Israel in 'Eye of the Storm,' Bennett Says as COVID Quarantines Burden Hospitals, Schools

With the omicron wave driving over 100,000 students across Israel into isolation, the Education Ministry is calling on Prime Minister Bennett to loosen the COVID quarantine policy

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People queue in stormy weather in Tel Aviv to get a COVID test, on Sunday.
People queue in stormy weather in Tel Aviv to get a COVID test, on Sunday.Credit: Hadas Parush

Israel is in the "eye of the storm" of its omicron wave, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday, as some hospitals running close to capacity warned they may need to turn away patients.

Bennett told a cabinet meeting that he knew the country was in the midst of “difficult weeks,” but reassured that “it won't last forever.” He also said that the government had secured a million more antigen tests to keep track of the spiraling infections.

Amid Bennett's address, several hospitals across the country set in motion preparations to cut back on non-urgent activities, as capacity struggled to keep up with demand primarily due to infection and exposure of medical staff.

As of Sunday, there were 436 COVID patients in serious condition in hospitals across the country. While this figure is still far lower than Israel's record of some 1,200 serious cases in previous waves of the pandemic, it is now coupled with a spike in flu cases and a growing number of staff members – 7,716 as of Sunday – forced into isolation.

About 1,000 of the quarantined staff are doctors and some 2,190 are nurses.

While no decision has been made on the national level, some hospitals began scaling back their operations. Ashdod's Assuta Medical Center said it has diverted ambulances to other hospitals, citing a "critical shortage of medical teams." At Haifa's Rambam Hospital, officials said non-urgent operations may be delayed. 

Meanwhile, in the Arab population stark spikes have been recorded in the numbers of confirmed cases. Last week 15,145 new cases were confirmed as opposed to 4,448 the week prior, excluding cases recorded in mixed cities. Currently, in the Arab population there are 16,633 active cases as opposed to 5,511 last week. 

100,000 students in quarantine

On Sunday evening, senior Health Ministry officials are set to debate shortening the length of mandatory quarantine, in light of the high number of confirmed new cases.

Over the weekend, various ministry officials called to changed the current policy. The Association of Public Health Physicians proposed mandating that confirmed coronavirus patients enter isolation only if they are experiencing symptoms, are in a high risk group for serious illness, or if they are likely to come in contact with populations that are at high risk for serious illness. The head of anesthesia and intensive care at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, Professor Idit Matot also called to exempt asymptomatic patients from isolation.

In a response, the Health Ministry said it is investing "tremendous efforts to save lives and keep the public safe," adding that statements such as that of the association's are creating “an irresponsible conversation aimed at eroding public trust.”

Meanwhile, several voices in the school system, including the Education Ministry, are urging to loosen Israel's quarantine policies, as the number of students in isolation exceeds 100,000 across the country, a significantly higher number than previous waves. 

Although the education system is nominally operating as usual, many schools are facing absences of over half the students. 

In preschools, where the vast majority of children are not eligible for vaccinations, contact with a coronavirus carrier leads to a complete shutdown of the institution. The Education Ministry does not have concrete figures on how many preschools are shuttered, but the estimates number in the hundreds across the country.

The Education Ministry is working to restore the so-called Green Classroom program, which allows for studies to continue as normal following contact with a carrier, subject to a negative antigen test.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has been leading the charge, and on Saturday again called to “immediately limit quarantine for healthy children.” Alongside the minister and several local council heads, around 250 school principals signed a letter testifying to “the mental cost” of interruptions to in-person learning, and appealed for unvaccinated children to be exempt from the sweeping quarantine policy.

However, sources at the Education Ministry say the plans to ease quarantine regulations are facing opposition from the Health Ministry.

Amid the confusion, some schools have simply decided to shift to distance learning, with the Bat Yam Municipality announcing that middle and high school students will study online for the next two days, following the spike in quarantines for students. The Gedera Municipality, too, introduced distance learning for tenth to twelfth graders.

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