Coronavirus in Israel: Refusal to Approve Tests Leads to Dumping Samples

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An isolation tent at Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer in the central Israeli city of Ramat Gan, on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
An isolation tent at Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer in the central Israeli city of Ramat Gan, on Thursday, March 12, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toag

Coronavirus samples from at-risk patients with symptoms are being thrown away without being tested because of the Health Ministry’s refusal to approve testing in many cases, doctors told Haaretz on Saturday.

“I released 15 patients today – every one of them might have undiagnosed corona,” a doctor in the emergency room of a Jerusalem hospital told Haaretz. “Patients come in with classic corona symptoms and circumstances that put them at especially high risk – like, for example, a person who shops at a supermarket frequented by many French tourists – and the Health Ministry doesn’t approve the test. We take samples which we end up throwing out because we’re not allowed to send them to a lab. Doctors note on patients’ release forms: ‘Unfortunately the Health Ministry does not permit testing,” the doctor said.

The staff in many other ERs and infectious disease wards tell similar stories.

Many say that the criteria for conducting the tests are too narrow and miss many potential patients, especially considering that there are patients in Israel who have contracted the virus from an unknown source.

The Health Ministry said recently that there at least hundreds of undiagnosed corona carriers. However, the small number of samples tested makes it difficult to obtain a clear picture of the situation.

The Health Ministry announced recently that it would increase the number of tests per day from around 700 to about 2,200 in the coming week. Additional labs are being trained to conduct the tests, and more labs are open over weekends.

Doctors have taken to social media forums for physicians in order to describe their experiences and raise their concerns.

One physician said she had complained to the Health Ministry about the lack of sufficient testing, and was told that as of Friday evening there were 7,000 corona testing kits in Israel and instructions not to approve more than 400 tests per day. “They’re working on getting more testing kits now, which of course are in short supply all over the world and they want to reach 5,000 [tests] a day within a week.”

A man wears a mask in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, March 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Another doctor wrote: “I worked in the ambulatory ER today and I released about eight patients with [a diagnosis of] respiratory infection, apparently viral. An X-ray showed no symptoms [in the lungs]. If there are, I’d put them right in isolation and send a corona test. The problem is let’s say in a few days the condition of one of those eight people gets worse – I’m done for because I wasn’t protected.”

Another doctor answered him: “I definitely examined somebody like that today and my whole ER was exposed this week to at least 10 like that.”

Many in the medical field have complained that they are not sufficiently protected to continue to carry out their work.

With the spread of the virus still in its early stages, at the time of this writing, approximately 2,500 healthcare workers are in isolation – including approximately 950 doctors and 650 nurses. At the end of the week, 15 staff members in Hadassah University Hospital’s pediatric ward went into isolation after a person accompanying a child to the department was diagnosed positive for the virus. A similar case occurred in Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv where 16 staff members were put into isolation after contact with a patient who tested positive for corona. At Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikvah, 14 staff members had to be isolated under similar circumstances.

“There has been a rise in cases of respiratory illnesses and [we] need protection and there isn’t any,” says a doctor from one of the hospitals.

“Under epidemic conditions it’s legitimate to protect yourself because the medical teams are an important resource. The availability of tests is limited and we work with what we have,” she said.

“It’s clear to us that there’s a good chance we’ve caught the virus,” another doctor told Haaretz “and so we avoid meeting with our grandparents. Some of us will find out in another two weeks.”

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