Netanyahu, much of Israeli top brass in quarantine as health minister gets virus

Health Ministry chiefs, Mossad boss, national security adviser, all handling response to pandemic, enter isolation along with PM, who just emerged; IDF head already quarantined

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (right) and Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. Netanyahu is explaining how the coronavirus can spread from a sneeze. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (right) and Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. Netanyahu is explaining how the coronavirus can spread from a sneeze. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of Israel’s other top officials in managing the country’s response to the coronavirus crisis will enter quarantine after Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, amid concerns that other senior officials could also be forced into isolation.

Netanyahu will work from his Jerusalem residence until Wednesday in accordance with Health Ministry instructions and the advice of his personal physician, Dr. Tzvi Berkowitz, the Prime Minister’s office said in a statement.

Health Ministry head Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, who has become the face of Israel’s management of the crisis with near daily briefings and media appearances, announced on Thursday morning that he would self-quarantine, due to the contact he had with Litzman in recent days.

Sigal Sadetzki, head of public health at the Health Ministry, will also enter a two-week period of home isolation, since she recently met with Litzman.

Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen, whose spy agency has been instrumental in obtaining medical equipment for Israel, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who has been coordinating the government’s response to the pandemic, will also be sent into isolation, according to Hebrew news reports. IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi is already working from quarantine, due to exposure to an infected officer, but has tested negative for the virus.

From left: Prof. Sigal Sadetsky, head of the Public Health Services in the Ministry of Health, Ministry CEO Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman outside the Central Laboratory of the Health Ministry at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, February 4, 2020. (Flash90)

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 number of COVID-19 deaths in Israel rose Thursday to 31, and the number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus increased to 6,211.

Last week, Litzman attended a Knesset session, and staff at the parliament are said to be checking the footage of security cameras to see who came in direct contact with the minister. It is expected that several lawmakers, and possibly some ministers as well, will have to self-quarantine.

Netanyahu had just emerged from self-quarantine on Wednesday evening, 14 days after he last met with one of his advisers, who also contracted the virus. He, his family and several close advisers were tested on Monday and were found to not be carriers.

Both Litzman and Bar Siman-Tov will continue to manage the country’s fight against the disease while in isolation, according to the Health Ministry.

“Bar Siman-Tov will remain in quarantine in a specialized facility that includes a work space and the relevant communication equipment,” the ministry said in a statement issued Thursday morning.

“We planned for a possibility like this and prepared accordingly,” the ministry’s director-general said. “I will continue to manage this event together with my managerial colleagues with digital tools.

“Needing to go into quarantine can happen to anyone, and we must abide by the orders. I continue to call for citizens of Israel to abide by the Health Ministry’s directives,” Bar Siman-Tov added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Litzman, 71, and his wife Chava were both found to have contracted the disease, which is especially dangerous to people above the age of 65.

“His condition at this time is mild. He is not asymptomatic, there are some symptoms, but no more than that,” Dr. Itamar Grotto, deputy director-general of the ministry, told Channel 12 on Thursday.

The ministry is investigating from whom Litzman contracted the disease and is informing people who have been in contact with the minister to go into quarantine, Grotto added.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman announces new restrictions to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus during a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Grotto himself will not have to go into quarantine, he said, since all his recent meetings with Litzman have been held over the phone or through videoconferences.

It is possible that the health minister may have contracted the virus from another senior government official, according to Grotto, though he may also have caught the disease from someone within his ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem.

“There’s a high rate of the illness in the Haredi community, so it’s reasonable to think that it happened there,” he said.

Litzman, the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, has played a prominent role in handling the pandemic crisis alongside Netanyahu, attending key meetings with him, though the prime minister has been careful to maintain social distancing regulations.

Litzman has been frequently criticized for his handling of the virus outbreak in Israel.

Some have alleged he put the interests of the ultra-Orthodox community ahead of the general public in his handling of the fight against the pandemic. He reportedly pushed to delay stringent restrictions on public gatherings that would have affected observance of the Purim festival last month, and fought bitterly against last week’s closing of synagogues.

Police officers arrive to close synagogues in the city of Bnei Brak on April 1, 2020 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

A group of senior medical officials in major hospitals have written to Netanyahu with an urgent demand to appoint a professional figure as health minister instead.

The doctors wrote in the letter that the coronavirus pandemic “has exposed and caught the healthcare system at a low point from an organizational and operational point of view, which everyone had been aware of.”

They laid out problems in the system, including widening gaps between the quality of health services in the center of the country and in the north and south.

“At this time… it is right for a professional to be appointed to head the Health Ministry — a doctor with a rich experience in Israeli healthcare,” they wrote. “Health comes before anything else, definitely before politics.”
Times of Israel staff and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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