Opposition MK calls for recount of coronavirus deaths, claims figure inflated

An opposition lawmaker called Wednesday for a recount of coronavirus fatalities, claiming Health Ministry guidelines for registering deaths were including many who may have died of other causes, inflating the toll, panicking the public and pushing decision-makers to apply lockdown measures.

A senior Health Ministry official rejected the claim and stressed that officials have no interest in alarming the public.

Yesh-Atid Telem party MK Yoel Razvozov, who sits on the Knesset Coronavirus Committee that is overseeing the government response to the outbreak, sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming the official mortality figures for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, could be off by as much as 30 percent.

Razvozov wrote that earlier in the week that the Knesset committee was told that under Health Ministry instructions, the primary cause of death is registered as COVID-19 for anyone who dies in the hospital of any ailment, but who is also infected with the coronavirus.

“These worrying findings cast doubt on the entire method used by hospitals to register the number of people who die of the coronavirus in Israel,” he warned.

Describing the tally method as “outrageous,” Razvozov said it “directly influences government decision-making that is bringing us time and again to lockdowns and the destruction of the Israeli economy.”

“The current conduct is very destructive, leads to unnecessary panic in the public and harms the country in a wide range of areas,” Razvozov said, urging that the mortality numbers be checked.

In response, the head of public health at the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, told the Kan public broadcaster that “it makes me angry that someone is trying to paint the Health Ministry as an entity that inflates the mortality rates.”

Sharon Alroy-Preis. (Courtesy)

“It is simply incorrect,” Alroy-Preis said. “I, the director-general, and the minister do not have an interest in alarming the public. The opposite is true.”

Israel over the weekend passed the grim milestone of 1,000 dead.

The Knesset Coronavirus Committee, though chaired by MK Yifat Shasha-Biton of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has in the past clashed with the government over its virus campaign, overturning restrictions ordered by the cabinet.

Last month the Health Ministry admitted to undercounting COVID-19 fatalities, issuing a statement saying that it had failed to include dozens of deaths at senior living homes during July and August in its official count.

On Tuesday the cabinet approved evening curfews in 40 towns and neighborhoods throughout the country.

Earlier this week approximately 90 doctors and researchers signed an open letter warning against a general closure. In the letter, the experts warned that a lockdown is only a temporary measure that does not stop the virus but only delays it, thereby drawing out the damage caused by the pandemic and putting more people in danger.

Among the policy recommendations in the letter was developing a model tried out by Sweden, which avoided a lockdown and imposed only a minimal suite of restrictions in a bid to develop herd immunity, which occurs when enough of a population develops antibodies that infection rates drop to insignificant levels.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women walk past border police officers at a checkpoint in a neighborhood in Jerusalem, amid measures put in place by Israeli authorities in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19, on September 8, 2020. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

In response to that letter, over 320 senior medical staff and health workers published their own open letter in which they warned the herd immunity strategy had not been properly tried anywhere in the world and “is based on unfounded claims that are even scientifically and empirically wrong.”

A herd immunity approach in Israel “could very likely lead to medical, economic and social disaster,” the letter warned and noted that treatment of coronavirus patients demands significant resources and requires three times the manpower of similarly ill patients who do not have the disease.

“The call for the opening of the economy in parallel with widespread infection is misleading the public, because world experience shows that countries that tried to open up the economy before overcoming the virus harmed both the economy and health,” the authors wrote.

“The national policy to contain the epidemic must include as a goal the reduction of infection as much as possible, and as a result will lead to the protection of vulnerable populations,” the letter urged.

On Wednesday the Health Ministry reported that the death toll from the virus had reached 1,048, with 30,366 active patients, 472 of whom are in serious condition.

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