To Tackle Possible Second COVID-19 Wave, Israel Seeks to Create Special Task Force

No agreement reached between the Health and Treasury ministries on who will fund the emergency framework ■ Rabbi of anti-Israel sect enters country with the help of health minister aide

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israelis spending time at the beach, Jaffa, May 10, 2020.
Israelis spending time at the beach, Jaffa, May 10, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Sometimes politicians say outright what professional experts are still cautious about saying. At a press conference on Monday, perhaps his last on the job, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said that Israel’s current coronavirus outbreak seemed to be behind us.

“It’s apparently connected to the heat,” he mused aloud – an explanation scientists have also raised as a possibility, but which remains unproven. In the Middle East, incidence of the coronavirus has been low compared to Western Europe, but in hot Brazil, for example, the death toll has recently surged.

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Bennett also described what he viewed as the main task of the new government – which he won’t be joining, at least for now – “setting up an emergency system to manage pandemics within 140 days,” meaning before the next outbreak of the virus, which may occur as winter approaches.

On this point, the outgoing defense minister’s views are similar to those of the Health Ministry, which is currently drafting plans to create such a system. The ministry also wants two other things: for the system to be under its management, and for the Finance Ministry to fund it generously.

For more than a week, Israel has had fewer than 100 new coronavirus cases a day. That has happened despite the easing of lockdown restrictions, a relaxation that began on April 19 and has since been significantly expanded.

The next test will come within a few days, when we see the impact of the recent reopening of preschools and schools for the lower grades. A continuation of the current trend would lead to greater risk-taking and accelerate the reopening of schools for all grades.

The decline in the number of new patients has been accompanied by a decline in the number of coronavirus tests conducted, though the rate of positive results has remained steady at around 0.5 percent. The decline in testing stems mainly from a drop in the number of people who want to be tested.

The health care system may therefore start testing in certain areas that were previously coronavirus hotbeds, even if there are no reports of new outbreaks there. But in any case, it seems important to maintain a high number of daily tests at a time when restrictions are steadily being eased.

Transferring responsibility for testing to the health maintenance organizations has imposed order on the process and shortened critical waiting times. Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov told Channel 12 that the average wait time for test results has fallen to just 12 hours.

The next stage is serological testing, which looks for virus antibodies in the blood. The first round, in which 100,000 people are slated to get tested, is supposed to start in about 10 days. Some of this testing will be done in Bnei Brak, the city with the worst outbreak in the country as a percentage of its population.

But the most critical element will be to create an epidemiological task force that will perform contact tracing once new patients are located. At the end of May, the Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad plan to close their joint emergency headquarters, whose tasks included gathering information about the virus.

The plan the Health Ministry submitted to the treasury calls for hiring 33 people to “trace and investigate” and 69 people to focus on “intelligence, information and knowledge.” So far, there’s no agreement on where the money to hire them will come from, so it’s not clear if the tracing operation will be ready to go by the end of May as the Health Ministry hopes.

The ministry is also seeking billions of shekels for additional hospital beds and additional medical staff as part of its preparations for a possible second wave of the coronavirus. But the treasury isn’t convinced hospitals should be the first beneficiaries of any budget increase.

A moving story

With unconcealed excitement, the ultra-Orthodox website Behadrei Haredim reported on a great success last week: Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, a leading rabbi in his 80s closely affiliated with the Satmar Hasidic sect, managed to make it to Israel despite the coronavirus crisis.

Roth arrived “after great efforts were made for him by senior officials. This effort was made so he could attend the hillula at Meron despite the coronavirus and the restrictions,” the site reported, referring to the annual celebration at Mount Meron to commemorate the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. “He was met at the airport by Moti Babchik, one of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s key aides, and he proceeded to quarantine for 14 days in his apartment in Meron.”

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The elderly rabbi was accompanied by his son, “and both of them received permission to enter Israel after they recently completed the immigration process. Other relatives who sought to accompany them were refused, because they haven’t immigrated, and Israel is currently barring entry to foreign nationals,” the report said.

The report said the rabbi’s arrival was made possible by “a network of connections in Israel and worldwide.” One of his grandchildren said that he tried all his connections and lobbied both the Health Ministry and the National Security Council, to no avail.

The breakthrough happened thanks to Israel’s consul in New York, Dani Dayan, who was contacted by the rabbinical leader of another Hasidic sect, the Skverers. “He immediately began a series of phone calls and Zoom conversations with American and Israeli diplomats and with anybody who could pull the relevant strings. Two weeks of hard work together with senior Health Ministry officials, led by Moti Babchik, bore fruit, and [last] Tuesday, final approval for the grandfather’s journey was received.”

Truly a moving story. At the height of the coronavirus panic in New York, somebody arranged for an elderly Jew to enter Israel, fast-tracked his immigration and even organized his quarantine near Mount Meron just when the hillula was taking place, even though the government decided to restrict to attendance drastically this year because of the virus. Litzman’s aide and even the consul general in New York helped Roth make it to the hillula.

Ultra-Orthodox people ligting bonfires in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, May 11, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

What else is worth mentioning? That Roth belongs to an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect that attacks Israel from every possible platform; that he’s a patron of the so-called Jerusalem faction of ultra-Orthodoxy, which organizes violent demonstrations against drafting Haredi men into the army and persecutes Haredi soldiers who dare to enlist; and that members of this faction recently clashed violently with police in Beit Shemesh because the government imposed a curfew on their neighborhoods following a major outbreak of the coronavirus.

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