Israeli Army Says Its Contact Tracing Is Working, Rejecting Criticism

Will the IDF mobilize to support the vaccination campaign?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers at a Home Front Command center for identifying coronavirus patients, Ramle, September 29, 2020.
Israeli soldiers at a Home Front Command center for identifying coronavirus patients, Ramle, September 29, 2020.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Army officials have rebuffed criticism from Israel’s health care establishment about the efficacy of the military’s coronavirus contact tracing program, known as Alon. Israel Defense Forces’ data shows that contact tracers are reaching many more people per coronavirus patient than they did in previous months, when many Israelis refused to cooperate.

In October, contact tracers identified an average of 5.5 people who had come into contact with each diagnosed carrier. That number recently rose to 11.5.

A few months ago, 24 percent of patients told contact tracers they had not been in close physical proximity to anyone during the relevant period. (That is, most simply refused to name their contacts.) That number has fallen to 2 percent.

The average number of people ordered to isolate or quarantine due to reported contact with each person who tested positive for the virus rose to more than six, from just one in July. In addition, 68 percent of people who are told by contact tracers to get tested for the virus comply, double the percentage during the summer.

There are nearly 3,000 contact tracers, including 700 soldiers in compulsory service. The IDF says that despite the rise in both the number of tests and the number of people testing positive, its contact tracers can handle the workload.

The number of daily tests has risen steadily in recent weeks, in part because rising infection rates have spurred more people to get tested. The rise in the number of people testing positive is in part due to the fact that more tests are being conducted.

Nevertheless, efforts are still being made to increase the number of tests. Today, with another private laboratory having joined the list of those authorized to perform the tests, it’s possible to handle around 85,000 tests a day, including repeat tests for recovering patients and tests for people returning from abroad. The goal is to reach 100,000 tests a day within a few weeks.

A man getting tested for coronavirus in Jerusalem, October 26, 2020.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The IDF admits that it has failed to significantly reduce infection rates in Arab communities, which have been rising steadily for a number of months. Despite the close cooperation of mayors of Arab towns with the army’s Home Front Command, the state has failed to stop weddings with large numbers of participants in these communities, in defiance of the coronavirus regulations. Weddings have been a principal source of infection in the Arab community.

The Home Front Command is preparing for the possibility that it will be asked to assist in a mass nationwide vaccination campaign. Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy met last week with the head of the command, Uri Gordin, to discuss ways to include the IDF in the operation, which is slated to start toward the end of the month and continue throughout next year.

Health care workers will be the first group of people eligible for the vaccine. The health maintenance organizations will be responsible for vaccinating their members, under Health Ministry supervision. Teva Pharmaceutical Industries will be in charge of storing and transporting the vaccines.

Nevertheless, because the vaccine produced by Pfizer – the first to be approved – must be stored at very low temperatures (minus 70 degrees Celsius), special care will have to be taken to transport the doses quickly and properly. The IDF’s logistics chain, which has also been used to transport coronavirus tests, could help with this.

The IDF will presumably also be in charge of vaccinating its own service members once there is enough vaccine. But right now, vaccinating soldiers isn’t a priority.

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As with testing, the goal is eventually to vaccinate 100,000 people a day. In the first stage, the HMOs will administer 60,000 to 70,000 doses per day. But once it’s clear that the system is working as it should, this number could rise.

Nevertheless, the cabinet and the Health Ministry are still worried about problems that may arise in the future, like safety issues that emerge as more people are vaccinated worldwide or delays in the production and supply chain.

If everything goes as planned, Israel is expected to receive 4 million doses by the end of January, enough to give 2 million people the required two doses, three weeks apart to achieve immunity. This would be enough to vaccinate most of the at-risk population – the elderly and people with preexisting conditions – as well as medical staffers and other people in essential jobs. And if, again, everything goes as planned, all these people could be vaccinated by late February or early March.

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