Israel is first country to urge halt to all overseas travel

In unprecedented move, Israelis advised to avoid all travel abroad over virus

Health Ministry warning sees ‘high probability’ pathogen has now spread worldwide and is no longer containable; Israelis returning from Italy ordered to 14-day quarantine

Passengers wearing masks as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19 arrive to the Sao Paulo International Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP/Andre Penner)
Passengers wearing masks as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19 arrive to the Sao Paulo International Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP/Andre Penner)

In a dramatic statement Wednesday, Israel’s Health Ministry urged Israelis to seriously consider refraining from traveling abroad, as the country looked to isolate itself from the novel coronavirus outbreak rapidly spreading across the globe.

“If you don’t genuinely have to fly — don’t do so,” the ministry said in a travel warning.

In making the announcement, Israel became the first country to urge its citizens to refrain from international travel entirely because of the outbreak, which started in China in December and has since infected over 80,000 worldwide and claimed well over 2,000 lives, almost all of them in China.

The move comes after a series of additional countries announced they had identified cases of the virus on their soil over the past two days, including Brazil’s announcement of the first confirmed case in Latin America and uncontained outbreaks in Germany, Italy and other European countries.

Tuesday marked the first day since the start of the outbreak that more new cases were recorded abroad than in China, which has been the epicenter of the epidemic.

Passengers wearing protective masks walk through the arrival hall of Ben Gurion Airport on February 22, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The statement also expanded a previous travel warning for northern Italy to the entirety of that country and ordered all Israelis returning from Italy to a 14-day home quarantine, effective immediately.

Israel has already banned the entry of any foreigners who have been to China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand Singapore, South Korea and Japan in the 14 days prior.

Israeli officials said the new reports of coronavirus cases in Greece, Austria, Switzerland and Croatia, all announced over the past two days, appear to have arrived in those countries from travelers originating in Italy.

Other hotspots have been identified in South Korea and Iran.

“The current assessment is that there is a high probability that the pathogen has spread to additional areas in Europe and in many other places around the world,” the travel warning said.

A tourist wears protective mask while waiting for a flight back to South Korea at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The Wednesday statement advised the cancellation or delay of all international conferences and gatherings in Israel in the coming months, and to refrain from traveling to such events abroad, where the threat of contagion from multiple countries is higher.

It also urged the avoidance of travel to “events of a religious character at which people from many different nations gather together,” an apparent reference to Hajj, which falls in July.

Israel’s Health Ministry has taken an active approach to combating the spread of the virus here, going far beyond other countries in banning visitors from some countries and forcing Israelis returning from there into self-quarantine.

The ministry has faced some criticism for unnecessarily panicking people and causing economic and diplomatic damage to the country.

Professor Galia Rahavm, head of infectious diseases at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer in Ramat Gan, shows one of the rooms where returning Israelis with suspected exposure to coronavirus will stay under observation and isolation, Ramat Gan, February 19, 2020. (Heidi Levine/Pool via AP)

Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told Channel 12 news that the ministry preferred to take harsher measures now than be sorry later.

The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on how the new directives could affect diplomatic work in Israel and abroad.

The Israel Defense Forces did not immediately respond to a question on whether the measures would affect any planned exercises with international partners.

So far, there have only been two confirmed cases in the country — both of whom were on a cruise ship where hundreds were infected and were already in quarantine when diagnosed.

However, over the weekend South Korea informed Israel that several members of a group of pilgrims who returned from a recent visit to the country were found to have the disease. Another four Israelis were being treated in Japan, where they were diagnosed as having the virus while still on the ship. On Tuesday one of the Israelis was given the all-clear to leave the hospital.

On Saturday authorities instructed some 200 Israeli students and teachers to self-quarantine due to their contact with the group of South Korean pilgrims. It is not clear whether the Korean tourists were already infected while in Israel.

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