Dozens of pilgrims infected with the coronavirus flew back to Israel from Uman in Ukraine on Thursday using forged negative test results, as plans put in place to safeguard the annual pilgrimage appeared to fall into shambles.
There were concerns that there could be hundreds more such cases among the tens of thousands of pilgrims who traveled to Ukraine to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, which began Monday evening and ended Wednesday night, with concerns it could kick off a renewed surge in infections, just as the country appeared to be turning the tide on a recent wave.
The virus-infected arrivals who were identified by police on Thursday were transported to their homes for mandatory quarantine in ambulances and will later be prosecuted.
The Border and Immigration Authority said in a statement that it had received information that dozens of people who tested positive in Ukraine had boarded planes with false-negative tests.
One flight from Kyiv was found to have 13 passengers who had forged tests, the Ynet website reported. The passengers were kept separated from others on the plane, and were immediately questioned by police when they arrived in Israel.
Unnamed sources told the Ynet website that some pilgrims who had tested positive managed to exit local quarantine hotels before the mandatory ten days isolation was over and, after traveling to Kyiv, were able to obtain forged virus tests in order to board planes back to Israel.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Thursday evening that authorities will press full criminal charges against the offenders, and that further action was under consideration.
“The Israeli government takes a very serious view of patients who fraudulently enter Israel by falsifying documents and deliberately spread disease, which constitutes an irresponsible act of harming public peace,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
According to the statement, the prime minister said any person who was infected with COVID-19 and returned from Uman using forged paperwork will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, including potential charges of fraud, forgery and deliberately spreading disease.
Those individuals will be forced to pay for ambulances or other transportation to take them home for a quarantine that will last for ten days. Isolation will be enforced by police, the statement said. Those who can’t isolate at home will be taken to one of the state-operated quarantine hotels.
Additionally, quarantine violators could face imprisonment, the Prime Minister’s Office warned, and consideration was being given to applying special regulations requiring infected people returning from Uman to quarantine for a full 14 days.
In an effort to intercept as many infected people as possible before they traveled back to Israel, the Magen David Adom emergency service, under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, set up a virus testing station in Uman that could process 15,000 samples and give results in half an hour.
However, MDA reported that barely 2,000 people came to be tested, with the majority of pilgrims therefore preferring to use local testing facilities. Among the MDA tests, the positive rate was over 13 percent, a figure over two and half times higher than the current rate among Israel’s population.
According to Channel 12 news, Israeli officials believe many pilgrims specifically wanted to be tested at local Ukrainian centers because the results were easier to forge.
In Uman, Whatsapp messages spread among the pilgrims containing false accusations about the MDA site and warning pilgrims to not use the facilities, Hebrew media reported.
Among the false claims were that MDA had a goal of finding 3,000 virus cases, that it was using a new type of test, and that some people had received positive test results, but when they tested against a short while later they were negative.
MDA rejected all of the claims as “a lie,” saying in a statement that it has “no [ulterior] interest in the results.”
Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims, mostly from Israel, gather for Rosh Hashanah in Uman, the burial place of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement. More pilgrims also arrive from other Jewish communities around the world.
This year, some 30,000 pilgrims made the journey, and a framework was established that envisioned them wearing face masks at gatherings, among other rules on social distancing intended to prevent the virus from spreading at the events. However, media reports showed many pilgrims without masks along with crowding, including outside testing facilities.
“We tried, I can’t say we succeeded but we tried.” one pilgrim told Channel 12 of the rules.
National coronavirus czar Salman Zarka traveled to Uman along with MDA chief Eli Bean to oversee the arrangements. However, a video showed Zarka being heckled by pilgrims who protested what they said was his closer watch on the religious event, compared to some recent secular gatherings in Israel.
A recent surge in virus cases topped 11,000 a day last week, but has since dropped, with 3,251 diagnosed on Wednesday, though testing on Rosh Hashanah is much less frequent than for regular weekdays.
The positive test rate was 5.51% and there were 79,502 active patients, according to the figures released by the Health Ministry Thursday evening.