Israel's Health Ministry Rejects Calls to Only Quarantine, Tests Those With COVID Symptoms

The Israel Association of Public Health Physicians' chairman calls on Bennett to treat COVID like any other infectious disease ■ Health Ministry replies: 'An irresponsible conversation aimed at eroding the public trust'

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Israelis lining up on Tel Aviv's Habima Square last week for coronavirus tests.
Israelis lining up on Tel Aviv's Habima Square last week for coronavirus tests. Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Israel Association of Public Health Physicians drew a backlash from the Health Ministry after its chairman called upon Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to limit testing and quarantine to symptomatic COVID-19 patients, people at high-risk and those who regularly come in contact with them.

Following the statement's initial publication, the association later clarified expressed "regret over the hasty announcement sent earlier today," clarifying that the statement was released by its chairman, Prof. Hagai Levine, on behalf of the group without proper consultation.

"[The statement] was made solely based on his opinion and is completely unacceptable to the Medical Association's Coronavirus Experts Forum," the statement read

With cases hovering at around 40,000 a day amid the infectious omicron variant, the current policy of testing asymptomatic people and logging positive results as active cases “creates a distorted picture regarding the scope of infection and leads to widespread isolation, the benefit of which is not clear,” the chairman stated in a letter to Bennett over the weekend.

The statement argued that the quarantine policy “is eroding essential resources during a pandemic, particularly of medical personnel and of other essential staff while seriously harming the education system without justification.”

The letter recommended that coronavirus be regarded similarly to other infectious diseases. “At this stage of the pandemic, the main benefit of testing is clinical (to treat the patient suffering from symptoms),” it explained, and thus called to drop the current policy of testing and isolating all people exposed to the virus.

The letter urged the Prime Minister to consider changing the approach to dealing with the virus, and to focus more on “health and not on testing,” adding that some policies which have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic have become “expensive and unnecessary… and harmful to the health of the Israeli public.”

The association claims the “unprecedented” use of PCR tests to detect the virus in Israel has a low-cost benefit ratio. According to the physicians, Israel is placed third in the world in the countries giving most test per person, with 37.18 daily institutionalized tests per 1,000 people. By comparison, the number of daily tests in the U.K. stands at 22.18 and in the U.S. at 4.16 per 1,000 people.

The association was not the only group against the current testing policy. In a post published on the Ichilov Hospital's official Facebook page, Professor Idit Matot, Chair of the Department of Anesthesiology, Intensive Care and Pain, said that the omicron variant should not be compared to other strains of the virus which caused prolonged serious illness.

"We have seen in the past month that omicron is highly contagious but causes minimal damage." The proof, she says is that "Icholov Hospital does not have a single omicron patient on a ventilator or ECMO… there is simply no need for it."  

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.”

The ministry asserted it has acted to "maintain public health as well as to protect the economy, education, and culture as much as possible when living alongside the coronavirus" during the omicron wave.

It also called out Professor Matot's post in particular, slamming her use of the hospital's Facebook page as “wrong and forbidden.”

"It's too soon," one health official said, "we need to study the disease for at least two more weeks in order to determine the scope of illness caused by infection."

With time, the official added, it might be possible to shorten quarantine for carriers and even exempt isolation all together. 

Meanwhile, serious COVID cases are continuing to spike, with a rise of 184.2 percent this week taking the tally to a three-month peak of 387 cases on Saturday.

Of the serious cases 116 are considered to be in critical condition and 93 are on ventilators. Despite the rise in serious cases, the strain on hospitals has relatively eased in recent days, running at 77.6 percent capacity on Saturday.

Serious illness remains more prevalent among the unvaccinated. Data from the Health Ministry earlier this week showed that the unvaccinated are 15 times more likely to fall seriously ill than their inoculated counterparts.

On Friday, the Health Ministry recorded 39,015 new cases, though these figures are do not reflect the true amount of cases currently active in Israel given the policy shift to home testing. 

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