'Lots of people are worried we may now be sick'

Occupants of Jerusalem COVID hotel fear it’s a breeding ground for UK strain

‘Come for quarantine, leave with coronavirus’: Residents decry dire hygiene standards, chaotic mismanagement of facility, say army utterly unequipped to deal with influx

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A resident of the Dan Panorama hotel in Jerusalem, which is being run by the military as a quarantine facility, protesting conditions, December 21, 2020 (screen shot)
A resident of the Dan Panorama hotel in Jerusalem, which is being run by the military as a quarantine facility, protesting conditions, December 21, 2020 (screen shot)

The main quarantine facility set up to block the new British COVID-19 strain from entering Israel could become a breeding ground for the virus due to mismanagement and poor hygiene standards, residents say.

Israel has compelled hundreds of its citizens returning from the United Kingdom, Denmark and South Africa to self-isolate in state-run facilities over fears of the new variant, which is thought to be far more infectious. On Wednesday night, that policy will be dramatically widened to include all returning citizens entering the country.

But new arrivals from Britain have told The Times of Israel of dire conditions, describing how they were loaded on to crowded buses where passengers didn’t wear masks, and taken to a Jerusalem hotel run by the military where there is allegedly no hand sanitizer and where people feel their hygiene was compromised during check-in.

“The lack of any wipes, alcohol gel, gloves, and [new] masks anywhere in the hotel is unsafe and absurd,” said Eliot Cohen.

Cohen found staying at the Dan Panorama with three children so harrowing that he turned to social workers who persuaded the Health Ministry to release him Monday.

“It feels like the policy is, ‘come for quarantine, leave with coronavirus’ — which is absurd.” He said that the situation at the hotel shows that the government’s new policy of placing all incoming passengers in quarantine hotels starting Wednesday will only work if major improvements are made at facilities.

Elliot Cohen and his children in their room at the Dan Panorama in Jerusalem on December 21, 2020 (courtesy of Elliot Cohen)

Residents of the hotel also say they’re paying an unacceptable price in the country’s efforts to keep out the mutation and say they’ve been left hungry and neglected. They also dismiss the military’s Home Front Command’s protestations that they received little notice, saying the unit that runs the hotels should be prepared for such scenarios nearly a year into the pandemic.

But Home Front Command spokeswoman Tamar Barsheshet told The Times of Israel that with just a two-hour window to prepare the hotel, soldiers did their best.

She said that most grievances voiced by residents regarding the conditions are justified, admitted that there has been “chaos” at the hotel, and said that efforts to improve the situation began Monday night.

“Until yesterday at night [residents] were very right,” she told The Times of Israel on Tuesday, promising rapid improvement.

‘Treated no better than prisoners’

“While we understand it’s important to isolate us, we’re treated no better than prisoners in terms of access to food and basic necessities, which is outrageous and a source of shame to the State of Israel,” said Ellen Steel.

Ellen Steel in her room at the Dan Panorama in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020 (courtesy of Ellen Steel)

She spoke to The Times of Israel on Tuesday from her room in the Dan Panorama, where she sleeps on bedding which she is convinced was used by the previous resident, who would have been at the hotel, like her, because of suspected COVID infection.

Steel said that improvements that the military is starting to implement are so far only “slight,” limited to moves like distributing large amounts of mineral water.

Like many in her hotel, she left the UK on Sunday, before Jerusalem decided that hotel quarantine was to become mandatory — meaning that she arrived with nothing needed for an extended hotel stay, and found there were few provisions in place.

“It’s an embarrassment that Israel could prepare for war with Iran in around 10 minutes, but can’t prepare to receive citizens in a hotel with basic necessities people need, like reasonable food and diapers and formula for kids,” Steel commented on Tuesday.

‘Shouting and anger’

Cohen is haunted by the hotel as a place of “shouting and anger” — sentiments so strong that on Monday, 30 people violated quarantine rules to leave their rooms and go to the lobby to protest, after which some of them demonstrated for a few minutes outside.

Some residents are exploring the possibility of a High Court petition asking for permission to go home with electronic tagging to ensure they observe quarantine, as an alternative to the hotel.

Cohen said: “With my kids there was a lot of crying, and nightmares. There is police and army, there’s screaming and shouting, and kids don’t know what is going on.

“They were also hungry, as food arrived hours late, and you’re not allowed to leave the room to ask for it. Having kids expecting breakfast at 8 a.m. and needing to wait until it comes at 11 a.m. is very stressful.”

Shosh Shapira in her room at the Dan Panorama in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020 (courtesy of Shosh Shapira)

Shosh Shapira, a mother of three from Ra’anana, said the food at the Dan Panorama is “disgusting and inadequate,” consisting of breakfast followed by two airline-style meals a day that are intended to be served hot but arrive cold. Communication from the Home Front Command is “nonexistent” and no one knows what is happening, she added.

“Here in the hotel there is a great deal of unhappiness,” she said. “It feels like they have taken kindergarten people to run this operation.”

Shapira’s biggest concern is that the experience of quarantining has, ironically, given her the virus, possibly the new British strain.

“I’m worried, I’ve been so careful since February, and out of negligence in the way we were brought to the hotel and checked in, I may well have caught it,” she said. After arrival at the airport, the military told her to board a bus, which was crowded and where, unlike on the plane, many people were not wearing masks.

“As we waited for 40 minutes before leaving, I was banging on the windows shouting, ‘let me out, open the windows, give us some air,” she said.

The doors remained shut, and many passengers remained unmasked until their arrival in Jerusalem almost two hours later.

“Then, we were brought to the hotel, which was a huge scene of chaos,” Shapira reported. “All the flights arrived at the same time, there was no social distancing in the lobby and some people weren’t wearing masks.”

People arriving at the crowded lobby of the Dan Panorama hotel in Jerusalem on December 20, 2020 (Shosh Shapira)

Contagion risk from sharing objects in quarantine hotels was highlighted in June, when authorities in Melbourne, Australia, said they believed numerous cases were caused when residents who were observing social distancing passed around a cigarette lighter. 

Shapira and other Dan Panorama residents report that at check-in, each person had to pick up the same phone and put it to their faces to talk to the clerk from behind a plastic screen. The phone wasn’t disinfected between uses.

“As I used the phone that hundreds of people put to their face, I was thinking how disgusting it was in view of virus concerns, but there was no choice,” said Shapira. “You had to use it to get a room, soap and a towel.

“Now, after the arrival experience, lots of people are worried we may now be sick,” she said.

The situation at the Dan Panorama is “appalling” and too much for many residents to take, she said, adding it raises questions as to whether the Home Front Command will be able to cope when it needs to scale up the quarantine hotel operation on Wednesday.

“They want everyone to start going in to hotels, but if it’s been like this with just UK passengers, I really don’t know how they will manage.”

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