A group of Israeli travelers stuck for the last two weeks on a cruise ship off Japan landed at Ben-Gurion airport early Friday, marking what they hope will be the end of a dream vacation spoiled by global fears over the spread of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus.
A plane carrying 11 passengers from Japan was brought to a remote area of the airport just after 4 a.m., where the travelers were immediately put on vans to be taken to Sheba Medical Center, near Tel Aviv where they will spend the next 14 days in quarantine.
Video published by the Magen David Adom rescue service showed passengers inside a van waving before driving away.
Passengers appeared visibly relieved upon landing in Israel. “We are all happy,” one woman told the Kan news outlet.
“We are all healthy, nobody is sick,” another person told Ynet,
However, Israeli authorities are not taking any chances. Several people who tested negative for the virus in Japan have been found to be carrying the disease after arriving in their home countries.
All those who come in contact with the passengers were to be wearing protective equipment, though the video showed several people near and on the plane with only face masks. The passengers luggage was to be loaded onto a truck and removed from the airport and then inspected, Channel 12 news reported.
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15 Israelis had been among the over 3,000 passengers and crew quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess since February 4. Four of them remain hospitalized in Japan in good condition after being diagnosed with the virus.
The Bombardier Global 6000, specially chartered by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, made a brief stop in Tbilisi. Georgia, to refuel before making its way to Israel.
The plane will return immediately to east Asia and its crew will not be allowed to enter Israel while it is being prepared for the flight back.
The Israelis aboard the ship and their families had pleaded with authorities in Israel and Japan to release them from the quarantine, fearing exposure to the deadly virus and complaining of less than ideal conditions aboard the ocean liner.
On Wednesday, Japan ended the quarantine for anyone who tested negative for the disease and on Thursday the lion’s share of Israelis disembarked.
The Israelis were greeted on the dock by a delegation from the embassy in Tokyo, ready to whisk them away from the harbor to the airport, Israel’s health and foreign ministries said in a joint statement.
Video from a bus taking them to the airport in Japan showed passengers singing Am Yisrael Chai (The people of Israel lives), a song originally composed to honor the plight of Jews stuck behind the Iron Curtain.
A spokesperson for the families said the group was “leaving with mixed feelings,” knowing that there were others staying behind in Japan.
Photos from the scene showed the passengers, wearing their vacation clothes and hauling suitcases, signing paperwork on the dockside at desks manned by officials clad from head to toe in protective clothing and wearing masks over their faces.
At Sheba, the group will be kept in a separate area of the sprawling medical center and military base, far from where they can come into contact with the general population, according to authorities.
“We know it’s not simple, that you can’t see your families and cannot move around. We understand the situation,” Dr. Galia Rahaym told the passengers upon arriving at Sheba, according to Ynet.
On Thursday morning, families of passengers were permitted to drop off homemade food and personal items for the passengers in the quarantine area of the hospital, Channel 13 television news reported.
One family left a bottle of Corona beer for its returning passenger, the station said.
The new virus began in China late last year and has sickened tens of thousands of people, mostly in central China’s Hubei province. The over 620 cases confirmed among the Diamond Princess’s original 3,711 people on board are the most anywhere outside China.
Before the quarantine on the ship had ended, the United States evacuated more than 300 Americans and put them in quarantine in the US for another 14 days. South Korea, Australia and Hong Kong also evacuated their residents for quarantines, and Canada and Italy sent flights for their citizens as well.
So far, at least four people flown to the US and another two Australians let off the ship have been found to have the disease, raising questions about Japan’s policy of allowing evacuees to return home after testing negative.
Centers for Disease Control spokesman Scott Pauley said test results for the cruise ship passengers have continued to trickle in from Japan even after their return to the US.
Japan’s government has also been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator.
Earlier Thursday Japanese health officials confirmed that two elderly passengers, both from Japan and with preexisting chronic health issues, had died from the virus.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato initially said those with negative virus tests had fulfilled the Japanese quarantine requirement and were free to walk out and go home on public transportation. Later Wednesday, he urged the former passengers to refrain from nonessential outings and try to stay home for about two weeks.
The Diamond Princess was initially quarantined after one passenger who left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.