Tel Aviv Hospital Director Named Israel's Coronavirus Czar, Says 'Challenges Are Enormous'

Ronni Gamzu led pandemic fight in nursing homes, but wasn’t initially short-listed for the new post

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Gamzu during a presentation at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, April 20, 2020.
Gamzu during a presentation at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, April 20, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Prof. Ronni Gamzu was appointed coronavirus czar early Thursday morning, just hours after the leading candidate declined the position.

The news came as Israel is struggling with a rise in the number of COVID-19 infections, severely ill patients and fatalities.

The number of coronavirus cases rose by 1,368 Thursday, bringing the number of active cases to 33,097. Ten people died from the virus, for a total of 440 deaths. As of Thursday evening, 702 people were in hospital, including 302 in serious condition and 83 people on ventilators.

Gamzu, the CEO of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital), accepted the offer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein after Prof. Gabi Barbash walked away due to disagreement over his authority.

“Late in the evening the prime minister and health minister asked me to join the effort to cope with the coronavirus crisis at the national level, after Prof. Barbash’s appointment regrettably fell through,” Gamzu wrote Thursday morning.

“I agreed immediately. I did the same at the start of April when I was asked to handle the crisis in nursing homes,” he added.

Gamzu wrote that “This is a medical, economic and social crisis. I don’t ask any questions in such a situation, I simply show up, contribute all I can and help my country and its health system manage the crisis.

“The challenges are enormous: restoring public trust in the handling of the pandemic, striking a wise balance between reducing infection rates and continuing normal life, improving public response and enforcement, breaking the chain of infection more effectively and strengthening the health care system.” 

Gamzu was not on the list of candidates for national coronavirus project manager that was drawn up this month. Although he said he was recruited in hastily, his appointment did not surprise Israeli public-health officials. Gamzu, 54, was appointed in April to address COVID-19 related deaths in the country’s nursing homes. He has led Tel Aviv’s main medical center since 2015, a position he held from 2010-14.

He is considered one of only a handful of administrators in Israel with the experience to take on a complex public-health crisis. A professor of gynecology, he is an associate professor of public health and of health and business administration at Tel Aviv University.

In 2017, Gamzu was appointed chairman of the committee that determines the so-called basket of medicines and health services that are subsidized by the state.

In 2013, as Health Ministry director general, he was called on to deal with a polio outbreak, the first major viral outbreak that required dealing with lack of public confidence over the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. Gamzu led a broad information campaign, during which he met ultra-Orthodox and Arab community leaders. Over 1 million Israelis were vaccinated for polio over the course of four months, halting the spread of the disease.

Health officials believe Gamzu’s abilities are suitable to manage a crisis like the corona. Some say he also has political savvy and has entered the fray with his eyes open.

The main challenges he faces are the pandemic’s rapid spread and the health system’s complexity. Communication among administrators within the system is known to be a weak spot, and cooperation with other agencies is an even greater problem. In addition, the system is understaffed and logistics are a problem area.

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