2 new virus cases confirmed in Israel; police investigate quarantine-breakers

Infections bring tally to 17; cops say eight criminal probes opened against people suspected of flouting Health Ministry instructions, misleading inspectors

Tourists wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus tours at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 5, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Tourists wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus tours at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 5, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Two more Israelis have been diagnosed with COVID-19, bringing the number of cases of the virus in the country to 17, the Health Ministry said Thursday.

One patient was hospitalized in the Poriya Medical Center in northern Israel, near Tiberias, in an isolated unit.

The ministry said in a statement that it would be publishing more details later.

Hebrew-language media reported that the man was a bus driver who last month drove a group of Greek tourists visiting Israel, also going to the West Bank and Egypt before returning home. Twenty-three of the tourists have since been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The Palestinian Authority said Thursday that seven people at a hotel in the Bethlehem area were suspected of having been infected with the coronavirus by the tourists.

The ministry later said another Israeli, an elderly man from central Israel who returned from Italy last week, had also been confirmed to have the virus.

It said the man had returned from Venice to Tel Aviv on an EasyJet EJ3342 flight that departed on February 29 at 12:20 p.m., drove home in his private car and immediately quarantined himself at home in accordance with Health Ministry orders.

All passengers on board that flight must enter a 14-day home quarantine, the ministry said.

The Health Ministry previously listed the total number of coronavirus cases diagnosed in the country at 15.

Workers inside a building at Sheba Medical Center which was converted to receive the Israelis who were under quarantine on the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan due to the spread of the coronavirus, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Between 50,000 and 80,000 Israelis are now reported to be in self-quarantine, foreigners from a slew of European and Asian countries have been or will be banned, and large events such as concerts and sporting matches have been canceled due to directives issued by the Health Ministry, which were significantly expanded on Wednesday.

The Israel Police announced Thursday that it had begun a crackdown on citizens who are violating its far-reaching restrictions.

Police said in a statement that they had opened eight criminal investigations against Israelis who have violated the state’s home quarantine rules or misled Health Ministry inspectors.

“The Israel Police will work in cooperation with the state prosecution in order to bring to justice anyone who chooses to ignore the Health Ministry instructions and endangers, with their actions — whether intentionally or through negligence — raising the dangers of the spread of the coronavirus,” it said.

According to Channel 12, those who violate the state directives could face up to seven years in prison.

Separately on Thursday, nine of the passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship who had been in quarantine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan and have been cleared of having the virus were released to their homes. Three Israelis who were on the ship that had been quarantined for two weeks off the coast of Japan while the virus spread — two in Japan and one in Israel — are still in quarantine.

Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak. All Israelis returning from France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland were instructed Wednesday to enter self-quarantine for a period of 14 days after their last day in those countries.

The decision applied retroactively to all who have come from those nations in the last 14 days. Foreign citizens arriving from those countries will not be allowed into Israel unless they can show a proven ability to self-quarantine at a home during their stay.

Israel previously banned entry to foreigners who were in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy in the 14 days prior to arriving, and compelled all Israelis recently in those areas to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Israel was the first country to urge its citizens to refrain from international travel entirely because of the outbreak, which started in China in December and has since infected over 93,000 worldwide and claimed over 3,200 lives, almost all of them in China.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the heads of the right-wing parties, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday held an emergency meeting on the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 outbreak, and announced that the government will create an “emergency fund” to help companies vital to Israel’s economy that have been hurt by the spiraling health crisis.

“The first step I am announcing today is that by Sunday, the finance minister will create an emergency fund to aid businesses that are vital to the economy,” said Netanyahu.

“The next step will be that as the crisis develops, the Finance Ministry, in coordination with the Bank of Israel, will offer funds to businesses that are in distress due to the crisis.

“I think we are dealing with this crisis, both in terms of health and in terms of the economy, in the best possible way. But this doesn’t mean we aren’t facing big challenges,” he added.

After emerging in China late last year, the virus outbreak has infected more than 95,000 people worldwide and killed over 3,200, most of them in China and Iran, though cases have been reported in 81 countries and territories.

It has prompted governments around the globe to take significant measures to prevent its spread.

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