Israeli Army Reservists Staffing COVID-19 Call Center Walk Off After Spike in Calls

The surge in call volume from people mostly seeking to appeal quarantine orders was due to a change in Health Ministry policy, which soldiers complained was unclear and difficult to relay

Amos Harel
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Soldiers from the Home Front Command help distribute food in East Jerusalem.
Soldiers from the Home Front Command help distribute food in East Jerusalem, April 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel

A hundred Israeli army reservists who were recruited to staff a coronavirus call center walked off the job on Thursday after a change in Health Ministry guidelines resulted in a spike in calls to the center.

For the past several weeks, the Israeli army has provided soldiers to help staff Health Ministry call centers handling calls related to the coronavirus pandemic, after the number of cases of the virus around the country surged. The rise was accompanied by a spike in the number of Israelis seeking to appeal orders to go into isolation based on cellphone tracking data from the Shin Bet security service.

The Shin Bet has been monitoring tracking data to determine when members of the public have come into close proximity of a confirmed coronavirus carrier.

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The Home Front Command called up one of its reserve search and rescue battalions for the task, and a call center was established at Home Front Command headquarters in Ramle. It has been staffed by more than 250 soldiers who were called up based on emergency orders without advance notice.

The soldiers responded enthusiastically and the call center went into operation with support from Health Ministry professionals, answering more than 90,000 inquiries, for the most part from callers seeking to appeal orders to remain in isolation.

The army and the Health Ministry have both expressed satisfaction over the program, but last Thursday about 100 reservists abandoned their phones for several hours in anger over a jump in calls to the center after the ministry reduced the required time in isolation for a large portion of those in quarantine.

Soldiers also complained that the new ministry policy was unclear and that it was difficult to provide answers to the callers.

The army said the soldiers had left the call center for two or three hours, but Haaretz has received information indicating that they were absent for as many as six hours. 

Coronavirus testing in Be'er Sheva.
Coronavirus testing in Be'er Sheva, June 2020.Credit: Tamar Ben David

The battalion’s commander was forced to intervene and, after the new criteria were clarified, the soldiers returned to the phones. In the interim, however, thousands of calls went unanswered.

Speaking to Haaretz, an officer from the Home Front Command called it “a localized incident that does not reflect the reservists impressive dedication to the mission on such short notice.”

In retrospect, he acknowledged, the situation might have been handled better and conclusions will be drawn from the incident.

The army spokesman’s office said in response that this is one of a number of missions in which the Home Front Command has been providing the Health Ministry with assistance in dealing with COVID-19. “In this case, a specific problem occurred resulting from a change in directives,” the spokesman’s office said, “but after a short time,” the situation was clarified.