Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said Monday morning that it was likely there would be an announcement later in the day that travelers from all over the world will be required to enter home quarantine after entering Israel.
Litzman told Army Radio that a wider set of protocols was a “necessary step.”
“We are considering it and I expect it to happen,” Litzman said. “We think it’s important. We will look at other considerations, including economic, and we will make a decision.”
The health minister dismissed as “fake news” the suggestion that casting such a broad net would be an attempt to not single out the United States, where infection rates appear to be rocketing. He also denied that political considerations were tainting his ministry’s decisions, saying that there was “no problem” when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with US Vice President Mike Pence about the matter on Sunday.
Asked specifically about returnees from last week’s AIPAC conference, where three attendees were later found to have been infected by the virus, Litzman avoided answering.
Fourteen Israelis were added Sunday evening to the list of those who have contracted the coronavirus, including the first in the country whose source of infection was unknown, bringing the total number of cases to 39. Despite expectations that Netanyahu would announce a directive targeting passengers returning from the US, or at least from the states where the highest number of cases have been documented, the prime minister avoided doing so at a press conference with Litzman earlier in the day.
Anonymous sources told the Haaretz daily on Monday there was concern that public health considerations were taking a backseat to politics and that there was a lack of transparency in the decision-making process.
According to the report, officials felt that after the number of patients in Israel with coronavirus climbed from four to eight at the start of the month, strict guidelines should have been established for travelers returning from a number of countries. However, it was decided that there would not be a toughening of the rules until after the election.
Had the directives been issued at the time the health professionals wanted, the number of people in isolation, who would therefore have been required to vote at special polling stations, would have rocketed from 5,000 to 70,000, the newspaper reported, and would have had an unknown impact on voting patterns.
In addition, questions have been asked about why Belgium has not been included on the list of countries from where travelers must be isolated, with sources suggesting to the newspaper that the powerful Orthodox community there may have played a role in that decision.
Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, the director-general of the Health Ministry, said at the press conference Sunday that Israelis should be prepared for the situation to get worse, but insisted that authorities had the situation under control and were doing their best to contain the outbreak.
He said that he was seeing more and more countries losing control of the virus, and that Israel’s seemingly draconian measures to restrict entry have saved lives.
But sources told Haaretz that there was increasing criticism that Bar Siman-Tov was making decisions for political reasons instead of following health protocols.
Sources said the decisions made by the Health Ministry were not well-reasoned and that there was not enough testing carried out to find out who is carrying the virus.
“In the end, the political echelon seems to make the decisions, and the bureaucrats toe the line,” said one. “Because not enough tests are being done, no one really knows who infected whom and what is the prevalence of carriers in Israel.”
According to Health Ministry figures, less than 4,000 people have been tested for the virus.
In addition, the source said that not enough work was being done to prepare for a large outbreak and there is disagreement over whether there is a need to hospitalize those with only mild symptoms. Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto estimated on Sunday that the number of Israeli COVID-19 cases could surge to tens of thousands.
The virus hit a milestone Friday, infecting more than 100,000 people worldwide. It has killed nearly 3,400 people.
Israel has already required returning Israelis from several countries to self-quarantine, and barred foreigners from a slew of European and Asian countries. Some 80,000 Israelis are now reported to be in self-quarantine, and large events such as concerts and sporting matches have been canceled.
Israelis have also been advised against all non-vital international travel.