An Israeli man stuck in quarantined Hubei province in central China was given special permission to leave for home, the Israeli embassy in Beijing said Wednesday.
Authorities are also working on extricating a second man in a separate area near Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Both had traveled in China to study martial arts.
The first man, Tomer Zevulun, was visiting a rural village in the Hubei province where he was interested in studying Kung Fu, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Israeli officials helped him obtain permits to leave the province, which has been under closure since the deadly virus began spreading through the area.
He boarded a plane to Ukraine on Wednesday afternoon, where he will be quarantined for 14 days before being allowed to fly back to Israel, the Foreign Ministry said.
The Foreign Ministry said that Chinese authorities have yet to sign off on the second man’s extraction. He was not named, but Ambassador to China Zvi Heifetz told Israel’s 103 FM that the man had been in the area to study Tai Chi.
It said diplomats were in touch with other Israelis stuck in the area and offering them supplies and other aid.
While the overall spread of the virus has been slowing, the situation remains severe in Hubei province, whose capital is Wuhan. Infections in Hubei constitute more than 80% of the country’s 74,185 total cases and 95% of its 2,004 deaths, according to data from China’s National Health Commission.
Hubei province, home to some 40 million people, has been closed off to much of the rest of the world since last month, when Chinese authorities locked down the area to keep the deadly virus from spreading. Authorities believe the COVID-19 virus first jumped to humans at an exotic meats market in Wuhan.
Earlier Wednesday, two Israeli passengers were let off the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan and were making their way back to Israel after two weeks of quarantine.
The first Israelis to disembark along with hundreds of others were Edna and Henry Ben Shabbat, who were quoted by Hebrew-language media as saying: “We are happy to get off the ship, but at the same time we will remain concerned until all the Israelis are off.
At least three Israelis were among those infected on board. There were another 10 Israelis on the cruise ship and were not known to have contracted the virus.
About 500 passengers who planned to disembark on Wednesday all left the ship by evening.
Japanese officials are to spend the next three days conducting the disembarkation of about 2,000 others. The Diamond Princess was quarantined in Yokohama near Tokyo after one passenger who had left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
According to reports in the Israeli media, the remaining Israelis will be evacuated from the ship on Thursday and taken to a plane back home.
But they will first be tested to make sure they are not infected with the deadly virus, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
The passengers will receive a special permit enabling them to travel directly to the jet, which has been chartered by several private insurance companies.
The United States evacuated more than 300 people over the weekend who are now in quarantine in the US for another 14 days. South Korea earlier Wednesday returned seven people from the cruise ship, placing six citizens and one Japanese family member into quarantine.
Other foreign passengers were to be picked up by chartered flights sent from Canada, Australia, Italy and Hong Kong.
The three Israelis who caught the virus were hospitalized in Japan and were said to be suffering from mild symptoms of the disease. They will return home separately.
Even though Japanese officials insist the number of infected patients is leveling off, cases on the ship continue to mount daily. On Tuesday, 88 people tested positive; a day after 99 others were found to be infected.
Crew members, who couldn’t be confined to their rooms because they were working, are expected to stay on the ship.
The National Institute of Infectious Diseases said in a report released Wednesday that the crew had not been fully isolated during the quarantine period. It said the quarantine was effective in reducing transmission among passengers, and that the increase in cases toward the end was mostly among crew or passengers in shared cabins.
“It should be noted that due to the nature of the ship, individual isolation of all those aboard was not possible,” it said.
Some medical experts who assisted with the quarantine have said anti-infection measures were often sloppy on the ship. Four health workers — a quarantine official, a physician, a paramedic who took an infected passenger to a hospital and a health ministry official assigned to quarantine paperwork on the ship — became infected.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said a more controlled health watch for the crew members is starting now because they can be spread out and kept in isolation by using vacated passenger rooms.
The ship’s operator, Princess Cruises, said in a statement Tuesday that people who tested positive recently were still on the ship as they waited for transportation to hospitals.
The safety and transport logistics for moving hundreds of people will test Japanese officials.
Suga has defended Japan’s handling of the quarantine. “In the beginning, the United States expressed gratitude for the Japanese side. And there are many Americans who chose to stay on the ship,” he said.
The US government said Americans who remained on board instead of returning on chartered flights cannot return home for at least two weeks after they come ashore. Other governments picking up passengers have similar policies.
US officials cited the passengers’ possible exposure to the virus while on board the Diamond Princess.
Japanese health officials say the 14-day quarantine on the ship was adequate, noting that all but one of more than 500 Japanese who earlier were flown back from the center of the virus in China and initially tested negative were virus-free at the end of their 14-day quarantines.
The officials also defended the precautions taken on the ship. About 1,000 crew members were told to wear surgical masks, wash their hands, use disinfectant sprays and stop operations at restaurants, bars and other entertainment areas after Feb. 5, when the first group of 10 infections was reported and the start of the two-week quarantine was announced.
Passengers were instructed to stay in their cabins and not walk around or contact other passengers. Those in windowless cabins could go out on the deck for about an hour each day.
Crew members continued to serve guests by delivering food, letters, towels and amenities, and entering passenger cabins for cleaning. Crew members also ate in groups in a crew mess hall.