Former health chief to ‘Post’: Meron misplanning led to deaths

Prof. Siegal Sadetzki: Mutations could bring COVID-19 back to Israel

Israeli rescue forces and police near the scene after a stampede killed dozens during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021 (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
Israeli rescue forces and police near the scene after a stampede killed dozens during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
The preparation for the mass gathering on Mount Meron that led to the death of 45 people was not handled well from a public health perspective, Prof. Siegal Sadetzki told The Jerusalem Post.
Speaking by phone only a few days after the event, she said that “to maintain everyone’s health, you need to understand different cultures, habits and attitudes and adjust accordingly. What we saw in Meron was a mass gathering and it should have been treated as such in advance, and I do not think it was. From a safety point of view, this mass gathering was not taken care of the way it was supposed to be.”
While she did not point a finger at any specific party, she said this year specifically there was confusion about what was allowed versus forbidden with regards to coronavirus and mass gatherings.
And she also said that she does not believe that COVID-19 is over for Israel.
“I would like to hope that coronavirus is over for Israel, but I am afraid that’s not the case,” she said. “It all depends on the mutations. I think every person, even people who are vaccinated, should enter isolation when they come back to Israel in order to make sure we don’t risk our wonderful vaccination campaign due to a new mutation that will penetrate Israel – a mutation that will be resistant, or even partially resistant, to the vaccine.”
She warned that “if such a thing happens, we could go back to square one… It is a huge risk to take.”
To that point, she said that the biggest challenge she saw during her tenure was at Ben-Gurion Airport when the prime minister allowed thousands of Israelis to travel to and from the United Arab Emirates without entering quarantine, even when infection there was on the rise. She said most of the mutations came from travelers reentering Israel from the UAE, including the British variant that quickly accounted for around 90% of all cases in the country.
Sadetzki worked at the Health Ministry in various capacities since the 1990s and served as head of Public Health Services from February 2019 to September 2020. She and former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov worked side-by-side with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to manage the first COVID-19 wave.
“My stepping down was absolutely about feeling I was not able to take responsibility over what I was responsible for,” Sadetzki said. “It’s one thing to have difficulties accomplishing what you need to do. It is another to feel that you do not have the authority to carry out your role responsibly and you are afraid for people’s lives.”
Only around 300 people died in the first few months of the pandemic in Israel – a feat for which Sadetzki feels partially responsible. To date, Israel has had 6,369 people die of the virus.
When she stepped down, Israel was at the start of the second wave, with around 1,000 new cases per day and the death toll was rising.
She wrote a resignation letter that was published on Facebook and that sparked dialogue about the management of the pandemic. In her note, she said that Israel should expect difficult or even tragic months ahead, as management of the second wave of coronavirus was plagued by frivolous, unsubstantiated and populist decision-making.
Sadetzki accused the government of making decisions, “without considering their far-reaching and long-term public health implications.”
“The [coronavirus] is a deadly, cunning and agile epidemic,” she continued in her letter. “I feel with a high-level of certainty... that the coming months will be difficult and even tragic.”
Her letter foreshadowed two additional difficult waves of the pandemic before Israelis vaccinated and the country began to emerge from the crisis. But she said that it was mishandling that caused the suffering and that “I am not sure we needed more than one lockdown.”
Rather, she said Israel made many mistakes between waves one and two – mistakes that were repeated again between waves two and three.
“Opening the education system first in a limited way and two weeks later in a sweeping way... led to widespread reinfection in Israel,” Sadetzki said. “Israel opened the education system too quickly and without proper social distancing compared with most countries in the world.”
She said she cautioned the Education and Health Ministries to enforce a capsules system, but her recommendations fell on deaf ears. Not requiring children to wear masks in school and later not implementing any testing of the children ultimately led to mass infection.
Similarly, Sadetzki said the failure to support a differentiated model and assist haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab communities that live in cramped quarters led to more infection.
“No one should be left behind,” Sadetzki stressed. “Inequality between different communities really came out during coronavirus. If you do not work for all the sectors, nothing works at all.”