Israeli Nursing Home Directors Say Coronavirus Testing Expansion Is Too Little, Too Late

A third of the country's coronavirus deaths are from assisted living facilities and nursing homes, and authorities are mandating testing only in those with confirmed cases

Ido Efrati
Bar Peleg
Almog Ben Zikri
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Medics at the Nofim assisted living home in Jerusalem, March 2020.
Medics at the Nofim assisted living home in Jerusalem, March 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Ido Efrati
Bar Peleg
Almog Ben Zikri

About a third of Israel’s coronavirus deaths – 33 out of 94, as of Friday – were residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and 26 such facilities have confirmed cases, possibly affecting hundreds of residents and staff members.

This week, the Health Ministry ordered that any such institution where a case is diagnosed , but directors of such facilities are calling for tests to be done in all of them, saying the latest directive may be too little and too late.

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Until this week, tests were systematically conducted mainly in institutions that had a large outbreak, such as the Mishan assisted living home in Be’er Sheva, where 13 residents with  died and 14 others have tested positive, and Jerusalem’s Nofim, where 15 residents have been diagnosed while four have died.

Cases were registered in other facilities across the country, but the government has not release any official data on the overall picture in these locations. The data provided here is based on reports by the Association of Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities and by residents' family members.

On Thursday, the Health Ministry said that the Magen David Adom emergency medical service began conducting 3,000 tests a day in with confirmed cases. All 300 residents and staff at the Yokra nursing home in Yavne’el, where 49 cases were diagnosed and eight residents died, have been tested, as well as some at a nursing home in Rishon Letzion where three residents have died of the virus and at the Bayit Balev facility in Bat Yam, where 18 cases had been confirmed. Magen David Adom tested about 40 of the remaining patients and staff in the same ward at Bayit Balev on Thursday, and 12 patients and two staff members were found to be positive.

Some 300 tests have been conducted at Bayit Balev, most by the Maccabi health maintenance organization, which owns the facility. Its management has called on the Health Ministry to complete the remaining 400 tests for all patients and staff in all wards and to provide staff with protective gear.

According to Mishan, which runs several facilities across Israel, no tests at all have been conducted at its nursing home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, where two residents tested positive.

On Monday, the High Court of Justice is set to hear a petition filed by 23 nursing homes and their association, asking justices to order tests for all residents and staff in all facilities across the country and demanding compensation for expenses resulting from their efforts to contain the outbreak, including overtime, protective gear and sanitation expenses.

“Nursing homes are the weakest link, and efforts should have concentrated on them in the early stages of the crisis,” a director at one facility in northern Israel, where no cases have been diagnosed and no tests conducted, told Haaretz. He called for “testing at least staff members, who go in and out of the nursing home, so that they don’t infect patients. We check their temperature every time they arrive, but we have no way of doing more than that, and we know that there are cases without fever or other symptoms. I have 70 staff members, and I have no way of knowing whether they were infected when they were outside of here.”

Dani Ben Shitrit, who manages a nursing home in Jerusalem, said: “Fortunately, no case was discovered here, but I can’t say that it won’t happen soon. We had no choice but appeal to the High Court to start getting tests for residents and employees.” He stressed that elderly people “are in the greatest risk, and I’m sad to say that we’ve heard enough promises from the Health Ministry.”

Kahol Lavan lawmaker Meirav Cohen called on nursing homes to provide data on their testing ahead of a debate at the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. “We’ve been alerting for weeks that nursing homes are a ticking time bomb, with tens of thousands of residents in over 700 facilities at risk of mass infection,” she said. “Unfortunately, only too late, after more than 20 residents passed, the Health Ministry agreed to widespread tests… Each day that passes without tests for all residents and without ensuring adequate conditions for isolation and removal of [confirmed] patients from those institutions brings us closer to the disaster we fear the most – a massive outbreak… that would lead to the death of dozens and possibly even hundreds at a single facility.”

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