Israel's Nursing Homes Beg for Help as More Residents Die of Coronavirus

'We’re basically sending them to their deaths and no one is taking responsibility'

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A health worker carries coronavirus test kits in the Migdal Nofim nursing home in Jerusalem, March 2020.
A health worker carries coronavirus test kits in the Migdal Nofim nursing home in Jerusalem, March 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

Israel’s nursing homes are seeking government assistance at a time when nursing homes around the world are increasingly finding their residents ravaged by the coronavirus.

Israel’s largest nursing home chain, Misha’an, took out a newspaper advertisiement asking — or begging — the government to help.

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Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

The chain’s Be’er Sheva facility has been hard hit. Some 27 of its 35 residents in nursing care have tested positive for COVID-19, as have another 13 staff members and two residents of its independent living division. On Monday, a 90-year-old resident died of the virus; this makes her the facility’s seventh casualty.

While residents of the Be’er Sheva facility have been told to isolate themselves, residents of the chain’s other eight facility are still being left to roam freely.

Two residents and two workers at Misha’ans 480-resident Holon facility have tested positive for the virus.

However, residents at the Misha’an facilities are not being tested for the virus, according to family members.

“Now that the elderly have been left without virus tests and without caregivers, we’re basically sending them to their deaths and no one is taking responsibility,” said Rina Muscona, whose grandmother lives at the Holon home.

Another family said they had told their elderly relative to isolate himself in his room, even though he had received no instruction to do so from the home itself.

Old-age homes in countries throughout the world have been hit hard by the virus. One of the first outbreaks in Israel came at Jerusalem’s Migdal Nofim home.

Meanwhile, three residents of a Rishon Letzion old-age home who died of the coronavirus in the last week are believed to have contracted the disease from an infected employee at the facility.

The Bulgari nursing home and assisted living facility, which has 480 residents and 220 employees, has seven more residents and two staff members who are confirmed coronavirus cases. Two departments in the facility are under quarantine due to suspected exposure.

Employees at the Bulgari facility believe the chain of infection began when one employee got sick and infected residents and workers with whom she came into contact. No one has been allowed to enter or leave the facility for three weeks, with only employees allowed to come and go. The employee believed to be the source of infection also works at another nursing home in the city were there’s been a coronavirus outbreak.

“We are begging the Health Ministry to increase the testing,” said Asher Harpaz, director of the nursing home. “We know the ministry is doing everything it can but we aren’t getting answers in time. One of the doctors mapped out the background illnesses of all the elderly in the nursing home so that we can know who should be tested first. We are helpless; we haven’t skimped on anything. We have purchased protective items from our private pockets, … we’ve opened an entire ward to admit those diagnosed who haven’t yet been evacuated but we need more tests.” Meanwhile, administrators at the facility said staffers have been working 11- to 13-hour shifts.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced earlier this week that the Home Front Command would begin assisting the country’s 456 assisted living and geriatric facilities. According to the announcement, the Israel Defense Forces had so far provided aid to 200 assisted living facilities. The soldiers were divided into teams of a commander and five soldiers, who joined the staff members in managing and maintaining the facilities and helped with logistics, including the purchase of food and equipment, but they did not come in contact with the residents.

Home Front Command leader Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai told reporters that his command “doesn’t have nurses or any relative advantage in terms of medical treatment,” and thus has focused on providing significant logistical assistance, which it can do because of its size. Some 1,000 soldiers are taking part in this mission. But sources in several nursing homes told Haaretz that they immediately realized that this wasn’t the help that would meet their real needs.

“Today a lieutenant colonel from the air force came,” said Shimon Ellenberg, director of the Beit Hanassi assisted living facility in Hadera. “He said he was here from the Home Front Command to offer help, but immediately said that they could help by putting a guard at the door, putting a reception clerk at the desk to record who comes and goes and if we need to obtain anything they have a vehicle.”

Ellenberg, however, told the officer that what he needed was help with cleaning, in the kitchen and to change sheets. “You have to understand that in all our nursing departments many workers simply left because they were afraid of catching the virus. When I said that to him, he immediately answered that they hadn’t come to clean or replace the staff that deals with the residents.”

Ellenberg said there was no point in sending soldiers who were going to be there for a few hours, leave, and then come back. “A soldier who might infect my residents isn’t worth it,” he said.

Ronni Ozeri, chairman of the association of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, was the one who, together with facility heads, prepared the list of what the facilities needed. He added that even in terms of logistics and procurement, the Home Front Command isn’t of much help. “We gave them a list of things we need and they claimed that they now had to go to the National Security Council to get approval. There’s no one whom you can speak to and know that something is finalized.”

Ozeri added that “They still haven’t gotten back to us.”

The criticism from the nursing homes comes after years in which the IDF and the Home Front Command focused their emergency planning on scenarios of widespread missile fire or earthquakes. At a Knesset meeting in June 2019 on preparing for the results of climate change, speakers said the elderly might have to be evacuated in a pandemic, but this didn’t lead to any change in preparedness or exercise of such an evacuation.

The issue also arose during a Home Front Command exercise in 2018 that simulated an earthquake and involved the transfer of nursing care patients. In its conclusions the IDF wrote, “National resilience will be measured not by the strong links, but by the weak links, by our ability to deal with the weak, the nursing homes and the nursing care facilities.”

In 2018 the Home Front Command drilled preparations for extreme scenarios, but didn’t deal with a pandemic. Moreover, the command treats the details on civilian readiness as classified information, so information doesn’t reach those who need it, including those who run geriatric facilities.

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