'We're Grinding Down Our Staff:' Nursing Home Directors Beg Israel for Funding, Support

With hundreds of older people in nursing homes across Israel falling ill with COVID-19, care homes suffer manpower shortages and call on the Health Ministry to help

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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An elderly woman receives her COVID shot, last year.
An elderly woman receives her COVID shot, last year.Credit: Hadas Parush
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

As Israel is battling a fresh coronavirus outbreak, nursing homes directors are voicing concern over concerning manpower shortages and delays in receiving COVID test results.

Over the past three weeks, hundreds of elderly in nursing homes across the country fell ill with coronavirus. Moreover, in just 20 days, 1,079 residents of geriatric institutions were infected, although 689 staff members and 50 percent of nursing home residents have received a third vaccine dose.

Avi Shahar, the director of a nursing home in southern Israel, tweeted on Monday that the home is "under attack from the coronavirus." Last month, 40 cases were identified in the nursing home he runs. It forced him to convert two of his units into coronavirus designated units.

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“On one hand, staff are [easily] mobilized and are working under difficult conditions, some even get infected. On the other hand, the Health Ministry doesn't provide any support and doesn't address the manpower shortage.

"It’s easier [for the ministry] to order the removal of 30 confirmed cases with no symptoms from their homes than to provide [more] nurses. No lessons were learned over the past year and a half,” Shahar says.

Although his staff are COVID-free, he still lacks some personnel, since the treatment of coronavirus patients demands extra work by his nurses. “I want to keep people with light COVID symptoms here, but the Health Ministry must make an extra effort and find more manpower in order to do so,” says Shachar.

In a different outbreak at a nursing home in the city of Gedera, 75 people were infected. “In order to treat COVID-19 patients properly, you need to monitor them all the time, you need a larger nursing team,” says the home’s director Nastia Kinel.

“Eight of my nurses were infected, a quarter of my staff. I kept nearly 40 patients in [the] home, while others were transferred to coronavirus units [in hospitals], where the treatment is poor," Kinel said. When "they come back, and I can’t recognize them.”

Kinel calls for the ministry to find the proper funds for more nurses so that older people can be treated in care homes instead of being sent off to coronavirus wards in hospitals. “I need nurses on the ground for faster intervention,” she says.

More directors voiced their concerns on the matter. Most of them are demanding additional manpower, as they did in previous coronavirus outbreaks. The Health Ministry, however, tried to meet the demand back in April 2020, one month after the pandemic erupted in Israel.

The ministry decided to establish and fund designated emergency teams that would provide extra help for institutions in the case of an outbreak or when staff members are quarantined. Some 15 nurses and 100 supporters were recruited for the project, in which each team includes a nurse and four outsourced aides.

However, many directors were unsatisfied with the teams' performance. Moreover, the initiative was suspended after the first coronavirus wave subsided in May last year. 

The Association of Nursing Homes in Israel told Haaretz that the initiative was ill-conceived, didn't meet the needs of the system and couldn't provide real-time responses to institutions in need of help, these are just some of the reasons for the failure of the plan. The Health Ministry agreed with these statements.

After the ministry realized the project has failed, it decided to take a different approach. A government tender was issued last December for external providers who would supply emergency teams immediately. However, no company submitted an offer and the initiative was shelved.

After two failed attempts, the ministry believes the solution to personnel shortages lies in a state resolution calling to bring in 2,500 nurses from overseas. “This could change the battle,” said ministry officials. Thus far, however, the majority of these foreign workers have not arrived due to entry restrictions into Israel.

"Some institutions currently have half the required staff,” said Yuli Gat, the chairman of the Association of Nursing Homes in Israel, at a Knesset committee meeting on foreign workers. “We’re almost at a stage in which we can no longer provide the basic care for older people in our institutions. We’re grinding down our staff, and they are the last ones standing.”

In response, the ministry said the plan to compose special teams was abandoned since costs were too high and lack of demand. As an alternative the ministry offered to allocate more funds for stuff to address the extensive care a COVID patient requires.

Moreover, nursing homes directors are worried about the lengthy delays in receiving test results, which impedes the response needed to cut infection chains. The Health Ministry says that the labs dealing with these tests are working at full capacity, which is why it often takes 24 hours for a result to appear, even though nursing homes are prioritized.

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