'Only a matter of time' until virus reaches Israel

Israel bars land, sea entry to foreigners recently in China as virus deaths rise

Interior Ministry order follows Israeli ban on flights from China, where death toll has passed 200; Foreign Ministry urges Israelis to leave China

A man wearing a face mask at the arrivals hall of Ben Gurion Airport on January 30, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
A man wearing a face mask at the arrivals hall of Ben Gurion Airport on January 30, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on Friday barred foreign nationals recently in China from entering Israel by land or sea, as the death toll from the deadly new coronavirus shot up.

Anyone who had visited China over the past two weeks who is not an Israeli citizen or permanent resident will now be banned from entering the country through a land or sea crossing until further notice, according to an Interior Ministry statement.

The ban does not apply to those who have a valid ticket for a flight that departs from Israel within six hours of the time they entered the country.

The ministry said Deri’s order came on the recommendation of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who on Thursday announced that Israel will not allow further flights into the country from China amid concerns over the spread of the virus.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri, right, with United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman during a joint party meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Litzman said the ban would remain in effect until further notice and that Israelis who visited China will need to be quarantined at home for two weeks.

His announcement came after El Al said earlier it was pausing flights to China for a two-month period due to the outbreak of the virus, which has infected almost 10,000 people globally in just two months, a worrying sign of its spread that prompted the World Health Organization to declare the outbreak a global emergency.

“The virus is already on five continents and as we said, it is likely only a matter of time until it reaches us,” Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, director-general of the Health Ministry, tweeted Friday.

The Foreign Ministry said Friday that in light of the WHO announcement, it recommended that Israelis not travel to China until the emergency is declared over and that those in China consider leaving the country.

Most remaining Israelis left Thursday on two flights to Ben Gurion Airport, the ministry said, adding that Israel’s diplomatic missions in China were providing assistance to Israeli citizens still there.

“We know of a small number of Israelis still in the country,” the ministry said, without specifying.

It also said any Israelis in China who wish to return to Israel can still do so by way of a third country.

Israel’s deputy ambassador in Beijing Jonathan Zadka told Channel 12 that families of Israeli diplomats had also left the country.

Separately, the US advised against all travel to China as the number of cases of the worrying new virus spiked more than tenfold in a week, including the highest death toll in a 24-hour period reported Friday.

The State Department’s travel advisory told Americans in China to consider departing using commercial means, and requested that all non-essential US government personnel defer travel in light of the virus.

A man wearing a face mask jogs along a track in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province, January 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Arek Rataj)

China as of Friday morning counted 9,692 confirmed cases with a death toll of 213, including 43 new fatalities. The vast majority of the cases have been in Hubei province and its provincial capital, Wuhan, where the first illnesses were detected in December. No deaths have been reported outside China.

The National Health Commission reported 171 cases have been “cured and discharged from hospital.” WHO has said most people who got the illness had milder cases, though 20% experienced severe symptoms. Symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever and cough and in severe cases, shortness of breath and pneumonia.

Since China informed WHO about the new virus in late December, at least 20 countries have reported cases, as scientists race to understand how exactly the virus is spreading and how severe it is.

Experts say there is significant evidence the virus is spreading among people in China and WHO noted with its emergency declaration Thursday it was especially concerned that some cases abroad also involved human-to-human transmission. It defines an international emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response.

“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva. “Our greatest concern is the potential for this virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems which are ill-prepared to deal with it.

“This declaration is not a vote of non-confidence in China,” he said. “On the contrary, WHO continues to have the confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”

A declaration of a global emergency typically brings greater money and resources, but may also prompt nervous governments to restrict travel and trade to affected countries. The announcement also imposes more disease reporting requirements on countries.

Japan and Germany also advised against non-essential travel and Britain did as well, except for Hong Kong and Macao. Popular holiday and shopping destination Singapore barred Chinese from traveling there, becoming the first Southeast Asian nation to do so.

French passengers leave in buses a military air base, January 31, 2020 in Istres, southern France after arriving by plane from the virus-hit Chinese city of Wuhan. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

Tedros said WHO was not recommending limiting travel or trade to China, where transport links have shut down in places and businesses including Starbucks and McDonald’s temporarily closing hundreds of shops.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he said. He added that Chinese President Xi Jinping had committed to help stop the spread of the virus beyond its borders.

Although scientists expect to see limited transmission of the virus between people with close contact, like within families, the instances of spread to people who may have had less exposure to the virus is worrying.

The new virus has now infected more people globally than were sickened during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, a cousin of the new virus. Both are from the coronavirus family, which also includes those that can cause the common cold.

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