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Israel confirms first coronavirus case as cruise ship returnee diagnosed

One of 11 Israelis who arrived in the morning following quarantine aboard Diamond Princess ship tests positive, after entering 14-day isolation at Sheba Medical Center

Israelis who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Japan are seen on a plane bringing them to Israel, February 20, 2020. (Israeli Embassy in Japan)
Israelis who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Japan are seen on a plane bringing them to Israel, February 20, 2020. (Israeli Embassy in Japan)

One of 11 Israeli travelers who returned to the country early Friday after being quarantined for the last two weeks on a cruise ship off Japan’s coast tested positive for coronavirus Friday, the Health Ministry said, marking the first case of the novel COVID-19 virus in the Jewish state.

A plane carrying the passengers from Japan was brought to a remote area of Ben Gurion Airport just after 4 a.m., where the travelers were immediately put on vans to be taken to Sheba Medical Center, near Tel Aviv where they will spend the next 14 days in quarantine — hoping that will be be the end of a vacation spoiled by global fears over the spread of the pathogen.

As they arrived at the special, isolated hospital building, the passengers gave breath samples designed to determine whether they have the virus in their blood.

Results showed a positive result for one woman, and negative results for the other ten Israelis.

“An examination at the Health Ministry’s main laboratory found that one of the passengers tested positive,” the ministry said in a statement. “The lab is continuing to confirm the test results. The patient is in quarantine and under supervision and this is not an infection that occurred in Israel.”

All 11 had also been tested before departing Japan and all showed up as negative.

The relatives of the quarantined Israelis said in a statement: “We have unhappily received the news. The families are being updated on the details and support [the woman] and her family. We wish her good health.”

Several other people from around the world who tested negative for the virus in Japan have been found to be carrying the disease after arriving in their home countries. At least four people flown to the US and another two Australians let off the ship have been found to have the virus, raising questions about Japan’s policy of allowing evacuees to return home after testing negative.

At Sheba, the group will be kept in a separate area of the sprawling medical center and military base, far from where they can come into contact with the general population, according to authorities.

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

Each traveler will be in a separate quarantined room, with couples staying in adjacent chambers. Their families had earlier handed the hospital food, snacks and various items to be used by them during the quarantine period.

One family left a bottle of Corona beer for its returning passenger, Channel 13 said.

Officials at Sheba said they were relieved that none of the passengers resisted the additional quarantine, after some had earlier expressed anger and frustration at the suggestion.

Every morning, each of those in quarantine will be required to provide a blood sample that will be handed through a window to a doctor wearing protective gear.

Fifteen Israelis had been among the over 3,000 passengers and crew quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess since February 4. Four of them remain hospitalized in Japan in good condition after being diagnosed with the virus.

The Bombardier Global 6000 that carried the 11 home, specially chartered by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, made a brief stop in Tbilisi, Georgia to refuel before making its way to Israel.

The passengers appeared visibly relieved upon landing in Israel. “We are all happy,” one woman told the Kan news outlet.

A passenger evacuated from a quarantined cruise ship in Japan waving as she walks off an airplane after arriving in Israel on February 21, 2020. (Courtesy: MDA)

“We are all healthy, nobody is sick,” another person told Ynet.

The plane was to return immediately to East Asia and its crew was not allowed to enter Israel while it was being prepared for the flight back.

An officer stands next to the Diamond Princess cruise ship on February 16, 2020, with an Israeli flag visible through a window of the ship. (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)

The Israelis aboard the ship and their families had pleaded with authorities in Israel and Japan to release them from the ship quarantine, fearing exposure to the deadly virus and complaining of less than ideal conditions aboard the ocean liner.

On Wednesday, Japan ended the quarantine for anyone who tested negative for the disease and on Thursday the majority of Israelis disembarked.

The Israelis were greeted on the dock by a delegation from the embassy in Tokyo, ready to whisk them away from the harbor to the airport, Israel’s health and foreign ministries said in a joint statement.

Video from a bus taking them to the airport in Japan showed passengers singing Am Yisrael Chai (The people of Israel live), a song originally composed to honor the plight of Jews stuck behind the Iron Curtain.

A spokesperson for the families said the group was “leaving with mixed feelings,” knowing that there were others staying behind in Japan.

Officials wearing protective clothing wait for Israeli passengers to leave the Diamond Princess cruise ship where they spent two weeks in quarantine due to an outbreak of the coronavirus on board, February 20, 2020. (Israeli Embassy Tokyo)

The new virus appeared in China late last year and has been diagnosed in tens of thousands of people, mostly in central China’s Hubei province. The over 620 cases confirmed among the Diamond Princess’s original 3,711 people on board are the most anywhere outside China.

Before the quarantine on the ship had ended, the United States evacuated more than 300 Americans and put them in quarantine in the US for another 14 days. South Korea, Australia and Hong Kong also evacuated their residents for quarantines, and Canada and Italy sent flights for their citizens as well.

Workers in protective suits help passengers with their luggage from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, in quarantine due to fears of new COVID-19 coronavirus, at Daikoku pier cruise terminal in Yokohama on February 20, 2020. (Philip FONG / AFP)

Japan’s government has been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator.

The Diamond Princess was initially quarantined after one passenger who left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.

On Thursday Japanese health officials confirmed that two elderly passengers, both from Japan and with preexisting chronic health issues, had died from the virus.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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