Number of sick with virus in Israel up to 21; one patient in serious condition

Patients returned on flights from Spain, Austria and Switzerland; condition of bus driver of Greek pilgrims infected with virus deteriorates, requiring artificial ventilation

A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask as a measure of protection against the coronavirus COVID-19, stands in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, ahead of the Friday prayers, on March 6, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask as a measure of protection against the coronavirus COVID-19, stands in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, ahead of the Friday prayers, on March 6, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Four more Israelis have been diagnosed with COVID-19, bringing the number of cases of the virus in the country to 21, the Health Ministry said Friday with the condition of one of the patients seriously deteriorating.

The man, a bus driver from East Jerusalem who was diagnosed with the virus on Thursday, required artificial ventilation, according to Baruch Padeh Medical Center in Tiberias.

The patient drove a tour bus for a group of Greek pilgrims visiting Israel, the West Bank and Egypt before returning home. Twenty-three of the tourists have since been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

One of the newly found patients returned on February 27 from Madrid, while the second patient returned on Wednesday from Zurich. Both of them, said to be in their 50s from central Israel, were in isolation.

Hours later, a man in his 30s from central Israel who returned from Madrid on Monday was diagnosed with the virus, as was a Haifa resident in his 30s who returned from Austria on Sunday. Both of them were also in isolation.

The Health Ministry said it would soon publish the details of an epidemiological probe on which flights the four traveled on and where in Israel they visited after their return.

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 Greek tourists.

Israeli policeman stand in front of a closed crossing between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Friday, March 6, 2020. The closure that started Friday followed the identification of seven cases of COVID-19 among Palestinians in the city, the first in the Palestinian territories. Israel also announced a closure on Bethlehem affecting Israelis, Palestinians and tourists. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The Palestinian Authority declared an unprecedented state of emergency in the West Bank, shutting schools, banning tourists and placing restrictions on gatherings and movement between cities.

Israel, which controls the West Bank, placed Bethlehem on lockdown, banning Israelis and Palestinians from entering or leaving the storied city, as officials from both governments race to contain the virus’s spread in Palestinian population centers.

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.

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.

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

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 95,000 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.

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