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October 6, 2020 6:00 am

IDF Expands Its Role in the Battle Against Coronavirus

avatar by Yaakov Lappin / JNS.org

Opinion

Hospital staff provide medical care for patients at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) ward, amid a surge in new cases that has forced Israel into a second nationwide lockdown, at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov), Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 21, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

JNS.orgThe Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is significantly broadening its involvement in the national effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus in Israel. According to IDF international spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, who spoke to reporters on Thursday, the military’s Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, has placed the goal of combating the virus as a “top priority mission.”

To that end, the IDF Medical Corps has begun to establish two COVID-19 wards at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, at the hospital’s underground level, to reinforce the existing wards. The new wards will represent the first time that the IDF provides medical treatment to Israeli civilians on Israeli soil, noted Conricus.

The decision to set up the wards followed staff work by the IDF Deputy Chief of General Staff, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, together with Professor Hezi Levi, the director-general of the Health Ministry.

While the IDF is used to conducting overseas rescue and care missions for civilians abroad, treating sick Israeli civilians is a first, and the wards will be exclusively staffed by IDF medical personnel under the guidance of the hospital’s civilian staff.

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“This is very different from basic trauma and emergency medicine,” said Conricus, describing former IDF missions to national disaster scenes oversees, such as earthquakes and mudslides.

Treating coronavirus patients “is a highly cumbersome and delicate process,” he said, due to layers of protective gear and special procedures. “We are approaching this with a lot of humility, and we are learning.”

The IDF expects to have the wards up and running in two to four weeks, and is recruiting medical personnel from across the IDF, including from special forces and combat units.

Conricus said this would have an effect on the IDF’s ability to provide routine medical services to its units — a risk the IDF is “knowingly” taking in order to support national civilian efforts. At the same time, he stressed, “we will not be affecting routine security operations.”

The multitude of security threats facing Israel has not vanished, emphasized Conricus, as tensions remain especially high with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The IDF’s “ability to deal with them has not been affected. All of our combat, intelligence, cyber, air force, and other units defending the borders are fully operational. There is no effect on our operational capability. Having said that, we are definitely taking the spread of the virus very seriously,” he added.

Notably, the IDF held a special brainstorming workshop on Thursday led by Maj. Gen. Zamir, the deputy chief of the general staff, which focused on answering two questions: How can the IDF be more effective in what it is already doing, and what can it do in the future to assist the national effort to bring the pandemic under control?

The IDF’s Alon taskforce, whose mission is to coordinate all of the IDF’s support of the national civilian effort, is up and running under the Home Front Command; it will be running at near full capacity by the start of November, Conricus told JNS.

Under Alon is the newly established Ela Unit (Alon, meaning “oak tree,” and “Ela,” akin to the pistachio tree, which often grow alongside one another). The Ela Unit’s mission is contract tracing, and it is currently training personnel ahead of launching full-scale operations to disrupt the chain of coronavirus infections in the general population. Ela will use computerized questioning forms and rapidly share data on computer networks, representing a step forward from the pen-and-paper investigations that civilian contract tracers had been using.

The Ela Unit will take a little longer to reach full operations, said Conricus, due to the personnel training program that is still ongoing. “We are training personnel under the close guidance of the Ministry of Health,” he said.

Preparing and deploying the contact tracing personnel is a top priority effort, he stressed. Ela will be a battalion-sized unit with some 600 to 700 personnel, and it will conduct a substantial amount of investigations per day, with each investigator conducting multiple contract tracing inquiries per 24 hours. Ela is located near the Home Front Command’s Headquarters in Ramla in central Israel.

According to media reports in Israel, when it reaches its peak capacity, Ela will be able to conduct 5,000 daily contract tracing investigations at a time when Israel is expected to carry out 100,000 coronavirus tests per day.

The IDF is also operating approximately 30 “corona hotels” to facilitate quarantines and isolation for Israeli civilians recovering from the virus in mild condition, and who cannot isolate at home without infecting others.

In terms of its internal disease containment efforts, the IDF is dealing with 1,016 soldiers and officers who have tested positive for coronavirus — all of them in mild condition. “They are recovering in various locations, most of them at home, and some at recovery facilities in Ashkelon and an additional facility that we just opened in Olga,” stated Conricus.

Some 13,500 IDF personnel are currently under quarantine — a figure the IDF is keen to see go down, he added. Heavy restrictions have been imposed on IDF units, including a no-leave policy for all combat and training units, whose members will remain on base for three to four weeks and possibly longer. This is to “minimize interactions with civilian society,” said Conricus.

An IDF DNA lab, originally purposed for identifying the remains of fallen soldiers, has been converted to a COVID-19 testing lab for IDF personnel to take the pressure off civilian labs. The military’s lab has a current capacity of conducting 1,000 tests per day — a capacity set to increase.

The military has also launched a massive outreach campaign to its own units to elevate awareness and ensure compliance with infection prevention protocol. Disciplinary measures have been taken in units, assured Conricus, “where we see sub-standard compliance.”

Yaakov Lappin is a contributor to JNS.

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