Palestinian Territories: Alarming increase in COVID-19 cases further strains Gaza’s overstretched health care system

Palestinian Territories 2021 © Fady Hanona/MSF

NEW YORK, MAY 3, 2021—Gaza is currently facing a worrying increase in the number of people with COVID-19. Between March and April, COVID-19 infections have risen at an extraordinary rate—driven by the more severe B.1.1.7 variant—from less than a thousand reported cases per week to more than a thousand reported each day. There has been an alarming increase in infections among health care workers in particular. Gaza’s second wave has already surpassed its first in severity and in the number of people infected, and hospitals are struggling to cope.

Mounting an effective response to the pandemic remains a challenge when resources are scarce, including medical facilities, medical and non-medical supplies, and skilled staff. Israel’s long-running economic blockade has crippled Gaza’s health care system, depriving it of critical resources necessary to cope with disease outbreaks of any kind, particularly something as severe as COVID-19. Gaza now accounts for more than 60 percent of all active COVID-19 cases in the Palestinian Territories.

People in the Palestinian Territories, including health care workers, remain in urgent need of vaccines. Only about five percent of Palestinians had been vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of April. Many health care workers have not even received their first dose of the vaccine. This is a stark contrast to the situation in Israel, where the majority of the population has been vaccinated and COVID-19 infection rates are low.

Supporting local health authorities in Gaza

Since COVID-19 first appeared in the Palestinian Territories, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been supporting key medical facilities and intensive care units in Gaza. Teams have provided technical advice and hands-on training in infection prevention and control (IPC), including proper waste management and cleaning processes, oxygen therapy, and how to correctly use personal protective equipment (PPE). MSF has also donated essential drugs, PPE, and medical equipment like oxygen masks and tubing.

“Implementing COVID-19 IPC measures is a big challenge in the facilities due to this evolving crisis, exacerbated by the fact that relocated staff in COVID-19 departments need more support and training,” said Rachelle Seguin, MSF medical coordinator in Gaza. “The health authorities have now increased the COVID-19 bed capacity in nine hospitals for adults and in two hospitals for children. In parallel, we are scaling up our support to alleviate the mounting pressure on an already overburdened health care system. Additionally, the vaccination rate among health care workers in Gaza is still low—approximately less than half received the vaccine. COVID-19 misinformation and vaccine hesitancy have both been challenges in responding to this crisis.”

To help combat COVID-19 misinformation, MSF is running a Facebook campaign, where staff share accurate COVID-19 health messages across Gaza, reaching nearly a million people in April. These messages include information on vaccinations, prevention measures, and instructions on where to go if someone is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. MSF is also using Facebook Messenger to communicate directly with people one-on-one to address specific questions from the community.

Maintaining essential health services is critical

The COVID-19 pandemic has directly impacted MSF’s ability to provide timely, essential care to existing patients benefiting from its usual medical activities, including surgeries and burn care. MSF was forced to adapt its regular activities and reduce its non-urgent services to reinforce IPC measures in its facilities and to free up extra beds for COVID-19 patients in some of the hospitals where MSF works. This has impacted access to care for patients who need important surgeries, worsening their situation and extending their already long and uncertain path towards recovery.

MSF has been providing surgical and post-surgical assistance to victims of burns and trauma in Gaza for almost 15 years. In 2018, it began offering reconstructive and orthopedic surgery, dressing changes, physiotherapy, health education, and psychosocial support to thousands of Gazans injured in the Great March of Return protests. Many have complex and severe wounds that require repeated surgical interventions, treatment for infections, and intense levels of follow-up and rehabilitation. MSF’s project is crucial since Gaza’s local health care system is overstretched and underfunded, and deeply impacted by more than a decade struggling under a blockade.