Israel on Wednesday crossed another worrisome line in its battle against COVID-19, when it recorded its 200,000th confirmed case, only 32 days after it confirmed its 100,000th case, a clear indication that the virus is spreading rapidly.
The spread is also starting to take its toll on medical personnel, as hundreds of people working in hospitals have contracted the virus. Few, however, have been infected at work; the overwhelming majority are being infected by their families or in the community. Over 1,500 doctors and nurses cannot work because they’re in quarantine.
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Three weeks ago, on September 3, Israel made headlines for being No. 1 in the world regarding daily new infection rates, based on a seven-day moving average – 199.3 per million residents. Since then, Israel has firmly maintained its dubious place at the top, leaving other countries far behind, with 531.6 new cases per day per million people. The positive rate is above 10 percent. In March, on the eve of the spring lockdown, there were 10 new daily cases per million people, and only 100 new cases a day. By comparison, Brazil now has 142 new daily cases per million, the United States 130, the EU 78, and India 68.
Meanwhile, the number of confirmed new cases among medical personnel more than doubled within only two days. According to Health Ministry statistics, the number of confirmed cases among hospital workers surged from 722 on Monday to 1,697 by Wednesday morning, among them 241 physicians and 467 nurses. In addition, the number of quarantined medical personnel who are unable to work jumped between Monday and Wednesday from 3,157 to 4,331, including over a thousand nurses and more than 500 doctors.
Hospitals insist that most of these infections happened when staffers were exposed to the virus outside the hospitals. “We are part of the country, and when the morbidity outside the hospital is high, it increases the exposure of our teams. Fortunately, because of the precautions inside the hospital, there aren’t many staff infections [there],” said Dr. Osnat Levzion-Korach, director of Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh).
Prof. Dror Mevorach, who is now managing two coronavirus wards with a total of 40 beds at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem – in addition to a regular internal medicine ward – said that on Wednesday two of his nurses were in quarantine, while two doctors had returned after quarantine. “That’s what happens when there are 6,500 confirmed cases a day, with 10 percent of tests coming back positive,” he said. “In a reality of such widespread infection, it gets to our staff members through exposure outside the hospital, from the family or other contacts. No patient has infected my staff. We are very, very careful.”
Mevorach said that the pressure on the wards and the intensive care units is increasing and the lack of trained personnel is definitely felt. Many hospitals have received special permits to allow employees to return to work after only 10 days of isolation or even less, on condition that they take coronavirus tests.
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While medical personnel have been exposed to COVID-19 since the crisis began, their absences due to illness or quarantine weren’t felt as much because the incidence of infection was lower. But in recent weeks, that has changed, with a sharp increase in the number of hospitalizations and those in serious condition. The lack of trained personnel is proving to be the Achilles’ heel in the treatment of coronavirus patients and, as a resource, it is the most expensive and hardest to compensate for.
The Health Ministry is taking emergency measures to quickly boost the number of medical personnel, by recruiting medical and nursing students still in school. It is also advancing the acceptance and training of some 400 interns who studied medicine abroad, and examining how it can integrate physicians from private hospitals into the public hospitals. It is also planning to enlist paramedics to work in non-corona hospital wards.