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State comptroller cites ‘significant shortcomings’ in Israel’s pandemic response

After eight months in pandemic mode, Israel is underprepared for winter, is quarantining the wrong people, and has frustrated businesspeople who aren’t accessing benefits on time and schoolchildren without access to the internet, according to a new report by the state comptroller.

Released on Monday, just one day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly said that state coffers can’t cover daily classes for elementary schools’ youngest students — meaning they will have to attend only half the week — the document raises questions about the spending of NIS 112 million ($33 million) in state funds without a plan.

The document, an interim report, stated that the Health Ministry bought 2.4 million kits for testing citizens to see if they had the virus and recovered, at a cost of NIS 112 million, but has no clear plan for how they will be deployed and has only used 60,000 of them.

It also presented the Shin Bet security forces’ phone tracking, intended to quarantine those who encounter an infected person, as a bumbling operation that forces many who haven’t had an encounter into isolation. At the same time, contact tracing has not been functioning as needed, according to the report.

“There are significant shortcomings in handling the crisis,” State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said.

He stressed that the matters raised are important “especially at this time of the second wave, and in view of the significance of the material for health needs, education, and the economy, and in order to help populations that are affected during and after the crisis, including the elderly, the unemployed, those on furlough, and others.”

Analysts say that some of the findings are devastating.

“The state comptroller’s report shows that many of the half-million Israelis who were told to self-quarantine received the order erroneously,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “The social consequences, as well as loss of work days and income, are not appreciated by authorities.”

The report, while harsh, doesn’t level criticism at the funding or functioning of health services, or over the coronavirus death toll. It does, however, shine a spotlight on high fatalities in homes for the elderly.

Residents of residential retirement facilities represent just one percent of Israel’s population but constituted 36% of its coronavirus deaths until the start of October. The figure is almost six times higher than for elderly Israelis who live in their own homes.

The comptroller urged the Health Ministry to find better protocols for isolating residents of elderly homes to protect them from infection, and raised concerns that staff entering the homes aren’t being universally tested. He also voiced worries about the possible impact of flu spreading in elder care homes while the coronavirus is still common, noting that Israel has a culture of low flu vaccination among carers — only around one in three, about half the rate in many other countries.

Englman cited a general concern about flu vaccines, stating that as of the time of writing in September, “preparedness for vaccinations had not been completed.”

He urged: “To ensure that the largest possible population be vaccinated against the flu, and that the vaccinations be performed safely and in a timely manner, it is recommended that a systematic plan for vaccinations be formulated.” As recently as last week, a leading doctor expressed worry that that still hadn’t happened.

Englman raised another worry facing Israel with the looming twindemic effect, meaning simultaneous spread of flu and coronavirus.

Israel’s success in fighting winter outbreaks is thought to hinge, to a large extent, on widespread testing. Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu is currently urging Israelis to get tested even if they have only a slight concern of infection, and officials say they expect to soon increase daily testing capacity to 100,000.

But the report cast doubt on the scale of planned increases, pointing to a “gap” between the Health Ministry plans and “the capacity that health fund labs will have and their readiness to perform the tests in their laboratories in the winter.” It also implored the Health Ministry to “find ways to improve the efficiency and shorten test processes” and to “analyze the reasons for incorrect test results and act to reduce their number.”

Shin Bet phone tracking, intended to trace the contacts of coronavirus carriers, is plagued with problems and imposes unnecessary quarantine on many people, according to the report, which recommends that the intelligence service find new technology.

“The outputs of its activity reflect the potential of many individuals entering isolation, among them many who did not come in close contact with an infected individual,” the comptroller wrote. “The Health Ministry and the Intelligence Ministry, with the assistance of the National Security Council, should act to effectively implement alternative digital means in lieu of the [Shin Bet] tracking system.”

Authorities were also presented as failing to utilize properly the power of epidemiological investigations, which identify whom COVID-19 carriers have interacted with and quarantine their contacts.

Too few patients are investigated, and when their contacts are traced, precious time during which the potentially infected people should be quarantined is lost, the report charged. The comptroller reported that in a random sample of 76 epidemiological investigations conducted in the Jerusalem district in June and July 2020, some 64% of them began after four days or more following diagnosis, “even though the effective time to conduct such an investigation is 24 to 48 hours after receiving a positive laboratory test result.”

Englman also assessed the impact of the pandemic on Israelis beyond the health realm.

Some 74% of businesses experienced significant losses in March and April, the report stated, as figures for the second wave were not yet available when it was produced.

Businesses trying to navigate the system of grants from the tax authority are having a hard time, with computer malfunctions and many people waiting more than an hour on the phone to speak to operators, Englman said.

The criteria for receiving government support “hampered the ability of several groups of self-employed and businesses to receive the stipulated grants,” and there was also confusion over how allocations work, and failure to pay money to some who should have received it. The comptroller said that “deficiencies were found in the awarding of grants as determined by the government.”

In addition, many children are unable to take part in remote learning because of a lack of computers, internet access, or both. The state should “act to urgently” to fix this — and the problem of teachers who are trying to educate their pupils remotely without computers, the comptroller said.

The report found that 44% of Haredi elementary schoolchildren were without computers, and 74% had no internet access, while 38% of Arab elementary children were without computers and internet access. This compares to 6% of Jewish, non-Haredi elementary school children who were without computers and 9% who were without internet.

Focusing on face-to-face teaching, as opposed to online learning, the report “recommended that the Education Ministry examine the matter of increasing the use of open spaces outside schools to conduct learning and meetings during this period.”

Englman wanted to quickly release his interim report ahead of a full investigation months down the line, in the hope of what he called “urgent fixes” being put into place.

“The bodies that were investigated must act quickly and efficiently to correct the deficiencies that have not yet been rectified in order to improve their continued handling of the coronavirus crisis,” he said.

Header: A sign in a window shop on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 25, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Source: Nathan Jeffay, Shoshanna Solomon – TOI