Three names and phone numbers are written on the form, along with a short list of locations, most of them in Jerusalem. This is not a shopping list or to-do list, but the epidemiological investigation form of one man who circulated around Jerusalem for eight days before learning he was ill with COVID-19.
According to a Jerusalem physician, this form doesn’t begin to document the thousands of people he might have exposed while he was moving about, contagious. Yet this form remains the primary tool at the Health Ministry’s disposal in its desperate attempt to cut the chains of infection for the coronavirus. “We won’t get very far this way,” says the frustrated physician.
Trying to cut the chain of infection now takes between five and six days. An entire day passes until a person with symptoms is sent for testing, and three and a half additional days will pass until they get an answer. If the test is positive, it takes another day until a thorough epidemiological survey is conducted and everyone who had been in their proximity is told to self-quarantine. Even if the original patient had already begun to quarantine themself, all those people were moving around freely and could in theory have infected others.
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To streamline the process, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday ordered test results to be provided within 12 hours, and that no more than 48 additional hours pass for carrying out the epidemiological survey and notifying all contacts. But without a serious boost in manpower and a decision to prioritize coronavirus tests over others, that 60-hour time limit doesn’t look achievable.
The length of time for contact tracing is not the only worrisome statistic. Israel’s entire epidemiological survey apparatus comprises 27 public health nurses. The process also involves so many different agencies that need to coordinate among themselves; every link in the chain, which involves mostly people and not computers, has the potential to fail, certainly when we’re talking about thousands of people who must be contacted daily.
The Health Ministry has already announced it would take on 300 more people to help the nurses speed up the tracing. They are being hired now and will start work in the district health offices after some brief training.
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According to experts, completing the process, including the contact tracing, within two days is the only way to prevent the imposition of new local or national lockdowns. They note that in an open economy, a change in public behavior – which hasn’t been sufficient in any case – cannot bring about a reduction in infection by itself.