Some 30 Israeli eighth grade students who came in contact with South Korean pilgrims who’ve since tested positive for coronavirus were instructed Saturday evening to enter isolation, along with two of their teachers, to prevent possible spread of the disease in the country.
The students from Beersheba will receive guidance from counselors and therapists during their period of self-quarantine, the Education Ministry said, and will be provided online resources in order to continue their studies while at home.
The period of isolation for the students was not immediately known, but usually stands at 14 days after the date of potential exposure.
The group of 77 Koreans were in Israel from February 8-15. Nine of them were confirmed to have the virus Friday, following their return to South Korea.
Israel also blocked tourists who arrived from South Korea Saturday evening from entering the country, as the Asian nation sees a surge of coronavirus infection cases.
Officials said the decision to block the entry of people arriving from South Korea was a case-specific one at the moment and not a general ban on arrivals from the nation. But Channel 12 news reported that all further flights to and from Seoul would be canceled until further notice — potentially stranding hundreds of South Korean tourists currently in the country.
Israelis on the Korean Air flight that landed around 7:30 p.m. at Ben Gurion Airport would be allowed into the country but required to stay in quarantine.
It is not clear whether the ill Koreans were carrying the virus when they arrived in Israel. Symptoms of the virus can take up to two weeks, and possibly longer, to present. South Korea has reported over 400 cases of the virus to date.
In a briefing Saturday evening, Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov announced that Israelis returning from South Korea and Japan would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Such guidelines are already in effect for those returning from China, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau.
Bar Siman Tov said anyone showing symptoms of illness “is asked not to arrive at the hospital independently, but contact Magen David Adom’s emergency hotline by phone.”
He added: “If we do not follow the rules there will be widespread dissemination of the virus.
“The potential that there is someone ill in Israel due to the group has risen significantly,” Bar Siman Tov said. “We are working under the assumption that the South Korean tourists were carrying the virus while in Israel.”
He warned that anyone breaking quarantine guidelines would be endangering others and face punishment.
An expert on infectious diseases told Channel 12 Saturday that the discovery of the COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, in the nine pilgrims who’d visited Israel was “very worrying.”
Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center, noted that unlike in the case of the 11 Israelis who’d returned from a quarantined cruise ship in Japan, and who were being kept in isolation at Sheba under constant monitoring, “these people were exposed to a large population in Israel.”
He added: “From our experiences this virus is apparently very contagious and so there is a great risk at the moment that there are infections in the country.”
Walla news reported that Israel’s Ambassador to China, Zvi Heifetz, had been on the flight that returned the South Korean tourists home and was now in self-quarantine at his home.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz called an emergency meeting at his ministry over the possible ramifications of the case of the South Koreans visitors.
In a statement, Katz said he’d instructed ministry officials “to support any strict decisions issued by the Health Ministry on preventing the entry of foreigners from various world countries who could pose a health risk to Israel’s population.
“The main consideration is safeguarding the health of Israel’s residents while maintaining Israel’s ability to continue to maintain functioning ties with world nations.”
The Health Ministry has called on anyone who was in close contact with the Korean visitors to report and self-quarantine for 14 days from the date of their last interaction.
It also posted a list of places the group visited, among them Netanya, Caesarea, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, Beersheba, Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In the West Bank the group was reported to have visited Nablus, Jericho, Bethlehem and Hebron. The Palestinian Authority called on anyone who had come into contact with the South Korean tourists to enter quarantine. PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh instructed all West Bank sites visited by the tourists closed until further notice, and their employees screened.
“We’re trying to clarify if someone from the local churches was in contact with them [the South Koreans],” Wadih Abu Al-Nasr, the Vatican’s spokesman in Israel, told Channel 13 news.
“I’m hoping they weren’t infected in Israel. I wish them a speedy recovery and hope and pray that none of our people here were infected by this problematic virus,” he added.
The manager of a Jerusalem hotel where the group stayed during its visit told Channel 12 that the staff who cleaned their rooms had been instructed by the Health Ministry to self-quarantine.
“Other hotel workers must report if they feel ill or develop any symptoms,” he said. He added that employees were calm.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority confirmed the group visited the national parks Tel Beersheba, Masada and Caesarea.
“Instructions were given to employees at the sites who were in contact [with the South Koreans],” it said in a statement.
The report comes a day after Israel declared its first case of the novel COVID-19 virus, an Israeli woman who returned to the country after being quarantined on a cruise ship off Japan that saw a large number of infections.
South Korea on Saturday reported an eight-fold jump in viral infections in four days to 433, most of them linked to a church and a hospital in and around the country’s fourth-largest city, where health workers scrambled to screen more than 9,000 worshipers.
There’s concern that the death toll, currently at two, could grow. Virus patients with signs of pneumonia or other serious conditions at the Cheongdo hospital were transferred to other facilities, 17 of them in critical condition, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.
He said that the outbreak had entered a serious new phase, but still expressed cautious optimism that it can be contained to the region surrounding Daegu, where the first case was reported on Tuesday.
In some positive news, China said Saturday the daily count of new virus cases there fell significantly to 397, though another 109 people died of COVID-19. Most of the new cases and all but three of the deaths were in Hubei province, where the outbreak started.
However, in a troubling sign, Hubei’s government reported Saturday that a man showed symptoms of the virus 27 days after being infected, according to Reuters, nearly double the estimated incubation time of 14 days.
The new figures, along with an upward revision of Hubei’s earlier count, brought the total number of cases in mainland China to 78,000 with some 2,360 deaths. China has severely restricted travel and imposed strict quarantine measures to stop the virus from spreading.
Globally, nearly 78,000 people have been infected in 29 countries, and more than 2,300 have died. Italian authorities say a 78-year-old man died of the disease and the number of people infected has more than quadrupled due to an emerging cluster of cases in the country’s north. Many of the new cases represented the first infections in Italy acquired through secondary contagion and brought the country’s total to 19.
A dozen towns in northern Italy were on effective lockdown Saturday as a second death from coronavirus sparked fears throughout the area.
In the United States, 35 people have tested positive for the virus, including 18 who returned home from a quarantined cruise ship in Japan and one new case reported Friday in California.
Saudi Arabia barred travel to Iran and said anyone coming from there can enter only after a 14-day quarantine. The decision directly impacts thousands of Iranians who travel to Mecca and Medina for Islamic pilgrimages, effectively barring them from the kingdom.
Iran has reported five deaths for a total of 28 cases.