Greece says 23 tourists who recently visited Israel sick with COVID-19
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Greece says 23 tourists who recently visited Israel sick with COVID-19

Authorities in Athens say group was in Israel, West Bank and Egypt on February 19-27; at West Bank hotel where they stayed, 4 people may be infected

A young couple wearing protective masks are greeted upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on March 4, 2020 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
A young couple wearing protective masks are greeted upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on March 4, 2020 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Greek health officials on Thursday reported 23 new coronavirus infections among a group that had recently traveled through Israel and Egypt by bus, raising the country’s total to 31.

“It was a closed group of people who were on a bus for several days,” Sotiris Tsiodras of the national public health organization (EODY) told a news conference, adding that they had returned to Greece on February 27.

The group had been on a Holy Land trip to Israel and Egypt, EODY said.

Two among the group — an elderly man and his wife — had already tested positive as Greece’s ninth and tenth case, respectively. The 66-year-old man has acute pneumonia and is in stable condition, EODY said in an earlier statement.

Another 21 among the group were confirmed on Thursday, Tsiodras said. Most of the patients are in good health and are being monitored at home, he added.

Israel’s Health Ministry said the infected Greek tourists also spent time in Israeli cities. They visited Israel and the West Bank between February 19 and 27 and were diagnosed after their return, the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry was tracking their whereabouts during their time in Israel and would publish details later, Hebrew-language media said.

People wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus at Ben Gurion International Airport, February 27, 2020. (Flash90)

The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry said earlier Thursday that four people at a hotel in the Bethlehem area were suspected of having being infected with the coronavirus by the Greek tourists, who also visited the West Bank city.

If the people in the West Bank are confirmed to be carrying the virus, they would be the first cases diagnosed in the Palestinian-administered parts of the territory.

The hotel, in the town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, has been placed on lockdown.

Later on Thursday, PA Tourism Ministry spokesman Jarees Qumsiyeh said that all tourism and archaeological sites in the West Bank would be shuttered.

He said the ministry also decided that hotels throughout the West Bank would stop welcoming tourists starting on Friday.

Asked whether the PA would prevent individual tourists from coming to the West Bank, Qumsiyeh said it would not do so but noted that they would not be able to visit any sites or stay at hotels. He specifically noted that the Church of Nativity, a site revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, would close down at 4 p.m. on Thursday.

Tourists and pilgrims visit the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Bethlehem is the most visited tourist destination in the West Bank and many businesses including restaurants, hotels, souvenir stores and others rely on tourists to stay afloat.

Officials in Greece announced a two-day school shutdown on Wednesday night and a cancellation of public events in the areas in western Greece where the group had come from.

The two-day shutdown included “a suspension of all mass gatherings” at theaters, cinemas, museums and sports events in the Peloponnese regions of Achaia and Elis and the island of Zakynthos through Friday.

Ancient Olympia, where the flame for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is scheduled to be lit on March 12, is in Elis.

The Greek Olympic Committee this week said it was drastically scaling back accreditations “to those absolutely necessary,” limiting festivities and canceling all event dinners and galas.

The situation will be reevaluated regularly, it added.

After emerging in China late last year, the virus outbreak has infected more than 95,000 people worldwide and killed over 3,200, most of them in China and Iran, though cases have been reported in 81 countries and territories.

It has prompted governments around the globe to take significant measures to prevent its spread.

The Israeli Health Ministry has said that a total of 15 Israelis have been diagnosed with the virus.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, said in a statement that it has been helping the PA for the past two weeks to defend itself against the spread of the virus.

It said that it provided the PA with 250 kits to test for the virus.

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