Israel Has Just 1,437 Ventilators in Reserve for Coronavirus Patients, Lawmakers Told

Top Health Ministry executive calls the coronavirus pandemic 'a tsunami that was impossible to prepare for'

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov
Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov, right, and Ofer Shelah, chairman of the Knesset coronavirus committee, at a session of the committee, Mar. 26, 2020. Credit: Adina Waldman/ Knesset spokesperson's office
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israel currently has only 1,437 ventilators in reserve, according to a report issued Thursday by the Knesset Research and Information Center. The study was commissioned by the special Knesset committee that oversees the government’s handing of the coronavirus pandemic, headed by MK Ofer Shelah (Kahol Lavan).

The Health Ministry told the Knesset that Israel has 2,173 of the breathing machines that are critical for treating patients with COVID-19. Of these, 708 are in use and 28 are unusable.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov told the committee Thursday that the Israel Defense Forces could provide 800-900 more ventilators and private medical providers system another 70. He said 2,864 spare ventilators should be available, without specifying where they would all come from.

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Bar Siman Tov told the committee the state began preparing for the pandemic on January 20. “So we’re to understand the ventilator inventory hasn’t changed since then?” Shelah asked him. Bar Siman Tov responded by calling the pandemic “a tsunami that was impossible to prepare for.”

As for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, he said: “The Palestinians are also on the list of my biggest worries. We are epidemiologically entwined. We are trying to provide a response.”

National Security Council director Meir Ben-Shabat told the committee there was not yet a detailed plan for exiting the crisis. “[T]here are ideas and directions but not an approved strategy.” He acknowledged that the government’s decisions are “not perfect” and when questioned about the lack of a coherent communications strategy said “there is no official format for how a government should act in a situation like this.”

“Each response causes more concern than the one before,” Shelah said to Ben-Shabat. “I’m sorry I have to explain this to you in this forum, but you should have brought in the best media people in Israel to manage a communications strategy. Where are the information hotlines? Including hotlines in different languages? It’s not just about having a leader standing there on television explaining.”

The Knesset report showed that in January 2020, Israel had 758 intensive care beds. As of Tuesday, 32,346 coronavirus tests had been performed; 2,000 were positive. The Health Ministry said 3,600 health care employees, including 926 doctors and 1,192 nurses, were in isolation as of Thursday.

A hospital facility created in a parking garage at Sheba Medical Center in response to the coronavirus epidemic, March 2020. Credit: Eyal Toueg

Hospital intensive care units are warning that they could be overwhelmed if they had to care for thousands of crtically ill coronavirus patients, much less the tens of thousands some forecasts suggest. The ventilator shortage is the most critical bottleneck, but a massive influx of patients would also require significantly more medical personnel, medical equipment, hospital beds and more.

“If the forecasts come true, the level of care for these patients won’t be half of what we’re able to provide today, when there are just a few patients in intensive care,” says Dr. Lion Poles of Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot. “You have to remember that there isn’t enough manpower and some of the team will probably be in isolation at home or in the hospital, or just completely worn out.” Poles says that under the current conditions, an ICU requires not only ventilators and medicines but also equipment including closed systems for suctioning secretions from patients to avoid the risk of infection and special beds to prevent pressure sores.

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