Joint List MK diagnosed with virus, shutting down Knesset

Sami Abou Shahadeh says he was in contact with thousands, photographed in close contact with others while not wearing a mask; Deri backtracks on entry for foreign yeshiva students

Joint List MK Sami Abu Shehadeh (Screen capture: YouTube)
Joint List MK Sami Abu Shehadeh (Screen capture: YouTube)

MK Sami Abou Shahadeh of the Joint List announced Thursday that he tested positive for the coronavirus days after being photographed in crowds not wearing a mask, forcing the Knesset to suspend most activities Thursday.

Hundreds of staff members at the Knesset were told not to come to work unless necessary, and committee meetings and other activities planned for Thursday were canceled.

Abou Shahadeh, 44, entered quarantine two days ago after his driver was diagnosed with the pathogen.

Authorities were checking who Abou Shahadeh may have come into contact with while he was at the Knesset.

In an interview with the Kan public broadcaster, Abou Shahadeh said he had been in contact with thousands of people.

“I went to comfort mourners and also to family events and demonstrations,” he said. “I was on committees, in the plenary and even the cafeteria.”

He later told Army Radio he had followed social-distancing and other guidelines against COVID-19.

The Walla news site reported he paid a visit to the mourning tent set up by the family of Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old East Jerusalem man with special needs who was shot to death by police on Saturday.

Pictures of him visiting the family and at a protest showed him not wearing a mask as he stood shoulder to shoulder with others.

“I appeal to anyone who was in my immediate area to go in isolation and do a test. I ask everyone to follow the instructions of the Health Ministry,” Abou Shahadeh said on Twitter. “We must all internalize that the campaign is not over yet. The virus still exists between us and the supposed return to routine helps the virus spread in a big and fast way.”

Abou Shahadeh lives in Tel Aviv, where he previously served on the municipal council. He entered the Knesset in October 2019 as a member of the Joint List’s Balad faction.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous Knesset members have entered quarantine after being exposed to a carrier of the virus, though previously only Yaakov Litzman had been diagnosed with the virus.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left)  and then-Health Minister Yaakov Litzman hold a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Litzman, head of the United Torah Judaism party, was serving as health minister when it was announced he had tested positive for the virus on April 2. He has since recovered from COVID-19. He is now housing minister.

Litzman’s diagnosis forced other top government officials he was in contact with into quarantine, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu had also entered quarantine previously after an aide became sick. On Monday an employee at the Prime Minister’s Office was diagnosed with the virus, raising the prospect of Netanyahu needing to isolate again, but officials appeared to have ruled that his contacts with the worker did not make that necessary.

Abou Shahadeh’s announcement came as there has been a sharp increase in new virus cases in recent days, apparently centering around schools across the country.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri has decided to cancel permits for foreign seminary students to enter the country amid the spike in infections.

In a letter to yeshiva heads on Wednesday, Deri wrote that he was “forced to cancel the permits until a new announcement,” the Ynet news site reported.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri at the Knesset, March 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, according to the report, married students will be allowed to enter the country with their families.

According to Health Ministry numbers released Thursday morning, some 17,429 people have been diagnosed with the virus, up 52 from Wednesday evening. There are currently 25 people on ventilators and 291 people have died.

At least five schools were shuttered Wednesday morning after students were diagnosed with coronavirus. In total, over 40 schools have been closed across the country in recent days, with some 10,000 students and staff forced into home quarantine. More than 200 people have been confirmed to have been infected in schools and kindergartens.

The Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem has been particularly hard hit, with some 160 students and staff members there found to be infected.

A picture shows the entrance to the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A growing number of parents have been avoiding sending their kids to school as a result of the wave of infections. Some schools have independently implemented a previously scrapped system of keeping students in separate, smaller groups that stay away from each other to limit any potential wave of infections.

The Health Ministry, which has reportedly been pushing to reintroduce a nationwide closure of schools, says the rising number of infections among students is the primary factor in Israel’s recent spike in cases.

Newly appointed Health Minister Yuli Edelstein warned Sunday of a possible new lockdown, saying the rate of positive results out of all daily coronavirus tests was now five times higher than several days ago.

Netanyahu, however, replied at the time that it was too early to tell whether the upward trend in infections would warrant the reimposition of lockdowns.

This picture released by the Health Ministry on May 21, 2020, shows Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (C) meeting with senior ministry officials. (Health Ministry)

Education Minister Gallant has pushed back against a nationwide closure of schools, saying the current infection rates do not justify doing so and calling such a move “an irresponsible blow to students, parents and teachers.”

Gallant was also quoted by Hebrew media reports lashing out at the Health Ministry, accusing it of “sowing panic,” and saying there was no current need for widespread school closures.

Israelis schools began reopening in stages last month. On May 3, the first day of classes, just 60 percent of eligible students attended, a number that later increased before dropping in the wake of the current surge in COVID-19 cases.

The Health Ministry announced Wednesday that widespread serological testing would begin next week to help determine the extent of the population’s exposure to the coronavirus.

The ministry said the antibody tests would be performed throughout the country by health maintenance organizations, with some 70,000 people initially set to be tested.

Tens of thousands more will be tested later as part of the effort.

The antibody tests are seen as a key component in finding out who already had the disease in order to better understand its spread and shape policy ahead of a possible second outbreak.

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