No one could have envisioned the year of the pandemic.
Magen David Adom paramedic Rami Maushar was scared but excited the night of February 21. He stood on the cold tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport to greet the 11 Israelis who were returning to the country after being quarantined on the Diamond Princess “coronavirus” ship for 14 days.
At around 4 a.m. on Friday, the small charter plane landed.
He was standing there in his white personal protective gear: a special suit, mask, hat and dedicated glasses that were all chosen according to previous protocols used in cases when there is a risk of infection with a virus.
“We were nervous because we only really heard about this virus in the media,” Maushar, from Lod, recalled. “It was also a little scary because it was not exactly clear what we were encountering.”
He and his colleagues had been training for the previous three days to be able to meet the returnees and safely transport them to Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, where they would enter quarantine for another 14 days. He said his training even included how to drive the bus from the airport to the hospital in the fastest possible way, and how to see through the personal protective masks that were expected to fog during the drive.
When the passengers arrived, he said he was very practical and ready to do his duty.
“As emergency medical personnel, it is our duty to help everyone who needs us,” he told The Jerusalem Post. Maushar has been an MDA volunteer since the age of 15. “You get a task and you do it as an emissary of MDA.”
At the time, he told the media: “It is a source of pride for me, as a paramedic in Israel’s national rescue organization, to take part in the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the country. Meeting the Israelis who finally returned to their country after being isolated on the ship was very exciting. And we did our best to make them feel calm and secure.”
He recalled in his talk with the Post how they sang the whole way from the airport to Sheba, songs like Am Yisrael Chai.
At that time, he said, no one could have envisioned the year of the pandemic. They were just happy to be back in Israel.
“We are all happy,” one woman told KAN News that day.
The Israelis had been stuck on the cruise ship since February 3, after coronavirus was discovered among the passengers.
Later that Friday, Israel’s first coronavirus patient was discovered by Sheba, despite all of the passengers testing negative before arriving in Israel. She was a 70-year-old woman, the wife of a patient who had tested positive aboard the ship and was being treated in Japan. She was asymptomatic.
Three other Israelis had also tested positive on the ship and were still abroad. More than 620 cases had been confirmed among the Diamond Princess’ original 3,711 passengers – at the time, the highest number of infected people outside of China.
“She was in a lot of stress” upon hearing her diagnosis, Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, head of Sheba’s Infectious Diseases unit, said at the time. “We made a big effort to calm her and her family down.”
At the time, the novel coronavirus was still novel. It was known to some as the “China virus,” because it had been discovered in China in late December 2019 and had sickened tens of thousands of people there, mostly in the country’s central Hubei province.
“We are always the first,” Maushar said. He told the Post that this year of the pandemic has been about being pioneers on many fronts – from home testing to drive-in centers to now vaccinating the elderly and homebound.
But he said that if you asked him on February 21 if he expected the kinds of challenges he faced since February 21, the answer would be “no way.”
Sheba set up an isolation unit some 2 km. from its main facility ahead of the Israelis’ arrival and used telemedicine and other strict precautions to care for the patients.
Galia Barkai, director of telemedicine for the hospital, rolled out cutting-edge technology to protect her hospital’s medical personnel, too. A robot operated by doctors from a remote location allowed physicians to monitor patient’s vital signs, communicate with the patients and conduct basic check-ups.
Barkai told the Post that it was “an exciting time.”
“We only had like three days to get organized,” she recalled. “We still did not have COVID in the country, and people were really scared, and it was clear to us at Sheba that we had to find a new location for these patients that would not be inside the main campus.”
Ultimately, she spearheaded efforts to convert a dormitory formerly used for nursing students into Israel’s first coronavirus compound.
“We worked really hard with all of these technology companies to set it up, and when the day came it was really exciting for me personally,” she said.
Barkai was the first person to communicate with the patients on their arrival to the hospital; it was her face on the TV screens in their hospital rooms. She felt “special” as the person to comfort them on their return.
“I thought this would last a few months and then go away,” Barkai said. “I never thought that this pandemic would touch everyone, change the way we live, change the way we act.”
But she also said that the pandemic has improved the country’s ability to deliver digital healthcare in ways that staff and patients were resistant to before.
Sheba used the Datos mobile app designed to directly and continuously connect patients with their sources of medical care.
Each patient was given a Tytocare hand-held device that allowed doctors to remotely examine them. The device includes a stethoscope and thermometer and is able to monitor the lungs, where the coronavirus strikes hardest.
They also rolled out EarlySense, which enables real-time delivery of actionable data to help clinical staff identify potentially critical situations early.
“Datos’ solution can help us greatly reduce this risk by enabling us to monitor less severe patients outside the hospital, in the relative safety and comfort within their homes, with the telemedicine app enabling us to communicate with them via video whenever necessary,” Barkai said. “We used all kinds of technology we knew was available but we did not use it before.”
She said: “In this year of uncertainty, we gained more experience with [technology] and became more confident so that now we can use it with people in their homes.”
Former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov also recalled that day in late February, but said the return of the Diamond Princess passengers was not his biggest worry – he knew they would be taken care of and isolated at Sheba.
Rather, he told the Post, when a group of infected South Korean tourists were discovered in Israel the next day, he knew the virus had entered the country.
“I understood that the chances of not having COVID patients was zero,” he said. “We could not avoid it.”
The Health Ministry’s strategy was to gain as much time as possible in order to prepare the health system to deal with the pandemic, from the laboratories to the hospitals to the health funds.
“We needed time to learn more about the disease,” he said, “to be closer to the vaccine that we thought might one day come.”
He said looking back, he does not believe that the country’s leaders have learned much from the various waves of the pandemic.
“One lockdown and then another lockdown and in between we return to normal,” he said. “We should not be going back to normal. We need to live under a COVID-safe routine. I think we are doing it again.”
Bar Siman Tov said that he believes COVID is going to stay with Israel and the world for a “very, very long time – maybe forever.”
Maushar, however, is more hopeful that Israel is about to “see an end to this terrible period of the pandemic.”
He called on the public to “stay away from fake news and conspiracy theories. This pandemic is dangerous and it has done terrible things to us medically, socially. It is time to leave it behind. Get vaccinated and help end it.”