Israel issues travel warning for Italy, weighs quarantine for returnees

Health Ministry ‘very disturbed’ by outbreaks in Europe and Iran, says ‘high likelihood’ virus will gain footing in Israel, as medical authorities stockpile supplies

A flight from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Rome's Fiumicino airport,  February 21, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A flight from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Rome's Fiumicino airport, February 21, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Israel on Monday issued a travel advisory for Italy, due to a surge of coronavirus cases there.

The Health Ministry said that the Foreign Ministry would release the warning following a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We’re very disturbed by what’s happening in Italy, and in Iran,” Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said at a press conference. “We’ll consider in the coming days if those returning from Italy will be in [home] quarantine for 14 days.

“The virus is breaking through international borders, that’s the fear,” Bar Siman-Tov said. “We assume there is a high likelihood of coronavirus happening in Israel.”

He said that a quarantine order for travelers returning from Italy might be ineffective, because anyone who wished to avoid the quarantine could “take a train to a neighboring country, and fly to Israel from there.”

The Health Ministry was adding to its supplies of medicines in hospitals and clinics, although at the moment there were no shortages.

Italy on Monday reported the death of a fifth person in the country from the virus. More than 150 Italians have been infected and over 50,000 people, in about a dozen northern Italian towns, have been told to stay home. Police set up checkpoints to enforce the blockade.

Police stop cars at the border of an area under quarantine due to a coronavirus outbreak in Casalpusterlengo, Northern Italy, February 23, 2020. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

The Health Ministry said Sunday that any Israelis returning from Italy, Australia and Taiwan who develop symptoms of illness must be examined according to procedures detailed on its website.

On Sunday, the ministry announced that a second Israeli was diagnosed with the coronavirus after returning to the country from Japan, having spent two weeks quarantined on a cruise ship where the disease had rapidly spread. The Health Ministry stressed that the patient, who is being treated at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, did not contract the virus in Israel.

Fifteen Israelis were among some 3,700 who were kept on the ship for two weeks off the coast of Japan, after a passenger, who had already disembarked in Hong Kong, was found to be infected.

Four Israelis contracted the disease while on the ship and are being treated in special medical centers in Japan. They are all said to be in a good condition. The remaining 11 arrived back in Israel on Friday morning. Later that day, one of the passengers was diagnosed with the disease, making that person the first case to be reported inside Israel.

Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, and the Tel Aviv municipality on Sunday said it accepted the Health Ministry’s recommendation it prevent foreign athletes from participating in the city’s marathon on Friday, over fears of a coronavirus outbreak at the event.

The municipality said in a statement that the 40,000 local runners who have signed up will be allowed to take part in Friday’s contest, as planned. Those who were planning on coming from abroad to run the marathon will be reimbursed. The city said it was following Health Ministry directives.

The Foreign Ministry on Sunday urged Israelis not to visit Japan and South Korea over fears of exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

Korean tourists await a flight home from Ben-Gurion International airport amid fears that they carry the coronavirus, February 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“We recommend that Israelis weigh seriously any travel to South Korea at this time, and completely avoid the areas of Daegu, Cheongdo,” the ministry said in a statement, referring to areas that have seen a surge of infections by the coronavirus strain.

The travel advisory also recommended that Israelis currently in South Korea consider leaving the country.

Starting Monday, Israel is banning all foreign nationals who have been to South Korea and Japan in the past 14 days from entering the country. Israel is already denying entry to visitors from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand and Singapore, and is apparently the only country to have taken such drastic steps so far to contain the virus.

On Saturday, the Health Ministry said nine South Korean tourists recently in Israel had tested positive for the coronavirus, sending hundreds of Israelis who were in proximity to the travelers into home quarantine.

Some 200 Israeli students and teachers were instructed to enter isolation due to being in several tourist sites at the same time as the group. The Health Ministry published the itinerary of the group’s trip through Israel and the West Bank. The South Korean tourists were diagnosed upon returning home.

Concerning Japan, the Foreign Ministry said Israelis should avoid any nonessential travel there.

Israeli citizens returning from South Korea and Japan or who were there in the last 14 days must quarantine themselves at home for two weeks upon their return, the ministry said.

The Israeli embassies in Seoul and Japan will continue operations as usual, it said.

A commuter wears a mask amid coronavirus fears on a bus in Tehran, Iran, February 23, 2020. (AP Photo/ Ebrahim Noroozi)

El Al has said that, although it has had to suspend multiple lines to the the Far East, it still plans to inaugurate its new Tokyo route next month, according to a statement on the airline’s website.

Despite that plan, the airline may scotch the planned opening of the route, according to the Globes daily.

Iran’s confirmed death toll rose to 12 on Monday, with the outbreak prompting travel bans from nearby countries.

Bahrain and Kuwait announced on Monday their first cases of the virus, health ministries in the two Gulf states announced, adding that all had come from Iran. Kuwait reported three infections and Bahrain one.

Israel’s neighbor Jordan has announced that it was denying entry of non-Jordanians coming from Iran and South Korea, on top of a previous ban on those coming from China. Nationals arriving from those countries will be quarantined.

The coronavirus, known officially as COVID-19, began in China in December.

The number of fatalities in China has continued to soar, with 150 more confirmed deaths taking the official death toll to nearly 2,600 Monday.

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