Col. (res.) Yoram Laredo thought that he had experienced the most dramatic event of his life when he headed the Israel Defense Forces rescue team sent to Nepal after the country’s 2015 earthquake.
“The earthquake had destroyed half the country, a truly heartbreaking event. But it was a one-time event – the earthquake happened and then it was over. Afterwards, you saw the shocking results and got to work on rescue and rehabilitation,” he told TheMarker this week. “With the coronavirus, by comparison, the most important element is the uncertainty.”
Laredo left the IDF at the end of last year, but he was called back again a few weeks ago as deputy head of the Homefront Command to lead an unprecedented undertaking at the seam line between the military and civilian sectors – housing many thousands of coronavirus sufferers and those who have been ordered into quarantine at Israeli hotels.
He is overseeing the program with Avi Ben-Zaken, a Health Ministry official, and Prof. Yehuda Carmeli of the National Center for Infection Control.
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The program, which has already become known as “the Corona hotels,” could last for many weeks, or even months. They have become a major element of Israel’s efforts to contain and treat the epidemic, right after hospitals. It’s a complicated undertaking, with few precedents to build on, but experts agree it is absolutely necessary in order to isolate sufferers and slow the contagion.
Until now, the Homefront Command had been operating six hotels, half of them for virus sufferers and half for people ordered into quarantine. The main hotels housing the sick have been the Dan Panorama in Tel Aviv with 800 beds and the Prima Palace in Jerusalem with 140. The Dan Hotel in Jerusalem is now beginning to take in patients as well.
“Right now we have 20 patients and there’s room for 800, so it will be the main place we send new cases from now on,” Laredo said.
Starting last week, the hotels have been housing two people to a room, which means the authorities not only have to deal with their physical needs but the psychological ones arising from housing two strangers in a single room for an extended period.
“If there are problems, they can ask to change rooms,” Loredo said. “We’re trying to be empathetic. All of us want to be at home, even someone who’s sick. It’s four weeks isolated from home and family, a serious business.”
The other three hotels had been designated for people returning from overseas that the government wants to quarantine under constant and strict supervision. Now, however, the authorities want to end that practice.
“Those who are sick will go to a hotel and those who aren’t will be released to their homes. The quarantine hotels will be used for coronavirus patients because the fact is the entire country is now in quarantine, so people who are at home are no longer coming into contact with lots of others. It’s better to make room for the sick,” Laredo explained.
The hotels are for patients with mild cases of the coronavirus. How do you decide which of them are sent to hotels?
“The Health Ministry is telling the health maintenance organizations which patients to send to hotels. The HMOs identify which patients should be transferred to a hotel and gets their agreement. It contacts the appropriate hotel, which then notifies Magen David Adom, which arranges to pick up the patient. A person with protective gear meets the patient upon arrival.”
“The hotels themselves don’t provide medical care. The patient gets a kit that includes a blood pressure gauge, thermometer, and pulse oximeter for measuring oxygen saturation and pulse rate. He stays in contact with the doctor at the HMO who has been seeing him.”
What have been the biggest challenges of turning hotels into medical facilities?
“We took over hotels that had suddenly stopped operating and had sent their employees home. The rooms weren’t set up properly to take in new people. As a result, the hotels needed to hire new staff, because the hotel staff are responsible for hotel operations, not IDF soldiers. Soldiers are in charge, but the logistical side of caring for the guests is the hotel’s responsibility based on protocols and managerial systems we developed with the Health Ministry.”
What is daily life there like? Do you change the sheets every day? Do the patients have their meals in the hotel dining room?
“They have a television in the room and Wifi, just like in any other hotel. Once a week we bring them sheets and towels, and they make their own beds. The also get laundry detergent and do their own washing, hang out the clothes in the room to dry. There’s no room service, only a centralized food service, with their names on the trays.”
What about people who keep kosher or are vegetarians? Do their needs get taken into account?
“There’s supervision over this. There are people who don’t eat gluten, those who keep kosher, vegetarians and vegans. The hotels are accustomed to these things and understand the issues around kashrut and [food] sensitivities.”
Can patients leave their rooms?
“Yes, patients can socialize with each other because they are all sick. The hotel has public areas with backgammon, checkers, etc., and they can manage their lives and interact with others.”
And the hotel staff, do they have protective gear?
“Yes. Before we open a hotel [for coronavirus patients], we bring in Prof. Carmeli, who meets with everyone and explains the mechanics of the contagion, the precautions they need to take and how to protect themselves. After the meetings, they are able to let go of 90 per cent of their concerns.There’s no problem about protective equipment.”
The two newest hotels in the program are at Kibbutz Lavi and Nir Etzion, both in Israel’s north. Together, they can house 700 patients.
Ultra-Orthodox patients present a special challenge. Many of them don’t have the option of being quarantined from home because their apartments are so small and crowded. However, Israeli hotels are used to serving Haredi guests and catering to their stricter standards of kashrut, said Laredo.
As to whole families that have to go into hotel quarantine, the rule of two to a room is observed. However, the program will try to give them adjacent rooms in the same facilities.
If the number of coronavirus patients grows to the tens of thousands, will you be able to provide enough hotel rooms?
“Yes, because we had planned on taking in for quarantine all those returning from abroad at a rate of 1,000 people a day.”
Was it easy to find hotels to participate in the program?
“The hotels haven’t been enthusiastic, to say the least. In Tel A viv, we’ve been asking a hotel to join and after 48 hours we’ve gotten no response.”
Why. Isn’t this a way for them to bring in revenues at a time when tourism has collapsed?
“Some hotels simply aren’t appropriate for the job. A hotel has to have at least 200 rooms to be able to do it. I can’t work with small hotels that can’t handle the logistical demands of providing food, quarantine and staff. In Jerusalem, I have been able to provide an inventory of thousands of beds. In Tel Aviv, it’s more challenging. We’ve been approaching hotel CEOs without too much success at the moment.”
If needed, would you consider nationalizing hotels that don’t cooperate?
“At the moment, we’re not in such trouble that we need to nationalize them.”