter flights for hassidim to celebrate Rosh Hashanah there.
“With all of the complexity of the disease here, with all the complexity that doctors and nurses go through with the increasing numbers here, does it really make sense and seem reasonable to let 80 flights [to Uman] fly out of here? My firm opinion is no and I will not change my mind,” he said.
Those returning from Uman could bring Israel to a lockdown, a situation he said he wanted to avoid at all costs.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that his government would substantially limit the numbers of Israelis allowed into Ukraine to pray at Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s grave in Uman this year, in response to a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the Prime Minister’s Office denied he had made such a request.
On Tuesday night, Walla news reported that MK Miki Zohar (Likud), the Coalition Chairman, was promoting a new regulation that would permit hassidim to make the trip to Uman and was trying to work out a compromise among all the parties.
According to Interfax Ukraine, a Ukrainian news agency, Zelensky met with representatives of the country’s Jewish religious organizations Tuesday and discussed how Jewish worshipers would comply with restrictions on public gatherings during the coronavirus crisis.
“This year, it is a difficult situation with COVID-19, with which the whole world is fighting now. All mass gatherings of people give an increase in infection at times. The mass celebration of Rosh Hashanah will lead to a colossal collapse. It will be the collapse in Ukraine, then it will be a collapse in other countries,” he said.
He asked representatives of Jewish religious organizations in Ukraine to speak to the Jewish community around the world with an appeal to avoid large gatherings of people on Rosh Hashanah.
The mayor of Uman, Oleksandr Tsebriy , was quoted on the Channel 12 on Tuesday as saying that many Uman residents are worried about being infected by Israelis, although the broadcast also interviewed store owners who said that they hoped Israelis would be allowed to visit and spend money there.
He also spoke and responded to questions about the proposed reopening of the education system on September 1, saying that while details were still being worked out – including in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) system, which has already reopened – he was optimistic that the reopening would take place. The rules in place to prevent infections would have to be strictly observed, he said, “or by September 10 we’ll have to close the schools down,” which he said he would try to avoid at all cost.
The commissioner spoke about the increased rate of infection in the Arab community, especially in the municipalities of Rahat, Tira, Sakhnin, Umm el-Fahm, Kfar Qassem and Nazareth, saying this was a cause for concern.
While he was pleased with the high number of tests over the last few days and with the fact that there are now only 424 seriously ill patients – a number he said the hospitals could manage – Gamzu spoke of anxiety over the rate of infection, which must be curbed.
When he took the job last month, his responsibilities were not clearly outlined, he said, which was positive because it meant that “it’s not clear where it ends,” and that he would do everything he could think of to curb the spread of the disease.
“I am not on the side of a lockdown,” Gamzu said, reiterating a position he has articulated before. “I manage this crisis as a medical professional, but I also take the social and economic side into account.”
Ichilov Hospital released a statement saying that 18 staff members tested positive for coronavirus on Tuesday. The hospital said that all of them were infected with the virus outside the medical center.
Also on Tuesday, the Health Ministry released a letter by a senior official to hospital directors around the country, urging them to implement volunteer programs using recovered coronavirus patients to work on coronavirus wards, based on the program created at the Hadassah-University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.
The Health Ministry released the August 2 letter from Dr. Vered Ezra, head of the Medical Division of the Health Ministry, to the press on Tuesday. It was also sent to the senior staff of the Healthy Ministry.
“I call on hospitals to willingly use this resource of volunteers who have recovered from the coronavirus,” she wrote.
In early July, Hadassah became the first hospital in the world known to use recovered coronavirus patients to provide humanitarian support for those currently infected with the virus.
These approximately 30 volunteers were organized at first by the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) nonprofit Yad Avraham, and now also by the organization Ezer Mizion, to visit patients in moderate or serious condition who would otherwise be in isolation, the hospital explained. They provide companionship and bring cell phones which patients can use to contact friends and family. Most coronavirus patients are not allowed to have visitors to prevent the spread of the virus.
A spokesperson from Hadassah said in a statement, “From experience and in light of Dr. Ezra’s letter, I strongly recommend that hospitals adopt the Hadassah volunteer model that arouses interest in hospitals around the world.”
Prof. Zeev Rotstein, head of Hadassah, said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post in July that the hospital saw during the first wave of the coronavirus how challenging it was for patients in isolation to cope, and that the companionship that the volunteers offer was especially critical for elderly patients with no family. The volunteers all had coronavirus more than a month ago and after their recovery, tested negative for the virus but positive for antibodies, meaning they are likely to be immune to being reinfected. In many cases, these are the same volunteers who donated plasma through Hadassah, which is being used to treat critically ill patients.
Volunteers enter the rooms with full personal protective suits and are informed of the dangers and must give informed consent. Hadassah said it would test the program for two months to determine its effectiveness. The hospital said that if the pilot program was successful, it hoped to recruit and train additional volunteers who could serve at other hospitals throughout the country.