A member of the medical staff, wearing protective equipment, checks on a patients at the coronavirus ward of the Rambam Health Care Campus, initially build as an underground medical facility before being converted to a car park, which has been reconverted to receive patients as COVID-19 cases surge, in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on October 11, 2020. - Israel opened a new coronavirus treatment facility co-run by the army's medical corps, an unprecedented move for the military unit, aimed at bolstering an embattled healthcare system. The Jewish state currently has one of the world's highest daily coronavirus infection rates per capita, with the number of seriously ill patients steadily rising. The army-backed unit at the Rambam Hospital in the northern city of Haifa includes a control room where patients are monitored via video and an underground coronavirus ward that used to be a car park. Image Credit: AFP

Jerusalem: The Israeli military on Sunday opened a new coronavirus unit in a converted parking garage at a hospital in northern Israel, in a first-of-its-kind effort by the army to assist the country's overloaded health care system.

The unit, set up at Haifa's Rambam Health Care Campus, will utilize some 100 military doctors, nurses and other medical personnel working alongside hospital staff. It is the first time the army has deployed its medical personnel to treat Israeli civilians in the country's history.

Dr. Noam Fink, the deputy chief medical officer of the military, said the army would operate two wards capable of supporting several dozen ``intermediate to severe'' cases. It accepted its first two patients on Sunday. "The purpose of the operation is to support the hospitals in the north and efforts to treat COVID-19 patients,'' said Fink, who holds the rank of colonel.

Rambam set up the underground hospital unit in the wake of Israel's 2006 war against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Operating primarily as a parking garage, the facility can quickly be converted into an emergency hospital insulated from rocket fire.

Dr. Avi Weissman, Rambam's deputy director, said bringing on the military personnel would ease the work load on staff and also allow the hospital to resume elective surgeries that have been delayed because of the overload. "We have the equipment. We have the area. We have the beds. We have the monitors. We have the ventilators. What we didn't have is personnel,'' he said.

After appearing to contain its coronavirus outbreak early this year, Israel reopened its economy too fast and the virus quickly returned. Israel, a country of 9 million people, is now grappling with one of the world's highest infection rates with over 290,000 cases reported so far. It currently has over 850 serious cases, straining the nation's health care system, and nearly 2,000 deaths.

The new coronavirus unit marks a new partnership between the hospital, the military and the national Health Ministry. In recent months, the army has taken on an increasingly prominent role in managing the crisis and is now in charge of the country's contract-tracing efforts.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff, visited the hospital Sunday to see the new coronavirus unit. "I am proud of the IDF, which is working within the Health Ministry for the first time,'' he said. "We are working on closing the gaps that have formed within a good public health-care system that has been neglected for a decade.''