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Israeli Army Opens Coronavirus Wards In What Was Built As A Bomb Shelter For Patients

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Israel's health system has been buckling under a second wave of coronavirus infections, so it has enlisted the military to help, as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israel's newest coronavirus wards are in an underground, rocket-proof hospital parking garage originally designed to treat patients during wartime. Now the parking spaces are filled with hospital beds. A hundred military doctors, nurses and medical staff spent a week training and swapped their green army uniforms for white hazmat suits. Captain Galina Shapiro is an artillery brigade doctor now in the coronavirus ward.

GALINA SHAPIRO: Because our soldiers are mostly young and healthy, we usually don't require the medical attention to coronavirus patients. This is the first time that major medical personnel are treating severe coronavirus patients.

ESTRIN: Daily infection rates in Israel have been among the highest per capita in the world. Soldiers took over Israel's contact tracing efforts. And Rambam Hospital in the city of Haifa was short on doctors and nurses, so they called in the military to run their new underground COVID ward. Hospital deputy director Avi Weissman.

AVI WEISSMAN: The game-changer was the military. Thank God we're not at war now. They have such high motivation. They're so smart. They want to work. And they're very knowledgeable, and they learn very fast. So we're very, very, very lucky to have them.

ESTRIN: Critics accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a failed COVID-19 response. Israel is the first country to impose a strict nationwide lockdown for the second time. Netanyahu has been slipping in the polls. There's even talk of possible snap elections. And Netanyahu's political rival, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, took advantage of the moment. He donned full protective gear, visited the underground coronavirus ward and boasted about the military swooping in to help Israel's latest crisis. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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