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Ministry chief said to have come into office despite showing virus symptoms

In wake of Avi Cohen’s diagnosis, Jerusalem Affairs Raft Peretz also tests positive for COVID-19, resulting in three other ministers being ordered into quarantine

Avi Cohen, then-firector general of the Ministry for Social Equality, speaks at the 16th annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 11, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Avi Cohen, then-firector general of the Ministry for Social Equality, speaks at the 16th annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 11, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The director-general of the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry continued to go to work, and attended meetings without wearing a mask, even though he showed symptoms of the coronavirus infection, Channel 12 news reported Sunday, citing ministry sources.

In the wake of Avi Cohen being diagnosed with COVID-19, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Rafi Peretz went into quarantine, and later also tested positive for the virus.

Three other cabinet ministers were then required to enter quarantine, having spent time with Peretz.

Cohen came into work at the ministry for a period of few days when he was not feeling well, having some symptoms of the virus, and despite being urged to get tested, the report said. Ministry sources said Cohen attended meetings without wearing a face mask and, on one occasion, rode in an elevator with Peretz, who was wearing a face mask at the time while Cohen was not.

In a response to the station, Cohen denied the claims and said he went to get tested for the virus as soon as he felt unwell. He said people were spreading untrue rumors about him.

Outgoing education minister Rafi Peretz at a ceremony held at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem, on May 18 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After Peretz announced on Saturday night that he had tested positive for the virus, Higher Education and Water Resources Minister Zeev Elkin, Community Empowerment and Advancement Minister Orly Levy-Abekasis, and Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Avitan all went into isolation on Sunday, as a result of contact with the infected minister.

Several of the ministers’ staff members have also been quarantined.

The Israel Police’s Jerusalem District Commander Doron Yadid, who has led the response to ongoing demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the capital, will also enter quarantine since he met with Peretz over the past week.

However, Channel 12 reported that other ministers who recently came into contact with an infected person at the Knesset have dodged quarantine.

Alon Azulay, owner of the Taglit sanitation services group, visited the Knesset building last Tuesday and met with a series of senior Likud party figures. Azulay posted photos of himself with Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, and MK Avi Dichter. He also lunched with MK Osnat Mark.

Although Azulay wrote that he was to meet with Knesset Speaker Yariv Levine, that get-together never happened.

Days later, Azulay was diagnosed with COVID-19 but only Dichter and Mark have quarantined, the report said. Ministers Akunis, Regev and Ohana, in contrast, all underwent epidemiological investigations that apparently found they did not need to isolate — despite photos Azulay posted showing them making physical contact with him.

Posted by ‎אלון אזולאי‎ on Tuesday, July 28, 2020

However, it was not clear on what basis the ministers were permitted to skip isolation. A channel 12 reporter, who called the Health Ministry’s coronavirus help center and asked for information on what to do if he had momentary contact with a diagnosed patient, was told that any physical contact required him to be in quarantine and that under those circumstances, a mask was not considered enough.

Peretz is the third lawmaker to test positive for coronavirus, following Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Joint List MK Sami Abou Shahadeh. Litzman tested positive in April when he was serving as health minister, allegedly after attending group prayers barred under the Health Ministry’s guidelines. He denied violating any rules. Abou Shahadeh was diagnosed in June.

Litzman also met with Peretz recently, but because he is a recovered patient he was is not required to quarantine.

Israel currently has one of the highest rates of daily new infections per capita in the world and has seen seen the number of new coronavirus cases rocket to some 2,000 a day in recent weeks, though the numbers appeared to taper off over the weekend.

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