Coronavirus testing continues to plague Israel’s Health Ministry

Grotto: ‘The challenge is one of both quantity and quality’

Magen David Adom medical team members, wearing protective gear, are handling a Coronavirus test from a patient in Jerusalem, April 7, 2020. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Magen David Adom medical team members, wearing protective gear, are handling a Coronavirus test from a patient in Jerusalem, April 7, 2020.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
The country faced and continues to face several challenges to increasing the number of people screened for the novel coronavirus per day, according to Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto.
Speaking Thursday, a day after the Health Ministry reported conducting 9,269 tests - down from 11,501 on April 14 and 10,401 the day before - Grotto defended his ministry. He said that the Health Ministry has had to grow the number of coronavirus labs from one to 32, all of them working with different equipment and computer systems. Moreover, he said there is a global shortage of testing kits and lab supplies, which has likewise plagued the Jewish state.
“Unlike what has become acceptable thinking,” Grotto told the committee, “the Health Ministry believes that we should do as many tests as possible and as are needed. Currently, the pace is some 11,000 tests a day. The challenge is one of both quantity and quality."
He said tests are being conducted in 32 labs and each one is different from the next. Still, he maintained, it takes only around 24 hours from the time a test is received at a given lab for it to process the test result.
“There are two goals in testing: One is to find the sick, which is about 70% of all tests,” Grotto explained. The other is monitoring - receiving an epidemiological picture of the situation, which is about 30% of tests.”
The Gertner Institute recently published a report that said that while the country has been focusing a lot on the quantity of tests, the issue of speed in receiving tests results has been ignored and is a big concern, Knesset coronavirus committee chair Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid-Telem) noted at the meeting. He explained that the danger is high of a person infecting others who he has been in contact with while he waits for his results.
Moreover, Channel 12 reported earlier this week that there were approximately 10,000 people suspected of being infected with COVID-19 whose tests have either been lost or had been delayed for more than a week on their way to being processed in labs, rendering them invalid or irrelevant.
“The central gaps that delay knowledge of the results to the sick are the time it takes from the moment the sick person calls until he gets tested,” Grotto explained, noting that the ministry is working with Magen David Adom, the organization that conducts most of the tests, to shorten the time. “The second gap is from the moment the laboratory receives the results until the person receives the result from the Health Ministry, which is in most cases 48 hours, but there are sometimes delays because of computational and other errors.”
He added that from the moment someone is infected until the person develops symptoms of the disease is around five days - “five days in which we do not know that he is sick, and we cannot shorten that.” Add to those five days the 48-hour average it takes to conduct and process the test and it is around seven days from infection to results.
Grotto said to make the testing more effective under the current circumstances, the ministry has started to prioritize who is being tested, beginning with people from the high-risk population: elderly and people with preexisting medical conditions. Other priority populations are people who work with or who could infect weaker populations, people who have been in contact with someone who is known to have the virus, people that could infect large numbers of people or people who could infect essential populations, such as healthcare workers.
The Health Ministry has instructed senior center workers that they can only work with one institution. Moreover, it has increased testing within senior living centers; so far, 52 of the country's deaths have been former residents of geriatric centers.
In the last few days, some 2,000 tests were being taken daily at senior centers and by Sunday, Grotto said he expected around 3,000 tests to be done daily.
“The central goal is identifying the first incidents [of the virus] and the workers who got infected,” he said.
Will the country reach 30,000 daily tests, as committed by the prime minister?
Grotto said only if several changes can be made, including providing labs with more equipment, which would need to be purchased abroad and manufactured in Israel. He said the country must also build alternative test kits locally in order to compensate for the international shortage.
He said that more people would need to be hired, trained and placed in existing labs, and that new laboratories would have to be approved to operate, such as those that recently launched at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Tel Aviv University and Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.