JERUSALEM, Feb 1 (Reuters) – A global leader in vaccine rollout during early waves of the coronavirus, Israel’s government has adopted “Living with COVID” as its mantra since a few months before Omicron arrived.
The variant is milder than previous incarnations of the virus, but that’s scant consolation to the medics and nurses staffing COVID-19 wards whose workloads have soared again in parallel with case numbers.
“The staff are exhausted,” said Yoram Weiss, acting director general of Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. “It’s not like we’re starting the first outbreak where everybody was full of energy.”
Though Omicron is causing proportionally fewer severe infections and deaths, Israel’s daily caseload skyrocketed to beyond 80,000 in late January before easing back over the past few days.
The sheer magnitude of the surge has meant that coronavirus wards have been filling up fast while numbers of staff, many kept at home by Omicron infection, have fallen, also impacting quality of care.
“We have on average 10-15% less doctors and nurses, whereas we need 20-30% more because of the flood of patients,” Dror Mevorach, who heads Hadassah’s coronavirus ward, told Reuters.
‘TRAIN WRECK’, OR TREATED LIKE ADULTS?
The shortage has also forced hospitals to divert resources to COVID wards, cutting back on other procedures, and in mid-January several scientists urged the government to intervene to reduce infection rates.
They warned that the sudden influx of severely ill patients – most aged over 60 and many with serious pre-existing health conditions, according to health ministry data – would overwhelm a chronically under-resourced health system and disrupt the economy.
But the government, backed by other experts and with almost 65% of Israel’s 9.4 million population vaccinated with a recent booster jab or second dose, has stuck to the softer-touch approach to managing the virus that it adopted last summer.
It has rolled back curbs while urging the public to self-test and stay at home if they are sick – mirroring moves in a number of western nations including Britain and France.
In January, it cut isolation times and cut quarantine for schoolchildren exposed to a carrier.
For Dvir Aran, a biomedical data scientist at Technion – Israel’s Institute of Technology in Haifa, the government’s moves have been “like watching a train wreck in slow motion”.
But other professionals welcome what they see as a call for citizens to take personal responsibility, while arguing that any restrictions are likely to have only a limited impact on the highly contagious Omicron.
“The government shouldn’t be running a Kindergarten, ensuring you stay home when you’re sick,” said Yael Haviv-Yadid, head of the critical care ward at Sheba Medical Centre “Be responsible. Wear a mask and vaccinate,” she said.