Photo Credit: United Hatzalah
United Hatzalah volunteer EMT Alan Malka with the saved baby girl.

United Hatzalah of Israel, well known for its “ambucycles” and lightning-fast response times to medical emergencies across the country, has had its hands full these past few months dealing with the coronavirus pandemic while continuing to respond to other medical emergencies.

The organization currently has over 6,000 volunteer EMTs, paramedics, and doctors who drop whatever they’re doing and rush to assist others when a medical emergency occurs in their area. This year alone, the organization has already responded to more than 600,000 emergencies.

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The Jewish Press recently spoke with the organization’s head, Eli Beer, and its international media spokesperson, Raphael Poch, about its activities during the pandemic.

The Jewish Press: How did United Hatzalah’s work change in March?

Raphael Poch: The organization was forced to quickly adapt to safeguard volunteers and patients from contracting the disease. Among the regulations issued [was] alternating weeks between going on call. That way, the volunteers who were on call one week were off for the next two weeks and thus wouldn’t interact with other patients or volunteers and run the risk of infecting them.

Trainees and volunteers over the age of 60 and volunteers with chronic illnesses were suspended from responding to medical emergencies for the months when the virus was most rampant.

Volunteers also had to ask patients before they entered their home whether someone was in isolation or ill with the virus. If so, they had to wear full protective gear.

Eli Beer: Of our more than 6,000 volunteers, only 200 or so contracted the disease since the beginning of March, and most of them caught it from family members, co-workers, or their children’s school, not while not responding to medical emergencies. That just goes to show how well the safety precautions worked.

What other corona-related challenges did you encounter? 

Poch: During the first lockdown, United Hatzalah recognized it needed to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis. So it joined with The Israel Association of Community Centers and the Lev Echad (One Heart) organization and established a national humanitarian emergency response network, consisting of 30,000 volunteers.

What kind of humanitarian crises were there?

Poch: Numerous segments of the population suffered: the elderly, people with special needs, those suffering from pre-existing conditions who were afraid to leave their homes, and single parents.

In less than 30 days, our expanded network of volunteers responded to more than 30,000 humanitarian emergencies that included such seemingly mundane things as purchasing and delivering food and medicine to those stuck at home to assisting with electrical and plumbing work, as many technicians were unable to travel.

Beer: The same work ethic held true during the second lockdown just before Rosh Hashanah when the country was facing a level of financial hardship that it has almost never seen before. More than a million people were out of a job for the second time in less than a year, and the financial situation for most families was untenable.

[Poch said United Hatzalah partnered with Israeli journalist Guy Lerer from the popular news show “HaTzinor” and assisted in distributing more than 15,000,000 NIS to families in need of financial assistance.]

How was the financial distribution conducted?

Poch: After calling the hotline, callers, whose information was kept confidential, were issued grants ranging from 1,000 NIS to 5,000 NIS based on need. The money was transferred via gift cards that can be used at a variety of stores or direct bank transfers. In urgent cases, gift cards were hand-delivered by a team of more than 100 United Hatzalah volunteers.

Beer: The humanitarian dispatch was just the tip of the iceberg for United Hatzalah. In April, with the opening of corona hotels in Israel to house those infected with the disease who did not require hospitalization, United Hatzalah began to transport patients to these hotels. Between July and October, United Hatzalah’s fleet of ambulances and volunteer drivers transported more than 10,000 people to and from these hotels.

Did United Hatzalah get involved with corona testing?

Poch: Absolutely. Through partnerships with the Maccabi and Leumit national health societies, as well as various hospitals, medical centers, and laboratories, United Hatzalah did more than 3,000 tests per day. Since the beginning of the project, United Hatzalah volunteers have conducted more than half-a-million tests.

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Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.