Blanket quarantine for all returning Israelis ‘a foregone conclusion’ – expert

As government mulls requiring all returning citizens to isolate for 14 days, some say the measure is unavoidable necessity to prevent the spread of coronavirus

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then Health Minister Yaakov Litzman hold a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then Health Minister Yaakov Litzman hold a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Quarantine for everyone arriving to Israel is a foregone conclusion, a leading immunologist said Sunday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the government was still deciding whether or not to apply the measure.

“I believe that they will ask everyone coming from abroad to go into quarantine for 14 days,” Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University, told The Times of Israel. “That’s the smart thing to do right now.”

He said: “I truly believe that within a few hours or days we will get a more general statement.”

Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman spoke at a press conference amid speculation that Israel would limit travel from the United States, where infections have been spiking.

No restrictions were announced for Americans, and Netanyahu declared: “If we take more steps, it will be on all countries.”

“We are not talking about closing our gates, we are are talking about quarantine for those who come from abroad,” he clarified.

Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar Ilan University. (Courtesy)

Israel is already quarantining or refusing entry to people arriving from a slew of European and Asian countries, and the step being considered would make it a blanket policy. Litzman said that the slow spread of the virus in Israel compared to some other countries vindicates the measures that government has already put in place.

“This shows that the policies we enacted are right,” he said: “People thought we were exaggerating, that we were playing politics for elections — in fact we were right.”

Speaking after the politicians, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Simon-Tov said that Israelis should be prepared for things to get worse. He insisted that Israel is doing its best to contain the situation as other countries lose control of the virus.

The blanket quarantine under consideration would mean that every citizen arriving in Israel would need to spend 14 days in quarantine. Though it wasn’t immediately clear whether all foreign nationals would be turned back, the move would wipe out almost all international tourism immediately.

Netanyahu said it is “not an easy decision” as the economy is important. However, “health is first; it ensures the economy.”

Cohen said he believes the scientific data is already clear to the government, and it realizes that blanket quarantine is important for combating the virus, but is hesitating in order to thrash out economic details, like compensation packages for those affected. “I think they are weighing economic considerations,” he said.

Cohen predicted that if quarantine is required from all destinations, “it’s quite clear to me that until the end of March we won’t see any ease on the regulations. It could be the other way around, with increasingly stringent decisions, even [restrictions] inside Israel.”

Some experts believe that increasing travel restrictions would be the wrong move — and one leading doctor said on Sunday morning that Israel should consider ending border restrictions. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, told The Times of Israel that rules against visitors from several countries “should be reconsidered.”

He argued that open borders may actually help to fight the spread of the virus, allowing Israel to respond better to it by ensuring that experts and supplies needed to fight it can easily reach the country.

But most doctors say that the government’s focus on border control is wise. Yonat Shemer-Avni, head of the Laboratory for Clinical Virology at Soroka University, said of Levine’s position: “I totally disagree.”

“If they are going to open the borders there isn’t any point to this, because we are going to have a flood [of infections],” she said and praised the government’s response, adding: “You see that the infection is contained.”

President Reuven Rivlin rejected suggestions that coronavirus responses are driven by politics — a claim heard from several public figures, including Levine.

“Even now, people make light and say we are playing politics,” Rivlin said during a meeting on Sunday with Litzman. “I know about politics, and this is far, far from politics. We do not want to close schools like in Italy. We want to live our lives as normal. Isolation is part of what is happening.”

Yonatan Freeman, international relations and national security expert, Political Science Department, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Jenny Pepperman)

Political scientist Yonatan Freeman, an expert in emergency preparedness at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said politicians are acting responsibly, and that “Israel is one of the best places, or the best place, to be in an emergency, including coronavirus.”

He said: “The steps seem strict compared to other countries but maybe that’s what is saving us from an outbreak.”

Freeman said that Israel’s response has been so smooth that he suspects officials had intelligence on the outbreak in China before most of the world knew about it.

“We are always collecting information from around the world,” he said.

In his analysis, Israel’s quick response to coronavirus allowed officials to prepare the economy, medical institutions and military.

Freeman said that the attitude of the public, as well as leaders, positions Israel well to fight coronavirus. He said that despite the political division there is “broad consensus that the government is doing what needs to be done.” He elaborated: “One major fact is that when it comes to the well-being of people, we trust the government and trust that if something happens the government will help the people.”

He also opined that national service gives Israelis “the mindset” needed to cope during times of crisis.

“Compare it to America where few people have served in uniform,” he said. “Here we pay attention to instructions.”

Freeman added: “Yes, in everyday life we cut in line, but in an emergency, we really follow instructions.”

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