Israel appoints new coronavirus czar to replace Gamzu

Health minister warns: ‘Haste is the devil’ * Infection rate declines to 2%

Prof. Nachman Ash, Israel's next Health Ministry director-general. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Nachman Ash, Israel's next Health Ministry director-general.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Nachman Ash  was named on Tuesday as the new coronavirus commissioner instead of Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the Health Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office announced.
Ash’s appointment comes ahead of an expected vote on Thursday whether to open street shops, and as the virus’s infection rate declines.
Ash, 59, was the chief of the IDF Medical Corps from 2007 to 2011, and was the head doctor for the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. He is expected to start Wednesday and transition into his new role on November 13 when Gamzu will officially return to his position as director-general of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center.
Gamzu took the job in August and had committed to work as coronavirus commissioner until November 1.
Although Ash takes on the role at a time when the infection rate is declining, he is also expected to face challenges from the government and society, who will want to open up fast and risk an increase in morbidity.
During a briefing he gave from Ziv Medical Center in Safed on Tuesday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein thanked Ash for “agreeing to take on this challenging role” and wished him success. He shared that Gamzu had agreed to stay on for a few days “to transfer the role in an orderly manner.”
Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, said that Ash’s greatest challenge will be to produce stability, and to make decisions based on professional, rather than political considerations.
Just one day prior, the coronavirus cabinet voted against experts’ opinion to shorten what was originally a nine-stage program prepared by the Health Ministry to fewer stages. Beginning on Sunday, first through fourth graders will return to school. They will study in small groups and wear masks. The cabinet also agreed to allow after-school programs to operate with students from up to three classes.
In addition, it approved the re-opening of salons and other one-on-one activities and services (driving lessons or personal training, for example), as well as alternative medicine treatments.
“Consensus must be reached, and decisions implemented with an orderly and long-term strategy in mind,” Levine said. “The pandemic and its consequences will be with us for a long time. As such, I am happy that Prof. Ash will fill the role of Magel Israel project manager, and I hope that he will stay with us for a long time and build processes that will serve us for a long time.
“The real challenge is the political challenge: how to convince the decision makers to act in accordance with the professional decisions,” he concluded.
Dr. Zeev Feldman, chairman of the State Physicians Association, expressed similar sentiments: “I welcome the appointment of Prof. Nachman Ash as coronavirus commissioner… I am not surprised by his willingness to enlist in this national mission. I hope that his balanced, professional voice will be heard, and [he] will not fall victim to political struggles and narrow interests. The success of Prof. Ash will be a success for all of us.”
It was not long ago that there were some officials in the cabinet who called for the role of commissioner to be abolished altogether because “it is simply unnecessary.” They said that the role was created so that the government had someone to blame for its handling of the crisis.
They accused Gamzu of acting like a politician and said that the country does not need another person like him inside the cabinet.
Ash is well known in the medical world, but less known to the public. He comes to the role as a senior staff member in the Health Management Department of Ariel University and the former director of Maccabi Healthcare Services’ Division of Medicine.
He received his medical degree from Sackler School of Medicine, Tel Aviv University in 1986, and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at Sheba Medical Center in 1997.
Ash completed his Master’s degree in Medical Informatics from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health, Sciences and Technology in Boston. He also has a Master’s degree in political sciences from Haifa University.
With the return to routine, the new commissioner will be tasked with helping the cabinet decide on what will be included in the next stages of its exit strategy and with implementing Gamzu’s traffic light program in cooperation with the local authorities.
The cabinet is expected to meet again on Thursday to finalize its decision on which businesses will open on Sunday and whether bed and breakfasts can operate, too.
Edelstein, who supported the return of small businesses but opposed the opening of all trade, said during his talk on Tuesday that “I am also happy to say that this coming Sunday, if there will be no surprises, quite a few businesses will return to activity – people who have been without a livelihood for weeks.”
He said the principle is that people who work one-on-one will be able to operate.
The country hit the lowest percentage of positive test results since June on Tuesday – 2%.
There were 836 people diagnosed with coronavirus on Monday out of 40,464 tested, the Health Ministry reported Tuesday. Of the sick, only 464 were in serious condition – also the lowest number in months. The death toll stood at 2,463 at press time.
Edelstein also commented on the resumption of studies in the lower grades, whose students he said had taken a “fairly long break” from their studies.
“Grades one and two will unfortunately only be taught part time,” he added. “I hope many local authorities can expand the curriculum.”
Later in the day, the Jerusalem Municipality announced that it is preparing to restart the education system according to Health Ministry guidelines – but for five days per week for all students, instead of three. Teaching assistants will support the program and a daily enrichment budget will be allocated to each school.
“We are the ones who are connected. We know every street and every neighborhood, every school and every preschool, and there is no reason that we” shouldn’t determine our own outline, said Haim Bibas, chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, in an interview on Tuesday. “We know better than everyone else what is needed in our cities.”
Several others also said they could find ways to offer more schooling. Stronger municipalities will be able to locate space and staff, while weaker ones will likely have no choice but to resume school for grades one and two only three days per week.
A report by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center published Tuesday warned that there may be a slowdown in the trend in the next few days when almost two weeks will have passed since preschools resumed operation.
To date, the Education Ministry reported on Tuesday, out of 592,000 kindergarten children, 255 have tested positive for coronavirus – this is 2% of all patients in the population, while their share in the general population is 6.5%.
Edelstein has warned against opening too much at once, saying that “we’re playing with fire.” However, the prime minister and alternate prime minister have spoken out in favor of opening at least street shops on Sunday.
Speaking on Israel Radio Tuesday morning, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said that the government is making decisions differently this time than after the first wave and that they are supposed to be made based on data and not dates, let alone on politics or populism.
“The Health Ministry has made it clear that opening trade alongside the education system… could have a heavy price in morbidity,” he said.
Edelstein said that “we will check all the data and the situation seven times before making any further decisions to open. We must understand once and for all that it is precisely our stubbornness in this area – maintaining a slow pace – that protects Israel’s economy and business owners. Haste is the devil.”