Israel's Public Health Director Resigns, Says Coronavirus Response 'Lost Direction'

Sadetzki, who has been a highly public presence during the coronavirus pandemic, said her professional opinion was recently being ignored. In May, the Health Ministry's director general resigned

Ido Efrati
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Prof. Siegal Sadetzki
Prof. Siegal SadetzkiCredit: Emil Salman
Ido Efrati

Prof. Siegal Sadetzki, the director of public health services at the Health Ministry, announced on Tuesday that she is resigning her position and leaving the ministry, citing irreconcilable differences over policy in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“For several weeks, the compass guiding the handling of the pandemic has lost direction,” Sadetzki wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday morning. “Despite regular warnings in various settings and forums, we are witnessing with frustration that time is running out,” she wrote. “Against this backdrop, I have reached the conclusion that, given the new conditions that have been created, in which my professional opinion is not accepted, I can no longer effectively assist in halting the spread of the virus.”

The public health director wrote that she had submitted her letter of resignation to the ministry’s director general, Prof. Hezi Levy, who took the job in mid-June, succeeding Moshe Bar Siman Tov. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who is also new to the job, having started in May, said he had been unaware that Sadetzki was stepping down.

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In a lengthy post containing the text of her resignation letter, Sadetzki wrote that Israel has been heading in a dangerous direction in recent weeks and that the data regarding infections and near-term projections are all too clear. “Israel, which successfully managed the first wave, parted ways from other leading countries, diverging from the policies that they have taken,” by very quickly reopening the country following the lockdown that had been imposed.

She described the handling of the first wave of the pandemic as very professional and values-oriented, “putting people’s lives before any other consideration.” But, she wrote, “my sense is that, over time, we have changed from being professionals responding to events proactively to people in charge who have no authority and who are responding late, after the events.”

In the second phase, “which was marked by a necessary but rapid and sweeping opening of the economy, the process became convoluted,” she claimed, and other considerations pushed aside health concerns.

“The achievements of the first wave were canceled out by the broad, quick opening of the economy. The transition to the second phase in Israel was much more extensive and faster than in other Western countries. The atmosphere in which the illness was addressed and the way decisions were made changed fundamentally, and the results became apparent with the sharp increase in the infection curve.”

This change, Sadetzki wrote, “unfortunately involved considerable denial with regard to the infection trends that were seen and with regard to the significance of the decisions that were taken.”

Siegal Sadetzki and Moshe Bar Siman Tov at a news conference, May 29, 2020.
Siegal Sadetzki, left, and Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the Health Ministry director general at the time, at a news conference, May 29, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Criticism of Sadetzki and of Bar Siman Tov, the director general of the Health Ministry at the time, surfaced shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic from both within the ministry and elsewhere. The critics claimed that the two were making decisions without consulting other experts, without transparency and without sufficient backing from the data.

Bar Siman Tov’s own resignation at the end of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was quickly followed by a second spike in cases, placed Sadetzki in a problematic situation from her standpoint. The broad mandate that she had received at the beginning of the crisis was being undermined, as evidenced by a decision by Edelstein, the new health minister, to broaden the criteria for entitlement to coronavirus testing to include people who are asymptomatic, contrary to Sadetzki’s stance.

The apparent lack of confidence in her reached a new low on Monday when Edelstein announced that he would be appointing a new official to deal with the pandemic, and who would presumably assume a considerable portion of her responsibilities.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein Credit: Emil Salman

Recently a team of experts that has been advising the National Security Council on coronavirus policy called for responsibility for handling the pandemic to be taken away from the Health Ministry and turned over to the army, calling the handling of the pandemic by Sadetzki’s department “a professional failure.”

Reacting to Sadetzki’s resignation, Health Minister Edelstein called her “a dedicated employee who worked day and night for the health of Israel’s citizens. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement in which he thanked the public health director for “her contribution to the joint national effort in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.”

Sadetzki, a former academic and former director of the cancer and radiation epidemiology unit at the Health Ministry’s Gertner Institute, earned widespread admiration among her colleagues and students. She was appointed director of public health services a year ago.

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