A Second Coronavirus Wave Hasn’t Hit Israel, but Testing Labs Are Already Overwhelmed

Mass COVID-19 testing in schools is paralyzing the laboratories and delaying results, due to lack of personnel and automated equipment

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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A COVID-19 laboratory at the Hadassah University Hospital - Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, last week.
A COVID-19 laboratory at the Hadassah University Hospital - Ein Kerem in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

Medical labs in Israel are struggling to keep up with a high volume of coronavirus tests as the number of samples taken each day has almost doubled over the past week, with nearly 16,000 tests performed on Friday.

The high load is also causing slow diagnoses, with people waiting up to four days to receive their test results.

The main reason for the pressure is the spread of the coronavirus in schools, which has prompted mass testing. As of Sunday, 127 schools around the country have closed their doors due to COVID-19, prompting hundreds and sometimes even thousands of tests per school. This has lead to a spike in testing – in addition to increased demand for tests among the population at large.

In an effort to reduce the strain on the lab staff, the Health Ministry announced over the weekend that it would eliminate the requirement for a second coronavirus test from those tested in schools. Instead, a second test will only be administered to those who develop symptoms. It was also decided to bar testing that goes beyond ministry guidelines and to prohibit private testing.

Initially, the problem was a shortage of testing swabs and chemicals. Now the bottleneck is at the labs themselves, which have a limited processing capacity and not enough qualified personnel.

The excessive load at the labs is reflected in a heartfelt description on social media from a lab worker last weekend:

“I am exhausted as I write this post. On the way home, the pain in my hands, in my muscles, which I never knew existed, has made me wonder if I’m capable of turning the steering wheel to change lanes. A mask has been pressing for hours on my nose, and I feel like the skin is about to fall off. Sixteen hours straight of lab tests, 16 hours in full protective gear, thousands of tests nonstop and under time pressure. I have no idea how long my colleagues and I can continue on this way, but at the moment, we’re in a war.”

Nissim Alon, the director general of Leumit Heath Services, says the public hysteria is putting an unjustifiable pressure on labs. “It’s enough for two students to test positive and ten seconds later, everyone gets calls ... The chance that another child would get infected is 2 to 3 percent.”

“In the first wave of the coronavirus, there was a dramatic drop in the operations of the HMOs and hospitals, and the same was true of regular laboratory tests, which dropped to less than half of what it normally is, so we were able to divert staff to coronavirus testing. But now regular testing has almost returned to normal, which has caused a personnel shortage,” Alon explained.

The Leumit director general said it was inappropriate for non-professionals – army medics – to perform lab work. He said they could do logistical work, but only trained professionals should be permitted inside labs.

Sources at the country’s other HMOs had similar comments and added that the nationwide serological survey being conducted is also requiring resources and staff.

Israel’s new health minister, Yuli Edelstein, announced over the weekend that he would work with the Finance Ministry to obtain funding for another 200 lab workers to do COVID-19 test diagnoses, but that may not be a simple task. Israel has a shortage of lab personnel, in part due to the low wages they earn relative to the length of their training.

“The lab staff are beginning to get worn out. They’ve been working for 90 days, 24/7, including last Shabbat, when they worked from morning to night,” said Alon, who suggested that in light of the difficulty in recruiting additional lab workers, the government should also try to obtain automated testing equipment that would require less manpower. But he admitted that such equipment is very hard to come by “because there is huge global demand for every piece of equipment.”

The recent rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in Israel and the large number of tests may be a preview for what could be in store next winter. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis could come down with the seasonal flu, which has symptoms that are very similar to the coronavirus, and they will all require coronavirus tests. 

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