Only Half of Israel's COVID Cases Can Be Traced, Experts' Report Says

The army reports a significant improvement in its contact tracing ability, but experts express dissatisfaction with its achievements in tracing the location of most infections

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Soldiers at the Israeli army's epidemiological investigation center, September 2020.
Soldiers at the Israeli army's epidemiological investigation center, September 2020.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Alon Command, the Israel Defense Forces program for breaking chains of coronavirus infections, has been able to trace the source of infection only in 50 percent of confirmed cases, even though it started operating three months ago.

Experts on the coronavirus cabinet have expressed their dissatisfaction with these results. “Ten months into the [coronavirus crisis] and three months after the Alon Command began operating, we have no idea where COVID infections take place in Israel, which fundamentally impedes setting a well-thought out policy,” a report released by the cabinet experts on Thursday said.

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The contact tracing program has 3,000 investigators, including over 1,000 from local governments and the rest are Health Ministry employees and soldiers. It has computer and reporting systems, infrastructure to transport blood samples and the ability to conduct about 100,000 coronavirus tests a day.

The entire system, in which enormous financial and human resources were invested, improves daily and it can now investigate up to 5,000 people a day. This well-oiled system employs 20 officers of the rank of major and lieutenant colonel.

The system has also given rise to more and more units with various specializations, like a special mission team that focuses on incoming flights and monitoring the incidence of disease among those returning from abroad.

Members of this team come from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, the IDF’s elite 8200 intelligence unit and the Health Ministry. Another team specializes in analyzing epidemiological investigations and its purpose is to locate specific locations of infection, or people who are at the center of a number of confirmed cases.

The Alon Command handles every day about 20 outbreaks in schools, factories or organizations – and it has improved significantly in contact tracing, according to people in the unit.

Today, an epidemiological investigation provides 10 contacts with whom a new carrier has met with, while in November an investigation led to about three to four contacts. However, locating the source of infection still remains the program's weakest link.  

Despite criticism from the cabinet experts, the Alon Command believes it should have a central role in the vaccination campaign expected to begin this month, and has held discussions with the Health Ministry, National Security Council and HMOs on the matter.

But it remains unclear whether the Health Ministry will be quick to hand the keys over to the army instead of using existing infrastructure of the HMOs, which are now in the midst of vaccinating the public against the seasonal flu.

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