The number of Israeli medical professionals infected with the coronavirus more than doubled in two days this week, according to the Health Ministry.
As of Monday, 722 professional medical staffers had COVID-19, but by Wednesday, the figure had jumped to 1,697, according to ministry data. The numbers include 241 doctors and 467 are nurses. The remaining personnel are pharmacists, medics and paramedics.
Thousands of additional medical staff people have been sidelined from their jobs because they are in quarantine due to exposure to a coronavirus patient. The number of quarantined personnel jumped from 3,157 on Monday to 4,331 on Wednesday. The figures include more than 500 physicians and over 1,000 nurses.
Hospitals claim that the vast majority of their medical staff who have become infected with the virus contracted it somewhere other than at their hospitals. “We are a part of the people, and when the incidence of the disease is high outside the hospital, that increases the exposure of our staff,” said Dr. Osnat Levtzion-Korach, the director of Shamir Medical Center, the former Assaf Harofeh hospital, at Tzrifin. “Fortunately, due to careful conduct at the hospital, there haven’t been many cases of [our] staff being infected,” she added.
Prof. Dror Mevorach of Hadassah University Hospital at Ein Karem in Jerusalem currently heads two coronavirus units with a combined 40 beds in addition to his regular duties as director of one of the hospital’s internal medicine departments. Two nurses on his staff are in quarantine and two doctors whom he overseas just completed stints in quarantine on Tuesday.
“That’s what happens when you have 6,500 confirmed cases a day and a 10 percent positive rate,” Mevorach said, referring to the national daily count of new cases and the percentage of those who are testing positive around the country. “In a situation in which people are being infected in such a widespread manner, it reaches medical staff through exposure outside of the hospital, either within the family or from other contacts.”
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“Among my staff, nobody has caught the virus from a patient,” he added. “We are very, very careful. Every examination, even of a patient not suspected of having the coronavirus, is done with masks for the patient and the treating staff member. With coronavirus patients, treatment is with full protective gear. Beyond that, we are careful to quarantine any staff involved in resuscitating a coronavirus patient or in inserting a tube [to open an air passage], even if they had been fully protected.”
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The effects of the pandemic are also being seen in increased patient loads in intensive care units and through the shortage of medical staff Mevorach said.
To address the situation and expedite the return of personnel from quarantine, the hospitals have sometimes cut the required period of quarantine, with special permission. In such cases, quarantine is reduced to 10 days or even shorter periods, but precautions are taken through COVID-19 testing.
“We are among the countries with the greatest number of new cases per day. This [second] lockdown should have been done much earlier and with much stricter rules,” Mevorach said. “The previous lockdown began with 100 cases per day. There’s a sense of failure. A lot of effort and resources were invested into buying ventilators and developing technology, but the most important thing – training more medical staff – hasn’t been done.”
From the onset of the pandemic, medical personnel have been exposed to the virus and have become ill or gone into quarantine, but the effect of pandemic on staff availability was relatively negligible as long as the incidence of the disease was low. In recent weeks, the picture has been changing, due to the increased pace of the spread of infection and due to the number of people admitted to hospitals and the jump in the number of serious cases.
The lack of trained staff has become an Achilles heel in the treatment of coronavirus patients. It has been an expensive and difficult resource to obtain. It is not for nothing that the issue has become a major topic of discussion.
The Health Ministry has begun taking emergency steps to quickly reinforce hospital staffing levels, in part by recruiting medical and nursing students. There are plans to expedite the hiring and training of about 400 interns and graduates of medical schools abroad. Consideration is also being given to hiring doctors from private hospitals to work at public facilities, and in addition, on Wednesday, the ministry announced plans to supplement staffing at hospitals through the use of paramedics.