Arrivals from US account for 40% of Israel’s virus cases from abroad

Disproportionately high figure likely due to bungled airport quarantine policy for travelers; nearly half of all cases traced to contact with carrier inside Israel

Illustrative: Travelers wearing protective masks arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, Feb. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Illustrative: Travelers wearing protective masks arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, Feb. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Arrivals from the US accounted for far more of Israel’s foreign coronavirus infections than any other country, the Health Ministry said Tuesday.

Forty percent of arrivals to Israel who were infected abroad, over 560 cases, were travelers from the US.

The North American total was 573 infections, with over 99 percent of those coming from the US, the Health Ministry said in an epidemiological report, without providing an exact number. The remaining handful came from Canada and Mexico.

The US accounted for nearly four times as many cases as the next largest international source.

The high proportion of US cases was likely due to a bungled government policy that allowed travelers to enter the country freely, including from virus-stricken New York, despite government quarantine directives.

Since travel restrictions came into effect last month, repeated incidents saw planeloads of passengers allowed to enter the country and travel home without entering isolation. The government locked down on arrivals this week.

According to the Health Ministry report, arrivals from Europe accounted for 43% of all foreign cases, or 611 total infections, led by France, in second place after the US with roughly 150 infections.

The UK was the third largest source of foreign infections with roughly 110 cases, followed by Brazil and Spain with 50-100 cases each. The report said 10% of international cases came from South America, 4% from Africa, and 3% from Asia.

Out of the 13 leading countries, 11 were in Europe.

The Health Ministry said the country of origin for 578 international cases was not available, meaning the US total could be even higher.

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing, as a preventive measure against the coronavirus arrive to a patient with suspicion of coronavirus, in Jerusalem on April 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Infected travelers came into Israel from a total of 67 countries, the report said. The Health Ministry did not specify if all incoming cases were Israeli citizens, but non-citizens have been largely barred from entering the country since early March.

The numbers compiled in the epidemiological study were from April 11, when Israel had 10,825 confirmed coronavirus infections. As of Tuesday evening, there were 12,046 cases.

The report said that 49% of all infections at the time, 5,004 cases, came from contact with a confirmed carrier inside Israel. Nineteen percent, or 2,005, were infected while abroad, and 15%, 1,517, caught the virus in shared public spaces, including synagogues, supermarkets, outdoor markets, medical centers, pharmacies, banks and public transportation.

Seventeen percent of the cases had unknown origins, and the Health Ministry lacked data for the remaining 5%.

For children up to the age of nine, 86% were infected by a confirmed carrier, and for adolescents between 10-19, 79%.

For people aged 20-59, 53-58% were infected through contact with a carrier, and for those aged 60-79, 44-46%.

For elderly people over the age of 80, 73% caught the virus through direct contact, probably because fewer people in that age group traveled abroad or used public transportation.

Children and the elderly were significantly less likely to be infected abroad.

In the month following Israel’s first confirmed case, most of the cases originated abroad, but since mid-March most people were infected inside Israel, especially after the Purim holiday on March 10, where crowds of celebrants led to a spike in cases, the report said.

A medical team treats a patient with COVID-19 at the coronavirus unit, in Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center, Bnei Brak, Israel, April 13, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday approved emergency ordinances requiring all people arriving in Israel from overseas to be housed at state-run quarantine hotels upon entry to the country.

In light of the new agreements, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the few flights still coming to Israel would resume, after they were frozen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday morning until the issue of quarantine was addressed.

The new action came after it became clear that incoming passengers to Israel were not all being quarantined despite Netanyahu’s orders last week, and that arrivals on numerous flights were being allowed to enter the country and go home, sometimes via taxi, without being required to enter state-overseen quarantine or even having their temperatures checked.

On Saturday morning, some 70 passengers on a United Airlines flight from the New York area arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and were allowed to travel home. The flight had received exceptional approval from authorities to land in Israel despite the current lockdown.

On Monday authorities strictly applied the mandatory stays in quarantine hotels for all international arrivals, Channel 12 reported.

On Tuesday, 158 passengers on a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, were greeted at the airport by personnel from the Home Front Command, Magen David Adom emergency services and police. The staffers performed medical checks on the arrivals, then watched their interactions with family at the airport, barring any contact beyond elbow bumps, Haaretz reported.

Anyone with coronavirus symptoms were sent to a hospital, and those with chronic medical conditions sent to home isolation. The remainder were ferried to a quarantine hotel in Jerusalem for a 14-day stay.

The US is now the world epicenter for the coronavirus, with 601,472 confirmed infections, by far the most of any country, and 24,429 deaths, slightly ahead of Italy, which has the next highest death toll.

New York leads the US with over 10,000 deaths and over 175,000 confirmed cases, as of Tuesday evening.

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