The Health Ministry said Thursday that an Israeli man who returned from Italy has tested positive for COVID-19, the first case in which an infection has been diagnosed in the country outside of a hospital quarantine, raising fears he may have infected others.
At a press conference, ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said the man had returned from Italy four days ago and felt ill.
Bar Siman-Tov added that following the diagnosis, anyone in Israel who has been to Italy in the last 14 days must quarantine themselves.
Health Ministry official Prof. Sigal Sadetsky said at the press conference that anyone who has been in contact with the man will also be quarantined shortly.
The ministry later said the man flew to Israel on Sunday on El Al flight LY382 from Milan.
The man is to be quarantined at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, along with the other Israeli passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was moored off the coast of Japan.
Minutes before the announcement, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said he intends to bar foreign nationals from traveling to Israel from Italy due to the spreading coronavirus in the European country.
Deri said he will sign an order prohibiting non-Israelis from entering Israel if they came from Italy.
“What can I do, the virus has spread in Italy,” Deri told the Ynet news site.
Israelis arriving from the country will be allowed in but are already required to be quarantined at home for 14 days.
Following the decision, dozens of foreign nationals who landed on flights from Italy were denied entry.
Three flights originating from Italy landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport Thursday afternoon. Twenty-five foreign nationals, including 19 Italians, who landed on the flight from Bergamo were denied entry and will be flown back, the Interior Ministry said.
Another 23 foreigners on an EasyJet flight from Italy were also blocked from entering, a ministry spokeswoman said.
The new order left some Israelis who returned recently from Italy confused and frustrated.
Ofri, an Israeli who returned from Italy this week, told The Times of Israel that after landing on Sunday, he called the Health Ministry hotline and was told he could continue behaving normally.
Starting Wednesday, as the situation escalated and the ministry began issuing orders, Ofri said he had seen various different orders and that he received conflicting information from the ministry’s website, its hotline and media reports.
“It is one big mess, and it’s unclear if it stems from hysteria or lack of a clear policy,” he said.
Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, banning entry to foreigners who were in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Japan in the 14 days prior, and compelling all Israelis recently in these areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.
In a dramatic statement Wednesday, the Health Ministry urged Israelis to seriously consider refraining from traveling abroad.
“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.
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 several countries and forcing Israelis returning from those nations into self-quarantine.
The ministry has faced criticism for this, with some saying it is unnecessarily panicking people and causing economic and diplomatic damage to the country.
On Monday the Finance Ministry said the virus could cause up to a one percent drop in Israel’s economic output as stocks around the globe plummeted over fears surrounding the outbreak.
The ministry estimated that the spread of the disease is likely to cause at least a quarter of a percent in damage to the economy. The expected shortfall amounts to between NIS 3.6 billion ($1 billion) and NIS 14 billion ($4 billion).
The estimates do not include the possibility of a “nightmare scenario” of a widespread, destructive outbreak in Israel, the Globes business daily reported.
AFP contributed to this report.