Shaare Zedek Medical Center prepares for an unprecedented cold season

This winter, people need to take extra care to stay healthy.

DR. TAMAR LACHISH, senior physician, Infectious Diseases Unit at Shaare Zedek. (photo credit: SHAARE ZEDEK MEDICAL CENTER)
DR. TAMAR LACHISH, senior physician, Infectious Diseases Unit at Shaare Zedek.
Winter in Israel is frequently rainy, damp and chilly, and it brings with it an increase in colds, flu, and other viral diseases. “We see a lot of contagious diseases because everything is less ventilated and windows are closed,” explains Dr. Tamar Lachish, senior physician in the Infectious Diseases Unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
People spend more time inside their homes due to inclement weather and are likely to breathe the same air as someone who has the flu and contract viral diseases.
“We also see other viral diseases that are more common in the winter, such as parainfluenza and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which is a cause of the common cold, and we see many issues involving influenza and secondary complications,” she adds.
Lachish points out that the flu can become a serious illness and sometimes lead to bacterial pneumonia if the immune system has been weakened, even among young people. Additionally, she notes, flu can lead to serious complications in the elderly. “If a person is debilitated and has diabetes and congestive heart failure and then develops a fever, everything is disrupted, and not it’s the influenza that brings them to the hospital.”
This year’s onset of flu season has been complicated by the ongoing battle with the pandemic, which has strained the medical system and has caused thousands of deaths in Israel. This winter, how are the doctors and medical staff at Shaare Zedek coping with these two health issues?
Interestingly, Lachish says, this year, the protective measures employed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and minimizing social gatherings, have greatly reduced the number of flu cases in Israel and other countries.
“For the first time, in December, there have not been any recorded cases of flu in Israel,” she says, and adds that the small number of cases of the flu reported in Israel may also be partly attributable to the higher numbers of people who have taken flu shots this year.
Prof. Yechiel Schlesinger, director of the Wilf Children’s Hospital in Shaare Zedek Medical Center, concurs and says that “Every winter, the pediatrics department is filled with young children and babies who have RSV, a viral respiratory illness, and they need to be need hospitalized and receive oxygen. This should be the peak season, but we have had very few cases this year, and there are far fewer winter cold viruses.”
Lachish cautions that this winter, people need to take extra care to stay healthy.
“It’s mainly about being responsible. If you don’t feel well, stay home. That’s the most important thing that people need to know – even for very mild symptoms. Last winter, if I had a sore throat, I would come to work. But this year, I would stay home and see how it would develop. We don’t have to put people under lockdown, but people should stay home if they are not well,” she says.
Lachish explains that the fact that COVID-19 includes a vast spectrum of symptoms, including weakness, muscle pain, headaches, respiratory difficulties and sore throat, can make diagnosis difficult, especially during the winter flu season. “If someone comes to the emergency room with respiratory complaints, assuming that influenza is present in the country, we will have to check for both COVID and flu,” she says. When it comes to COVID-19, she adds, “The main thing that we have seen in the past year is that there are a lot of surprises, and we are learning as we are going along. We have learned a lot, but there is much more to learn.”
From his perspective as head of the Wilf Children’s Hospital, Schlesinger explains that while adult corona patients frequently present a range of symptoms, including significant health issues affecting the cardiac and pulmonary systems, children diagnosed with COVID-19 rarely initially present serious symptoms.
“In children, it is a completely different story. When they have COVID-19, you may not even know it. Either we find by it chance, or they come with a fever, but they don’t look very ill.” Most infected children who are hospitalized, he says, are there for other unrelated health issues. In general, says Schlesinger, children are not hospitalized if they have corona.
However, he adds, children who have had corona with little or no symptoms sometimes return to the hospital with a significant amount of post-corona issues.
“In children, the most important part of corona treatment is actually post-corona,” he says. In some cases, children who have had corona have displayed symptoms of Kawasaki disease, a well-known pediatric illness, which causes inflammation of blood vessels throughout the body. Shaare Zedek has opened a post-corona clinic for children to treat these types of cases. He adds that while corona vaccines may eventually be given to children, the likelihood is that initially, at least, they will be given to adults only.
Shaare Zedek is ready and prepared for the challenges of the season, Lachish says. Hospital workers have received flu vaccinations, and staff members who have a fever or respiratory issues are not allowed to come to work. “We don’t want them to be contagious to patients or other staff,” she says.
“We are ready for the winter and we are prepared for everything,” says Dr. Lachish. “Our lab is ready, we have a sufficient amount of medications, we are very aware, and we are learning all the time. The Israeli health system is ready for the situation. We know that while there have been many unknowns in the past year, we have found the answers for most of the surprises. We are very attuned to what is happening around the world. We have a good health system, and we never stop learning.”
How can we stay well this winter? “Take care of yourselves, eat normally, sleep normally, exercise – try to stay healthy in all the regular ways,” says Lachish.
“Children should stay warm, wear warm clothing, take the flu vaccine, be logical and rational, and avoid panic. As a general rule, parents should try to avoid going to the doctor for every small thing.
Keep them home, give them Tylenol, and see what happens, adds Schlesinger, also giving one more bit of advice: “And of course, take chicken soup. It’s the best!”
This article was written in cooperation with Shaare Zedek Medical Center.