Some 200 Israeli students and teachers have been ordered to self-quarantine after coming into contact with a group of South Koreans potentially infected with coronavirus, authorities said Saturday night, as the prime minister announced a meeting with top officials Sunday morning to discuss efforts to contain the disease.
The Education Ministry announced Saturday night that students from Afula, Haifa and Beersheba had been ordered to remain in isolation at their homes after they visited tourist sites at the same time as the South Koreans.
The tally included 90 students and 10 teachers and chaperones from an Afula school who were at the historical site of Masada at the same time as the South Korean group earlier this month. Another 60 eighth graders from Haifa and five teachers and a security guard were also told to self quarantine after they were at the same site.
The ministry earlier said 30 Beersheba eighth graders would be quarantined at their homes along with two teachers after coming into contact with the pilgrims during a field trip to another site.
The Education Ministry said it would provide the students with psychological guidance and online learning resources while in isolation — during which time they are required to avoid any direct contact with other people including family members.
The group of 77 Koreans were in Israel from February 8-15. Nine of them were confirmed to have the virus Friday, following their return to South Korea, though it is not known whether they contracted the pathogen before or after returning from Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a situation assessment Sunday morning on containing the potential spread of the coronavirus in Israel, to be attended by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, ministers, hospital managers and other top officials.
Israel also blocked tourists who arrived from South Korea Saturday evening from entering the country, amid a surge in illnesses in the Asian nation, where the number of infected has jumped to 433 in the space of a few days.
A Korean Air passenger jet that landed at Ben Gurion Airport around 7:30 p.m. Saturday was held on the tarmac as all foreigners on board were blocked from entering the country.
Twelve Israelis on board were allowed to disembark, screened for fever and driven by ambulances to quarantine at their homes. Meanwhile the rest of the passengers, some 200 people, were to be flown back to South Korea immediately.
Officials said the decision to block the entry of people arriving from South Korea was a case-specific one at the moment and not a general ban on arrivals from the nation. But Channel 12 news reported that all further flights to and from Seoul would be canceled until further notice — potentially stranding hundreds of South Korean tourists currently in the country.
One Beersheba teacher ordered to quarantine told Channel 12 he had developed a cough in recent days though he was otherwise well. He said he’d been examined and had had a throat culture done and did not yet have results, but believed nothing would come of it as he and his students hadn’t been in close contact with the South Korean tourists.
“We were on a field day in Tel Sheva [near Beersheba]. There was a group there… They were some 20-30 meters (60-100 feet) in front of me. There was a guide there talking to them. There was no contact with them.”
A Haifa student told Channel 12 that he, too, had developed cold-like symptoms in recent days but did not believe it was anything out of the ordinary.
He said he remembered the students had stood apart from the Korean group while at Masada but not far away. “We were close to them for some 30 or 40 minutes while their guide talked and then we went into a cave after them. Who knows if one of them coughed in there and it lingered. It’s scary.”
Footage on social media Saturday showed the South Korean group visiting Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs earlier this month, where they prayed together with Jewish worshipers at the holy site for the recovery of those who have contracted the virus.
The Israeli authority managing the site said the group of tourists spent 15 minutes in the area for Jewish worshipers and another half hour in the area designated for Muslim worshipers. The authority urged Israeli visitors who were at the site that day or in the days that followed to follow Health Ministry guidelines regarding the virus.
יומיים לפני הקבוצה הנגועה .קבוצת קוראנים שבקרו במערת המכפלה. מברכים "רפא נא מהקורונה" pic.twitter.com/ZlmKt5R4Db
— Elisha Ben Kimon (@elishabenkimon) February 22, 2020
Danger of contagion
In a briefing Saturday evening, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov announced that Israelis returning from South Korea and Japan would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Such guidelines are already in effect for those returning from China, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau.
The Health Ministry has also called on anyone who was in close contact with the Korean visitors to report and self-quarantine for 14 days from the date of their last interaction.
Bar Siman Tov said anyone showing symptoms of illness “is asked not to arrive at the hospital independently, but contact Magen David Adom’s emergency hotline by phone.”
He added: “If we do not follow the rules there will be widespread dissemination of the virus.
“The potential that there is someone ill in Israel due to the group has risen significantly,” Bar Siman Tov said. “We are working under the assumption that the South Korean tourists were carrying the virus while in Israel.”
He warned that anyone breaking quarantine guidelines would be endangering others and face punishment.
An expert on infectious diseases told Channel 12 Saturday that the discovery of the COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, in the nine pilgrims who’d visited Israel was “very worrying.”
Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center, noted that unlike in the case of the 11 Israelis who’d returned from a quarantined cruise ship in Japan, and who were being kept in isolation at Sheba under constant monitoring, “these people were exposed to a large population in Israel.”
He added: “From our experiences this virus is apparently very contagious and so there is a great risk at the moment that there are infections in the country.”
Walla news reported that Israel’s Ambassador to China, Zvi Heifetz, had been on the flight that returned the South Korean tourists home and was now in self-quarantine at his home.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz called an emergency meeting at his ministry over the possible ramifications of the case of the South Koreans visitors.
In a statement, Katz said he’d instructed ministry officials “to support any strict decisions issued by the Health Ministry on preventing the entry of foreigners from various world countries who could pose a health risk to Israel’s population.”
It also posted a list of places the group visited, among them Netanya, Caesarea, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, Beersheba, Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In the West Bank the group was reported to have visited Nablus, Jericho, Bethlehem and Hebron. The Palestinian Authority called on anyone who had come into contact with the South Korean tourists to enter quarantine. PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh instructed all West Bank sites visited by the tourists closed until further notice, and their employees screened.
The manager of a Jerusalem hotel where the group stayed during its visit told Channel 12 that the staff who cleaned their rooms had been instructed by the Health Ministry to self-quarantine.
“Other hotel workers must report if they feel ill or develop any symptoms,” he said. He added that employees were calm.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority confirmed the group visited the national parks Tel Beersheba, Masada and Caesarea. “Instructions were given to employees at the sites who were in contact [with the South Koreans],” it said in a statement.
The report comes a day after Israel declared its first case of the novel COVID-19, an Israeli woman who returned to the country after being quarantined on a cruise ship off Japan that saw a large number of infections.
Fears mounted Saturday over the growing spread of infections outside China from the coronavirus outbreak, as the World Health Organization warned of a shrinking window to stem the spread of the deadly disease.
The warning came as Europe saw its first deaths from the COVID-19 strain, which has now reached more than 25 countries and caused more than a dozen fatalities outside China.
On Saturday, Italian news agency ANSA reported that a woman in the northern region of Lombardy had died after contracting the virus, a day after a 78-year-old man from the nearby Veneto region became the first local person in Europe to succumb to the illness.
The new wave of cases in Italy has also triggered a lockdown of ten towns — a move with echoes of China’s sealing off of entire cities in central Hubei province, the epicenter of the virus where millions remain under quarantine.
A second person also died in South Korea, where the numbers of cases spiked, authorities said Saturday, while the death toll in Iran reached five and a number of new cases were reported across the Middle East.
As cases surged outside China, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the “window of opportunity” to contain the international spread of the outbreak was “narrowing.”
He cautioned that if countries did not quickly mobilize to fight the reach of the virus, “this outbreak could go in any direction. It could even be messy.”
The outbreak has now claimed 2,345 lives in China and infected more than 76,000 people, with some 78,000 infections worldwide.
The number of new cases in China outside Hubei has been generally declining, although new outbreaks have emerged in several prisons and hospitals.
On Saturday Chinese authorities reported nearly 400 fresh cases nationwide, less than half the previous day and just 31 outside Hubei.
A WHO-led team of experts are to visit Wuhan, the capital of the province, on Saturday.
The South Korean national toll of 433 is the highest outside China apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
Many of new cases involved patients being treated in hospital for mental health issues but also included a Samsung employee.
Separately, more than 200 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus have now been infected, starting with a 61-year-old woman who attended at least four services at the church’s Daegu branch before being diagnosed. Some 9,300 Shincheonji members in Daegu have either been quarantined at facilities or been asked to stay at home. Among them, 1,261 said they had symptoms, health officials added.