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Israel's Contact Tracing System Creates Confusion Among Thousands Of Israelis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Israel had received high marks for controlling the coronavirus, but now it's seeing a big spike in new cases. And the plan the country had for controlling the virus using technology and tracking is now creating confusion. And medical experts say the plan falls far short of what's needed. NPR's Daniel Estrin has more from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: In recent days, tens of thousands of Israelis have received text messages that their cellphones were tracked, they'd encountered a virus carrier and they must quarantine. Health officials were flooded with calls from Israelis who claimed they couldn't have been exposed at the time the text messages said they were. Epidemiologist Hagai Levine.

HAGAI LEVINE: So like in a Kafka story, you got the message. You don't know what is the location, and you now need to go into quarantine. Many people said that they were sleeping at home and there was no one at home.

ESTRIN: Dr. Levine heads the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. He thinks Israel has relied too heavily on secretive surveillance that health professionals can't properly evaluate and not enough on epidemiological investigations and contact-tracing teams. Israel is hiring several hundred people to help out. He says they need thousands of tracers and hundreds of nurses.

LEVINE: We just don't have enough people.

ESTRIN: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enforced a strict lockdown this spring and was praised for flattening the curve. But Israel reopened about a month ago, and now new daily cases are hitting record highs. Palestinians in the West Bank also face record high infections and are under a new lockdown with travel and businesses mostly shut down.

Today Israel imposed $150 fines for not wearing masks in public, and closures of wedding venues, bars, gyms and swimming pools are expected to follow. Netanyahu says this can prevent another countrywide lockdown. He's asking Parliament to give him the power to take these measures without its approval in the future, but democracy advocates are opposed. A million Israelis are out of jobs, and a new poll suggests Israelis' confidence in Netanyahu's handling of the pandemic has dropped.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "START SHOOTIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.