Recent reports indicate the infection rate of COVID-19 in Israel has slowed down. According to Prof. Arnon Afek, Deputy Director General at Sheba Medical Center, the stringent measures applied by the Israeli government contributed to this notable achievement.
When news of the first patients diagnosed with the coronavirus started to trickle into Israel, many severe restrictions were introduced. Tel Aviv grounded flights, thousands of Israelis were quarantined, and tourists were requested to leave the country. As the situation worsened, government offices and public institutions were quickly shuttered, cultural and sports events were cancelled, and full lockdowns on entire towns and neighborhoods were enforced.
“The decisions taken by the government were correct,” said Prof. Afek. “They gave Israeli doctors the time to prepare.”
Sheba was the first hospital in Israel to confront the COVID-19 challenge. The medical facility opened a technologically advanced isolated ward dedicated to caring for patients with the coronavirus. Within days, specialized ICUs, operating rooms, labor and delivery rooms, and even a psychiatric department were all designed and set up to respond to the increasing number of patients with COVID-19.
As the Israeli healthcare system prepared itself for the rising threat, the Israeli media and some of the country’s doctors were pessimistic about Israel’s ability to cope. Back in February, Israel’s Association of Public Health Doctors issued a statement declaring how the country’s medical system lacked the means to fight the pandemic. They urged the government to act swiftly with significant measures to improve the current state.
At that point, the government pledged millions of dollars for the medical sector. Yet, many experts responded that the financial boost was too little, too late. Reports came out about how even before COVID-19, Israel had invested much less in its healthcare system than any other OECD country. The press repeatedly published dire warnings that the Israeli healthcare system would collapse in the event of a serious challenge.
One major challenge could be a sudden increase in the need for ventilators to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients. The country has about 2,400 of these machines, and there was a fear that a drastic rise in acute cases would leave patients without oxygen, similar to what had happened in Italy.
That’s where Israel’s creative approach changed the situation. As Prof. Afek expressed, “We have survived the pharaoh and we will survive this too. You need much more than COVID-19 to break Israel’s ingenuity and spirit.”
As the number of cases started to escalate, Israeli authorities wasted no time in transforming some of the country’s largest hotels into coronavirus hospitals. Patients with milder cases were housed in these facilities, thereby removing much of the burden off the already crowded medical centers. In addition, the Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service, was enlisted in the national mission to slow the spread of COVID-19. Using their international connections, the Mossad was able to bring in protective masks and other gear, despite fierce competition to obtain them. Israel also established its own production line for manufacturing ventilators and other medical equipment, eliminating the need to rely on others.
As Prof. Afek expressed, all of these actions demonstrate how it would take much more than the coronavirus to lead to the fall of Israeli healthcare system.
“We are a capable and flexible nation. [If worst comes to worst], we will manufacture our own hospital beds and will turn the underground parking lots into coronavirus departments,” said Afek. “We don’t know enough about the disease but we do know that the world will not go back to what it was before. Masks and social separation will now be an integral part of our daily lives. COVID-19 will not disappear in the foreseeable future. It will take months, if not a couple of years for the world to develop a vaccine,” he summarized.
In order to contain the spread of COVID-19 throughout Israel, the Israeli government is continuing to apply strict rules and regulations. Memorial Day and Independence Day both occur this week, and a ban on visiting military cemeteries as well as the lockdown of towns during celebrations of the country’s 72nd anniversary have been approved.