An Israeli couple who had been traveling aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship were diagnosed with coronavirus on Sunday morning and are hospitalized in an American hospital about an hour outside of Tokyo, according to a report by the Israeli Health Ministry. A third Israeli woman was diagnosed with the virus on Sunday night.
The Foreign Ministry said it was assessing the situation to determine next steps with the rest of the 15 Israeli passengers who were on board the ship but who had not been diagnosed with the virus. The ministry said it was considering evacuating the Israelis via a chartered plane and returning them to Israel, as the Americans did on Sunday.
Several other countries announced similar plans, including Canada, South Korea, Hong Kong and Italy.
According to reports by Japanese health authorities, the infected Israelis were in stable condition with mild symptoms. They were transferred from the ship to a hospital in Japan, the ministry reported.
A doctor from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, Prof. Ran Nir-Paz, was set to leave for Japan on Monday morning to oversee the treatment of the infected Israelis.
“The reason for the trip is to ensure they are getting the right treatment,” said Nir-Paz, who specializes in microbiology and infectious diseases. “We need to make sure that they can come home healthy without affecting those they travel with and those back in Israel.”
When asked if he was scared to travel to Japan given how contagious the virus is, he said, “It shouldn’t be a dangerous mission. My family is naturally concerned. I sat with them and showed then the numbers to show the risk is not big. I received their blessing for a safe journey.”
A number of passengers are still being held under close supervision, Japanese officials said. The ship has been under quarantine since February 3 and the controversial quarantine procedure is set to finally end on the 19th.
On Saturday, Health Ministry director-general Professor Itamar Grotto left for Japan in order to evaluate the situation on the ground.
Channel 12 interviewed Grotto after he arrived on the scene Sunday. He said that the infected Israelis were receiving quality care and that they would be able to return to the country if their blood tests came back clean and they were found to no longer be contagious.
He said he believed that the Israelis would be evacuated soon and that they would be taken back to their homeland on a direct flight arranged possibly via insurance companies.
According to reports by Japanese officials, blood samples were taken from the Israelis before their potential removal from the ship – which is how they were diagnosed.
Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center, told The Jerusalem Post that authorities are dealing with what could be called a “Catch-22.” He said that being quarantined on the ship has likely increased the risk of Israelis becoming infected, however there was no other choice but to issue such a quarantine.
Seventy more people were confirmed to have the virus on board the ship Sunday, bringing the number of cases from the ship to 355, the most anywhere outside China.
“Why are they getting infected?” he asked. “There is close contact between people that [both] are and are not infected. Another possibility is that some crew members were in contact with many passengers and ended up spreading the disease.”
He noted that the virus can spread through the air-conditioning system as well, but that this was only speculation, as no one yet knows the details of the precautions taken on the Diamond Princess.
He said that Israel must weigh its options between leaving the Israelis in Japan for another two weeks of quarantine or removing them from the ship and flying them home, as some other countries are doing. He said that if Israel chooses to evacuate the Israelis, the country runs the risk of evacuating people who are asymptomatic but infected. Another challenge: “What is someone develops a fever on the airplane? How do you isolate him on the plane?
“It is not a simple decision,” Leshem said. “The stakeholders have to weigh the risks of bringing the disease to Israel and spreading it, with the benefits of people not being forced to stay in quarantine on the ship.”
An Israeli speaking Sunday morning to the Hebrew website Mako said: “We prefer isolation in Israel” over being quarantined on the cruise ship. “We even give up on our time out of our rooms for fear of being infected.” This person’s name was not released.
Another Israeli, Shimon Dahan, told Mako that he was aware of the infected Israelis but did not know them personally. He reiterated that he and his family were so fearful of contracting the virus that they, too, often forewent time outside their rooms.
Channel 12 news reported Sunday night that if the Israelis do return home, they will be put into isolation at Sheba Medical Center. However, the El Al pilots who will run the mission will be checked upon arrival, but not be put into quarantine.
The United States worked to remove most of its citizens from the ship on Sunday. A report by American authorities indicated that the passengers would enter isolation for two weeks and then be transferred back to their homes.
An announcement from the captain blared over loudspeakers on Sunday, informing American guests who were willing to disembark that they were scheduled to leave from 9 p.m.American passengers that did decide to disembark, left on one of two chartered flights to the United States from Japan at 7:05 am, according to a statement by the United States embassy in Japan.
“Leaving in a few hours. No details. Might be going to Texas or Nebraska,” Gay Courter, one of the American passengers on board, told Reuters.
The US Embassy in Tokyo said that passengers and crew on board the ship were at high risk of exposure to the virus, and it recommended that US citizens get off and take one of the flights home. All passengers would be screened before boarding the flights and the embassy said that no symptomatic or infected passengers would be allowed on board.
There were around 400 Americans on the boat.
On Sunday evening, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman expanded the quarantine requirement to people who returned to Israel not only from China but from Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao.
The ministry said Israelis who return from those countries should refrain from using public transportation or being in public places for 14 days upon their return. In addition, it asked that anyone who shows symptoms such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath should contact his or her healthcare provider or emergency room and immediately be tested for the virus.
Channel 12 reported that anyone who would break their quarantine would be subject to seven days in prison.
El Al announced that it was canceling 50% of its round-trip flights to Bangkok, Thailand. However, the airline said it would not completely cease flights because there are still thousands of Israelis in the country.
An international study conducted in Germany found that there was a one-in-three chance of contracting coronavirus from travel to or from Thailand.
On Saturday, an 83-year-old American woman who had been a passenger on a different cruise ship that docked in Cambodia tested positive for the coronavirus upon landing in Malaysia, health authorities said. She had flown to Malaysia on Friday from Cambodia along with 144 others from the ship, the Malaysian Health Ministry said in a statement.
Leshem said there is concern that the disease is silently spreading to countries other than China.
The first coronavirus case surfaced in December in the city of Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, and the virus has since spread over much of the world.
Latest figures from Beijing on Sunday showed 68,500 cases of the illness and 1,665 deaths, mostly in the province.
The World Health Organization has praised China’s efforts to prevent the spread of the disease out of its country. Recent reports indicate that the spread of the virus is slowing.
Grotto emphasized that, “as time passes, worry is reduced.”
Reuters contributed to this report.