Health Officials Call Cellphone Tracking of Patients ‘Excuse for Policy Failure’

Some question the effectiveness of tracking, whether carried out by the Shin Bet or by private company, and say it is aimed at covering up Health Ministry’s failure to set up effective screening system

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People wear masks as they walk in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020.
People wear masks as they walk in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

The use of cellular tracking to monitor coronavirus patients and trace chains of infection is improper, violates individual rights and impairs patients’ trust in the health system, senior Health Ministry officials told Haaretz. 

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Public Health Services chief Siegal Sadetzki support the use of tracking, but others question its effectiveness, whether carried out by the Shin Bet security service or by a private company. They say it is aimed at covering up the Health Ministry’s failure to set up an effective screening system.

The government, meanwhile, raised the fine for not wearing a mask in public to 500 shekels ($150), from 200 shekels.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said that given the increase in infections, the government may “dramatically” increase enforcement, including more fines and inspectors. Another option, he said, is restricting public gatherings, which he called “a very harsh step that has implications for certain activities we have approved.” Also being discussed are possible regional closures; on Thursday closures were imposed on neighborhoods in Rahat and in Arara in the Negev.

The interministerial committee in charge of the coronavirus response, known as the coronavirus cabinet and headed by Netanyahu, decided Monday to put off the debate on whether to resume the cellular tracing of infection chains to Sunday’s cabinet meeting. The tracking of patients was halted on order of the High Court of Justice, which in April ruled that it could not be continued without legislation expressly permitting it.

The process of passing such legislation was halted when Shin Bet security service head Nadav Argaman objected to it. Edelstein has repeatedly expressed support for the legislation, saying it is better for the information to be in the hands of the Shin Bet “than with a private company that who knows what its interests are.”

Netanyahu said Monday that resuming the tracking was being considered. “We know the issue is problematic, but at the same time we know that it contributed a great deal to controlling the pandemic,” he said. “We’ll see how we can overcome the problems to obtain a reduction in morbidity.”

A source on the Pandemic Task Force told Haaretz that using cellular tracking “is a ‘cheap’ solution to the failure to set up a system of testing and investigation.” He added, “At the price of trampling on civil rights and building an antidemocratic precedent – and apparently at less cost than operating the existing systems – they are refraining from budgeting, recruiting and training personnel for the middle and long term.”

Masked Israelis walk through Jerusalem, June 18, 2020.
Masked Israelis walk through Jerusalem, June 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Another source on the team said, “This is primarily a moral issue. The Shin Bet should deal with foiling terrorism. … There’s a danger here of a slippery slope and sliding into violations of personal rights for government purposes.” 

Despite the claims by Sadetzki and others regarding the tracking’s effectiveness, data about how it contributed to cutting off chains of infection have yet to be presented in detail, even to the professional forums like the Pandemic Task Force, which includes dozens of experts. “We have no data on how or how many people were located,” said a Health Ministry source. “No Western country has used this.”

Sources in the health system say that it isn’t clear how the tracking has contributed to fighting the virus. Data from the tracking is not accessible to district physicians.

“We haven’t made any use of the tracking,” a senior physician at one of the district bureaus dealing with epidemiological investigations told Haaretz. “We’ve encountered it primarily in cases where people complained they’d gotten a message even though they weren’t at the place at the time attributed to them. If there’s technology that can help, there’s no reason not to use it, but its accuracy and how it can help must be ascertained.”

The issue has also been discussed by the ethics bureau of the Israel Medical Association, which this week issued a position paper that stated, “The monitoring and invasion of citizens’ privacy by the administration, by the security forces and agencies that do not deal with illness, could lead of a loss of trust in the medical system.” It also states, “Doctors and medical teams are to be allowed to continue to manage illnesses in Israel, including the coronavirus pandemic. If and when there arises a need, doctors dealing with public health will not hesitate to seek help from any agency in the State of Israel that could provide assistance.”

According to the bureau, “In the current situation, and considering the state of morbidity during the pandemic, the opinion of public health physicians is that we can and must stop monitoring that undermines the autonomy of Israeli citizens.”

The coronavirus cabinet also approved the proposal made by the health, finance and defense ministries to prepare to ventilate 2,000 COVID-19 patients and 2,000 patients with other illnesses. Netanyahu said that everything must be done to avoid getting to such a situation. The cabinet statement stressed that those numbers represent the ventilation capability of the health system and was not a forecast of the need for the procedure.

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