Netanyahu, aides self-isolating as precaution after adviser infected with virus

PM entering quarantine until health officials complete investigation into his possible exposure, contradicting earlier statement from his office saying isolation unnecessary

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers are voluntarily entering quarantine as a precaution until Health Ministry officials finish their epidemiological investigation into whether he was exposed to the coronavirus, his office said Monday, hours after saying the move was unnecessary.

“Even before the epidemiological investigation is over and to remove all doubt, the prime minister has decided that he and his close staff will remain in isolation until the epidemiological investigation is completed,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

“In accordance with the findings, the Health Ministry and the personal physician of the prime minister will set a day to end the isolation,” it added.

Netanyahu’s aide Rivka Paluch was confirmed infected with the virus on Sunday, but it remains unclear whether the prime minister was in close contact with her.

Rivka Paluch, left, walks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on March 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Reports earlier in the day had said Netanyahu would have to be quarantined, but his bureau countered that, saying in a statement that the premier hadn’t been in the same room as Paluch in the last two weeks.

“The initial assessment is that there is no need for the prime minister to be in quarantine since he was not in close contact with the patient and did not meet with her,” the PMO said. “Likewise, from an initial check, the two were not together in the same room for the past fortnight. The epidemiological investigation is ongoing.”

The earlier statement had noted that in recent weeks the prime minister and those around him have been strictly adhering to Health Ministry guidelines under the watch of his personal physician, and that most discussions Netanyahu holds are via video-link from his residence.

However, Hebrew-language media reports said Netanyahu had in fact met with Paluch, along with a reported confirmation from his office.

Channel 12 news reported that Netanyahu was expected to self-quarantine for a week after meeting with Paluch on Thursday. Paluch, Netanyahu’s adviser on ultra-Orthodox affairs, tested positive hours after her husband was hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. According to the report, health officials were deliberating on what steps the premier should take following notification of her diagnosis.

For Netanyahu, the prospect of following Health Ministry guidelines requiring all those suspected of exposure the virus to self-quarantine for 14 days would come as he is in the midst of marathon negotiations to form a unity government with Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz, in the wake of elections at the beginning of the month. Netanyahu has also been holding intense talks with health officials and his ministers on how to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

Under Health Ministry orders, tens of thousands of Israelis are in self-quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus and the entire country is in an almost total lockdown that has seen most of the population confined to their homes, only allowed out for essential needs.

The Knesset Guard has examined security camera footage from the parliament building to determine whom Paluch was in contact with at the Israeli parliament on March 16, 23 and 26. Letters were sent to lawmakers and staff telling them they must immediately entire isolation if they were in contact with the aide, Ynet reported.

No further details were given on the identities of those who may be required to enter quarantine. Paluch reportedly met with several lawmakers on Thursday amid frenzied negotiations as the Knesset voted Gantz in as its new speaker, signaling a unity government deal was being hammered out.

The Prime Minister’s Office had reportedly confirmed Sunday that Paluch met with Netanyahu on Thursday but said that “the appropriate distance was kept.”

“The rules for keeping distance from the prime minister and those near him were maintained in accordance with the instructions of the Health Ministry, even before the family member was found positive,” sources close to Paluch told Channel 12 on Sunday.

Netanyahu was previously tested for the virus two weeks ago and found to not be infected. According to Channel 12, the prime minister will likely need to undergo another test for the virus on Monday.

There was no immediate word on the adviser’s condition.

Most people who contract COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms, which can include fever and cough but also milder cases of pneumonia, sometimes requiring hospitalization. The risk of death is greater for older adults and people with other health problems. Netanyahu, 70, would be considered a high-risk patient. Paluch is 64.

There have been 4,347 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, the Health Ministry said Monday morning, a rise of 100 cases since the night before. That includes 80 in serious condition, of whom 63 are on ventilators. Another 81 are in moderate condition. Sixteen Israelis have died of the disease.

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