Likelihood of Israeli infected with coronavirus has 'risen significantly'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would hold a meeting about the coronavirus in the Health Ministry's "war room" on Sunday morning.

MDA teams evacuating those who've landed from Korea into quarantine  (photo credit: MDA)
MDA teams evacuating those who've landed from Korea into quarantine
(photo credit: MDA)
The likelihood of Israeli citizens being infected with the coronavirus has “risen significantly,” Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov warned on Saturday evening.
His statement came after nine South Koreans tested positive for coronavirus after returning home on February 15 from an eight-day visit to Israel. While it’s unknown whether the group contracted the virus before or after their return to South Korea, the Health Ministry is operating on the assumption that they arrived in Israel as carriers of the virus, which has a 14-day incubation period during which those infected are asymptomatic.
Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv, Bar Siman Tov said the group had likely come into contact with “hundreds” of Israelis during their stay in the country. The Health Ministry published the details of their itinerary, including visits to numerous Jerusalem churches, the Dead Sea, Masada, Beersheba, Caesarea and Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs.
All Israelis who came into contact with one of the infected individuals – defined as within two meters for at least 15 minutes – have been instructed to remain in isolation for two weeks.
Following time spent in proximity to the infected tourists, the Education Ministry instructed a group of 30 school pupils and two teachers to remain in self-quarantine until February 27. Another teacher was undergoing tests on Saturday evening at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba after reportedly developing flu-like symptoms. Another 60 students from the Qiryat Haim neighborhood near Haifa will also be in home-quarantine after coming into contact with the South Koreans during a visit to Masada.
Seeking to contain a possible outbreak in Israel, Bar Siman Tov said Israeli nationals arriving from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea or Japan will be required to spend two weeks in isolation following their return.
The latest quarantine order follows a sharp increase in new cases of coronavirus across South Korea over the weekend. Approximately 1,000 South Korean tourists currently visiting Israel have been instructed to remain in isolation in their hotels.
Almost 200 foreign nationals who landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on a Korean Air flight from Seoul on Saturday evening were not permitted to disembark. Twelve Israeli nationals on board the flight were permitted to disembark far from Terminal Three and transported home by Magen David Adom ambulances. After refueling, the empty plane was expected to return immediately to the South Korean capital.
The Foreign Ministry announced that Israeli Ambassador to China Zvi Hefetz who traveled onboard the same flight to Seoul as the nine South Korean tourists, would remain in quarantine in Beijing. Other embassy staff will not face any limitations, the ministry said.
In a list of frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak, Israel's Health Ministry stated on their website that the borders of the country would most likely soon be closed to those who are not Israeli citizens or residents, according to Channel 13. The ministry deleted the sentence soon afterwards.
In an answer to the question "Who is allowed to enter Israel?" the ministry had written, "Entrance to Israel is permitted to all citizens and residents of Israel. Entrance is refused to people who are not citizens or residents of Israel and who have been in China in the 14 days leading up to their arrival. As of now, the border crossings have not been closed to those who have been in other locations, but it seems that border closures will soon be implemented for those who are not residents or citizens of Israel."
It is unclear if the statement that border closures would soon be implemented applied to all non-residents and non-citizens or only to those who arrived from specific countries.
The answer was eventually updated with the statement deleted, reading "Entrance to Israel is permitted to all citizens and residents of Israel. Entrance is refused to people who are not citizens or residents of Israel and who have been in China in the 14 days leading up to their arrival. As of now, the border crossings have not been closed to those who have been in other locations."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would hold a meeting about the coronavirus in the Health Ministry’s “war room” on Sunday morning. The meeting will be a continuation of last week’s discussions on preparation for dealing with the spread of the virus in light of recent developments. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, other cabinet ministers, and ministry and hospital directors-general are expected to attend. A weekly cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday was canceled.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post last week, Netanyahu said the public should be aware of “government agencies working to thwart and prevent the spread of the disease, so far successfully.”
“No one knows the extent of the virus,” Netanyahu said. “What I don’t want to have is people panicking because they don’t think there is someone in charge. I don’t think any country in the world is better organized in addressing this challenge than Israel.”
Two weeks before Israel heads to the polls again on March 2, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan instructed police on Saturday night to be ready to prevent any election interference resulting from a possible corona outbreak, including “the distribution of fake news likely to create panic and prevent voters heading to the polls in particular regions.”
The Health Ministry said on Friday that one Israeli citizen who returned to Israel from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan had tested positive as a carrier of the novel coronavirus. The citizen remains in quarantine at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, along with 10 other passengers who also returned from the ship.
On Saturday, China reported a sharp fall in new deaths and cases of the coronavirus, but World Health Organization (WHO) officials warned it was too early to make predictions about the outbreak as infections continued to rise in other countries.
Chinese authorities said the mainland had 397 new confirmed cases on Friday, down from 889 a day earlier. The numbers surged elsewhere, though, with outbreaks worsening in South Korea, Iran, Italy and Lebanon.
In South Korea, authorities said on Saturday the number of new infections had doubled to 433, and suggested the tally could rise significantly as more than 1,000 people who attended a church at the center of the outbreak reported flu-like symptoms.
The WHO welcomed the reported decline in new Chinese cases, but said it was concerned about the number of new infections elsewhere with no clear link to China such as travel history or contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19, as the disease caused by the virus is known.
The UN agency is calling for $675 million to support most vulnerable countries, he said, adding 13 countries in Africa are seen as a priority because of their links to China.
In total, China has reported 75,569 cases to the WHO, and 2,239 deaths. According to available data, the disease remains mild in 80% of patients, and severe or critical in 20%. The virus has been fatal in 2% of reported cases. The disease has spread to some 26 countries and territories outside mainland China, killing more than a dozen people, according to a Reuters tally.
Gil Hoffman, Lahav Harkov and Reuters contributed to this story.