On January 2, Ram Netzer, 53, of Tel Aviv, received two phone calls that he didn’t want to get. The first was from a contact tracer and the second was from the Clalit Health Services health maintenance organization. Both calls informed Netzer that he had tested positive for the coronavirus in a test that he had taken two days earlier. The only problem was that Netzer had not taken a COVID-19 test then – or for weeks prior to that.
From then on, what began as a clear case of mistaken identity developed into a story with surprising, life-complicating twists and turns. According to the Shin Bet security service’s contact-tracing procedures, the moment Netzer was declared positive for COVID-19, anyone who had been in contact with him in the days prior to that was contacted and told to go into quarantine.
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“I know of at least four people who went into quarantine because of me, but it’s very likely that there are other people who were contacted and I don’t know about them,” Netzer said.
At first, Netzer and those required to go into quarantine did what people should do when they receive an erroneous notice: try to appeal. They tried over and over to get in touch with the Health Ministry call center to explain the mistake, but they were unable to reach an actual person. When they finally did get through, they were cut off.
“We waited for hours on the phone and couldn’t reach anyone and get a real response,” Netzer said. An attempt to appeal by filling out an online form also failed because there was no space for Netzer to explain the unusual situation.
When Netzer finally reached a representative of his HMO, Clalit Health Services, he was referred back to the Health Ministry, whose representatives explained to him that his name had already been fed into the computer as a “confirmed carrier” and nothing could be done.
Just four days later, after TheMarker, Haaretz's business daily, approached the Health Ministry, Netzer received a call from the ministry informing him that a mistake had been made. “They told me that they know there was an error and they were working on fixing it, and that in a few days I would receive an update that it had been fixed,” Netzer said. But no such update was ever sent to him.
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After additional failed attempts to reach the Health Ministry, Netzer decided to make do with that phone call and get on with his life. At least one of the women sent into quarantine received special permission to have it lifted, but the others did not. They had all thought that the matter was behind them, but on Wednesday, the second part of the saga, no less extreme, unfolded.
'Don’t come to us for treatment, don’t come to the clinics'
Netzer took his daughters to the Clalit dental clinic in Tel Aviv's Ramat Aviv neighborhood for a prearranged appointment. One of the appointments was in his name, so the system flagged him as having visited the clinic. The next day, there was a call from Clalit.
“They called my ex-wife and told her that because I had been to the clinic and am listed as a confirmed patient – the whole clinic had to close,” he said. At that point, the damage from the original mistake was compounded, affecting not only Netzer and a few people in his immediate circle, but the closure of an entire clinic.
Netzer called the Health Ministry again, where he was told that he was not listed as a coronavirus carrier and should inform Clalit. But the clinic had already been closed “because of him” and he couldn’t get through to anyone. Later he received another phone call from Clalit.
“A senior Clalit employee from Smile Ramat Gan [the dental clinic] called and scolded me for my lack of responsibility and for coming to the clinic even though I knew I was listed as a confirmed patient. I was told it was my obligation to see to it that it was cancelled,” he said.
“She added that until that happened, I would not be given treatment of any kind at Clalit, and that I should not come in person to any clinic because that would automatically lead to it being shut down,” Netzer added.
The senior employee also contacted Netzer’s family physician, claiming that she was the only one who could correct the error in the Clalit computer. But according to Netzer, the family physician was the same doctor who the week before had called him “saying that from her point of view I was sick and she was not authorized to release anyone without reliable confirmation.”
'My freedom disappeared in an instant'
After TheMarker approached Clalit, it was clear that there had been a delay in updating Netzer as coronavirus-free, between the Health Ministry and the Clalit systems. Clalit said in response: “We have acted over the past few days to update the medical records. The matter was explained to the patient by the district medical administrator, and we apologize for any distress that may have been caused.”
Netzer said he hopes the strange case is behind him, but he still has an unpleasant feeling: “I felt that my freedom had disappeared in an instant and that I was not in control of my own life. Mistakes can happen but the big difficulty is that there was nothing to be done about it and no quick fix. The computer makes a mistake – and there’s no one to talk to.”
The Health Ministry has not yet responded for this article.