As Cases Surge, Gaza’s Main COVID-19 Lab Halts Work for Lack of Equipment

True number of cases in Gaza is unknown due to low testing rates, but some 30 percent of tests return positive

The main laboratory conducting coronavirus tests in the Gaza Strip halted operations Sunday due to a severe shortage of essential equipment and materials, Gaza’s Health Ministry said.

This is the latest in a series of dire signs about the state of Gaza’s medical situation due to the ongoing rise in the number of coronavirus patients. As Haaretz reported last week, around 30 percent of coronavirus tests in Gaza are coming back positive, with the daily number of tests ranging from 2,000 to 2,500.

726 new patients were diagnosed in the 24 hours, bringing the number of active coronavirus patients to 10,591. 375 are hospitalized and 157 are on ventilators. The ministry said it recently managed to increase the number of coronavirus beds in hospitals to 170 and hopes to obtain equipment in the next few weeks to further increase the number to 200.

Ministry sources said the actual number of virus carriers is probably higher than the official figure, given the relatively low number of daily tests and the fact that the diagnostic lab has ceased to function.

Over the weekend, 10 Israeli doctors witnessed the situation in Gaza first-hand during a visit organized by Physicians for Human Rights. This is the first time Israeli doctors have entered the territory since the pandemic erupted. The doctors were there from Thursday to Sunday, carrying out 12 complex operations in two different hospitals – Nasser in southern Gaza and Shifa in Gaza City.

One visiting physician, Prof. Iyad Khamaysi, director of the endoscopy unit at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, said that while everyone is now focusing on the coronavirus, the dire state of Gaza’s medical system isn’t due solely to the pandemic. Many chronically ill patients in the Strip, including cancer patients, need urgent treatment but are being pushed aside due to the virus,” Prof. Khamaysi said.

“You have to remember that manpower is limited, and the hospitals themselves have limited resources. Gaza in general has suffered from a severe shortage of medications, and the medical system was deficient even before the coronavirus. I encountered a great many cases in which patients needed urgent treatment but there was nobody to provide it,” he said.

“For instance, the European Gaza Hospital in Khan Yunis has become a hospital for coronavirus patients. And all the other patients were sent to other hospitals, and that just put a further burden on the system. I encountered very serious cases of patients such as transplant patients who needed treatment and medications, but there was nobody to provide them,” Prof. Khamaysi added.

Another member of the group, Dr. Jamal Dakdouki, is a psychologist who gave workshops for Palestinian mental health professionals on how to cope with the coronavirus from a mental health standpoint. He said that Gaza’s distress goes far beyond the medical system.

Dr. Dakdouki said that on Thursday evening he saw masses of people crowding around ATMs to withdraw money from their newly deposited salaries: “You see the distress in everyone, and it’s clear there is very great economic pressure. People would rather spend hours near their bank branch, even if it’s crowded, so they can withdraw a few hundred shekels. In a tradeoff between health and livelihood, it’s clear which takes priority.”

Based on conversations with their Palestinian counterparts, the Israeli doctors said that pressure is also rising on Gaza’s Hamas leadership to impose a total lockdown rather than the nighttime curfew they imposed last week. Dr. Dakdouki said there’s great concern that the number of hospital patients will soar due to an influx of flu patients as well as coronavirus cases, leading to talks of imposing a two-week lockdown starting December 15.

The delegation brought medical equipment and drugs with them for use in treating various conditions, not just the virus. Most was delivered directly to hospitals and the rest to the Gazan Health Ministry’s pharmacy division.

“Gaza’s health system has been in a serve crisis for years, and even more so following the eruption of the coronavirus,” said Salah Haj Yahye, who coordinates PHR’s activity in Gaza. He added that the visit wasn’t merely a humanitarian operation, but also a reminder that Gaza is suffering from a prolonged closure that harms patients, medical staff and the entire population.