Israel Failed in Procuring Ventilators, Expediting Coronavirus Test Results, Says Oversight Report

Decision making was based on mathematical models, resulting in 'nonfactual' and 'confusing' policy that eroded public trust, says coronavirus oversight committee

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Dr Karina Glick checks a medical ventilator control panel at a ward at Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, March 16, 2020.
Dr Karina Glick checks a medical ventilator control panel at a ward at Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, March 16, 2020.Credit: AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset oversight committee on the handling of the coronavirus crisis presented its final report on Thursday, in which if outlined a long list of government failures.

The committee found the many national plans to prepare for a pandemic, which have been written over the years since 2007, were not implemented in real time.

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The National Emergency Management Authority – known better by its Hebrew acronym of Rachel – which was supposed to lead the handling of a pandemic scenario in Israel, was “atrophied and weakened,” and was not involved in addressing the coronavirus crisis, stated the committee.

Israel did not take advantage of the first two months since the coronavirus pandemic was declared for preparations, stated the committee. It could have procured equipment, gathered intelligence for decision making and allocated responsibilities between various government bodies.

“Throughout all the committee’s sessions, the lack of reliable, comprehensive and relevant information in the decision-making process and in information to the public arose in its full severity,” said the report.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Benjamin Netanyahu during a coronavirus briefing, March 8, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

The “reference scenario” used by the Gertner Institute – the Health Ministry’s research institute for epidemiology and health policy – was based only on mathematical assumptions as to the rate of infection and it did not take into consideration data from elsewhere in the world or the effects of the steps taken.

“The result was an irrelevant reference scenario, in practice, with which various bodies designed an exit strategy without a real mutual factual basis. This confusion was broadcast to the public, too, and increased the lack of trust in the decisions,” stated the report.

In light of the government’s failure in importing equipment over the past two months, procurement from outside of Israel cannot be counted on during a global pandemic, said the committee. In spite of the efforts of the defense establishment, the procurement of essential items did not meet its goals and only a relatively low percentage of what was needed was obtained. The procurement companies, headed by Sarel, which supplies Israeli hospitals, were unable to supply for the state of emergency. In spite of the target set for ventilators, 7,000, by May 1 only 426 such machines were acquired.

An Israeli child undergoing a coronavirus test with a swab.Credit: Emil Salman

The committee also addressed the difficulty in recruiting skilled workers to work with the large number of people on ventilators – even if they had been able to procure enough ventilators, drugs for anesthesia and oxygen. The health system is capable of treating no more than 3,000 patients on ventilators, a shortage “which could lead to the ‘Italian scenario,’” the report said, referring to a situation in which patients are left to die because the hospitals are unprepared to accept and treat them.

Ofer Shelah leads a meeting of the special Knesset committee on the coronavirus response, March 31, 2020.Credit: עדינה ולמן / דוברו

The committee said that according to the data, the actual number of coronavirus tests never exceeded 10,000 a day, and no real improvement was made in reducing the time between when the test was taken and when results were given. The committee recommended formalizing a procedure in which even during a state of emergency the testing process would remain first and foremost in the hands of the HMOs, which in routine times operate a system that conducts a much larger number of tests than would be required even during a pandemic.

Committee members said they would promote a bill in the Knesset to establish a national crisis management authority, to be headed by a professional with experience in running large organizations. This new national authority would receive its authority from a number of relevant government ministries during an emergency.

The committee also recommended establishing a system for providing information, which would be reinforced by private sector consultants and which would formulate a strategy for providing the public with messages and also allocate representatives for the Arab and Haredi communities.

Committee chairman Yesh Atid – Telem MK Ofer Shelah said: “The committee is finishing its work today [Thursday], and is offering its recommendations for immediate implementation. In spite of the not small amount of time to prepare, the coronavirus crisis was managed in a disorganized manner, something that has harsh economic and social implications, which we will have to address for a long time. Implementing our recommendations and learning the lessons are essential if we want to exit the present crisis and be better prepared for the future.”

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