Breaking the chain: The Alon Command Center fights corona day and night

'If we prevent 10% of the total death rate in the country, we would call it a success'

The Alon Command Center (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
The Alon Command Center
The battle against COVID-19 is an elusive one, unlike other wars, this enemy is invisible, deeply rooted amid the civic society of the country.
Israel has been speeding toward a third lockdown in recent weeks – set to begin on Sunday – as infection numbers skyrocketed and the virus reproduction number exploded.
Meanwhile, at a base in central Israel, the new IDF Alon Command Center – the designated unit set up in August to take over major aspects of the national battle against coronavirus – moved this week from the temporary tents that were used to launch the operation to their new permanent offices and war rooms.
Senior officers working in the epidemical investigations and contact tracing department at the center said that they are worried about the efficiency of their work, as daily case numbers keep going up. They say this department cannot operate on its own, and needs the other sections to work with it in coordination.
The problem is that as numbers climb, there are more and more people to get to – and even more contacts to trace.
In the meantime, even with the daily numbers inching closer to capacity, the department still manages to investigate the vast majority of cases – and trace their contacts.  
This division is one of four in the Alon center, alongside the testing section, which is responsible for carrying out COVID-19 tested in cities, towns, villages and regional councils throughout the country; a labs section which operates in cooperation with Kupot Cholim (health funds) and private labs to examine the corona tests; and the quarantine and isolation branches, which include facilities such as corona hotels for people who cannot, or are not allowed to, isolate at home.
Besides the Alon center, there are other tools that serve in the battle against the pandemic in Israel – and all of them are necessary to see results on the ground. Examples of such tools are restrictions, such as total lockdown; the vaccines, which will eventually help eliminate the virus; public service announcements that explain to the public why certain changes are necessary; and the public cooperating with the corona rules and the vaccination operation.
Only when all the departments work in harmony is the system effective in fighting the virus.
One of the primary goals when the Alon Command Center was created in August – as the second wave was looming – was to create this harmony.
What it did was connect the different departments that previously did not communicate well. It also rearranged the divisions within the health system so that information would flow in the right direction, to help understand the corona situation in real-time.
ONE OF the most dramatic changes occurred in the tracing section.
A senior source there told The Jerusalem Post that when they started operating, there were only 700 investigators who were supposed to cover the entire country. This, he said, was after they increased the number from only 27 nurses who did tracing at the beginning of the pandemic.
One of the first challenges of the command center was to increase the number of investigators. Today, the source said, there are some 3,000 investigators working at Alon.
Added to the qualified nurses who had a professional background in pandemics were soldiers, students, El Al workers and local authority employees, who all worked as investigators operating from different locations across the country.
The main concern with expanding the operation was the ability of the new investigators to do a good job.
The source told the Post that they have set up routine training sessions to improve the quality of investigations and boost the investigators’ motivation.
The actual process of an investigation is based on four steps: tracking down the new patients, sending them to get tested; sending the tests to the lab and getting the results; and enforcing a solution for the patients – quarantine or isolation.
During the investigation, patients are given a set of questions that includes who have they been in contact with, where they were, who might have infected them, and how they might have become infected.
After that, the investigator reaches out to the people who were in contact with the patients, to tell them that they need to go into isolation.
The source said that a significant change in the system was shortening the time of the process.
If in the early stages it took an average of four days to track down a patient, it now stands at four hours, according to Alon center stats.
The goal for the entire process is 24 hours; it currently stands just above that at 24.5 hours.
WITHIN THE Alon Command Center, there is a special unit for handling big data and carrying out complicated missions.
One of the specialties of this unit is to flag “red incidents,” where there were more than three patients in the same place at the same time, and thus a possibility of a mass spreading of the virus.
The goal is to locate and map all those who might have been in the area at that time, to contact them and to break the chain of infections.
The soldiers and officers in this unit need to scan hundreds and even thousands of cases a day, and to make a coherent map out of it so that they can detect and break the infection chains.
The people sitting in the war room of this unit come from different places in the army. Among them are IAF pilots, intelligence officers, educators and Home Front Command personnel. Their purpose is to take the initiative and find creative solutions to break infection chains.
A senior source in this unit told the Post that their experience is like the folk tale about a kid who tried to save starfish on the shore.
“A man walks along the shore of the ocean, and during the low tide sees a lot of starfish that will eventually die after hours under the sun,” he said.
“Then he sees a child grabbing the starfish one by one and throwing them back into the sea. He asks him: ‘What are you doing? This is pointless – you will never get to all of them. Why do you think it matters?’
“The kid then grabs a starfish and throws him into the sea and says, ‘this is why it matters.’
“In every incident, every case, every time I send someone to get tested who is found to be positive without even knowing that he has it – this is my starfish,” he said. “This is how we break the infection chains.