Shortages Spark Fear of Rapid Spread of Coronavirus Among Disabled in Israel

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A woman sits in a mostly closed market in Jerusalem, March 22, 2020.
A woman sits in a mostly closed market in Jerusalem, March 22, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
Or Kashti

Officials at the health and social affairs ministries are worried that the coronavirus could spread rapidly among people with disabilities.

In discussions last week, officials warned that it would be very hard to control an outbreak of the virus in institutions where a combined 17,000 people with special needs live. The main reason is that social distancing is extremely difficult to implement, both because the institutions are crowded and because many residents would have trouble following the rules. Another problem is the lack of protective gear for staff.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

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“No attention is being paid to the weakest groups, who are liable to pay the highest price,” one official said.

On Sunday, the number of coronavirus patients at the Mishan nursing home in Be’er Sheva, which is run by the Health Ministry, rose to 11. One resident died of the disease over the weekend.

The Social Affairs Ministry said that 11 residents of institutions under its aegis have been infected so far, including seven at a facility in Gedera, while 490 are in quarantine.

Officials at several institutions painted a worrying picture of the situation.

“The two most critical issues in the war on the coronavirus are protective gear and deploying personnel,” one said. Yet the institutions lack basic equipment like masks, gloves and goggles.

“Aside from a little money that was transferred and quickly used up, the answers we’ve gotten are that responsibility for protective gear rests with the companies operating these institutions,” he added. “This is inconceivable. Not only have suppliers exploited the situation and raised prices, not only are the products we need sometimes unavailable, but a small institution lacks the ability to compete in the market against the big hospitals. We’re society’s weakest link.”

An official at another institution said that “aside from senior living facilities, institutions for people with disabilities are the most dangerous incubator for the disease, especially when there’s a lack of protective equipment. When we’ve requested it from the ministry, the answer we’ve gotten in recent days is, ‘There is none at the moment.’”

An official at one of the relevant ministries said that some facility operators have bought protective gear and others have raised donations, but the government “has disappeared. At some point, once the operators begin losing a lot of money, the fear is that the services given to people with disabilities will be harmed.”

The Social Affairs Ministry said responsibility for buying protective gear for all government facilities rests with the National Emergency Authority, but the ministry has requested that its institutions be given priority. “We provide protective suits to anyone who asks,” it added.

A coronavirus patient is brought in for treatment at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, March 30, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Ministry officials added that institutions that don’t want to wait for a government delivery can choose to buy protective gear on their own, but they haven’t been ordered to do so.

Some institutions say they also lack personnel to replace staffers who have been quarantined following exposure to the virus.

“It’s enormously hard to recruit staff,” one official said. “With low pay and no protective gear, how do they expect people to work in places that have patients? We can’t go on like this for long.”

When the coronavirus crisis began, the Social Affairs Ministry promised to shift workers among various institutions to fill staffing gaps. But officials at these institutions say this hasn’t happened yet.

“We have nothing to rely on but the dedication of our workers and their love for the residents,” one said.

One person familiar with the situation added that certain hospitals don’t want to admit coronavirus patients with disabilities if their symptoms are mild.

“There’s no possibility of sending the people cared for at these institutions to hotels or to their homes,” he said. “But the coronavirus wards aren’t enthusiastic about treating them, because they require special attention and additional staff.”

Yet keeping these patients in their residential facilities would cause “an explosion of the disease and rapid infection of everyone who remains there,” he added.

The Social Affairs Ministry said it has contacted a manpower agency that is providing caregivers to institutions with staff shortages. It is also preparing to open three hospitals for disabled coronavirus patients with mild symptoms.

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