WHO warns countries not to cut virus quarantine below 14 days

Message from UN health agency, which also decries ‘alarming rates of transmission’ in Europe, comes as Israeli lawmaker calls on government to shorten isolation period

French protesters stand by a coffin for a protest, outside the French Health Ministry in support of medical workers of EHPAD (Housing Establishment for Dependant Elderly People), following the coronavirus outbreak, in Paris, France, September 16, 2020. (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)
French protesters stand by a coffin for a protest, outside the French Health Ministry in support of medical workers of EHPAD (Housing Establishment for Dependant Elderly People), following the coronavirus outbreak, in Paris, France, September 16, 2020. (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)

The World Health Organization’s European director has warned countries against reducing the quarantine period for people potentially exposed to the coronavirus, even as he acknowledged that COVID-19 fatigue is setting in and people are increasingly resistant to the strict public health measures needed to control the pandemic.

In a press briefing on Thursday, Dr. Hans Kluge warned that “even a slight reduction in the length of the quarantine” could have a significant effect on the virus’ spread, which he said had grown to “alarming” rates in Europe.

“The September case numbers… should serve as a wake-up call for all of us,” Kluge said.

“Although these numbers reflect more comprehensive testing, it also shows alarming rates of transmission across the region,” he said.

Kluge urged countries to only reduce the quarantine period if it is scientifically justified, and offered to convene scientific discussions on the issue if necessary.

Screen capture from video of World Health Organization Europe director Hans Kluge. (YouTube)

Last week, France cut its required quarantine time for people who have been exposed to a potential COVID-19 case from 14 days to seven, saying many people did not respect the two-week period anyway.

Katie Smallwood, WHO Europe’s senior health emergency officer, said its recommendation that people quarantine themselves for 14 days after a possible exposure to coronavirus was based on their understanding of the disease’s incubation period and transmission patterns.

“We would only revise that on a basis of a change in our understanding of the science and so far that’s not the case,” she said.

Smallwood added that several countries were considering reducing their required quarantine periods. “We would really reemphasize that our position is that a 14-day quarantine is important for patients that have been exposed to the virus.”

The WHO Europe coronavirus webpage showed that the number of cases diagnosed between August 31 and September 6 went up to 268,160, a 10 percent increase over the week before. The number of deaths for the region during that period was 3,015, an eight percent increase over the previous week.

Figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control showed that since the beginning of the year there have been 2,715,732 cases reported in the European Union and the UK, with 185,186 deaths.

MK Zvi Hauser at a Knesset committee meeting on May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The WHO concerns came as in Israel lawmaker Zvi Hauser, chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, repeated his call for the government to cut the quarantine period. Israelis who are exposed coronavirus carriers must self-isolate for 14 days.

“The government is continuing to disregard the need to shorten the days of quarantine,” tweeted Hauser of the Derech Eretz party. “The Health Ministry is refusing to recognize the shortening of quarantine that was done in other countries and we are paying the price.”

Hauser included in his tweet a screen capture of an article about how an Israeli government delegation returning from Washington, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had reportedly negotiated with the Health Ministry for just five days in quarantine rather than the usual 14 days for those arriving from locations with high coronavirus infections.

The delegation was in the US to attend a ceremony during which Israel signed normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Israelis attending the event were instructed to remain in a special capsule apart from other attendees, but many nonetheless were seen breaking guidelines.

On Wednesday a report in Haaretz newspaper said Israel’s official delegation to Washington failed to maintain agreed-upon health guidelines during the trip. A senior health official told the newspaper the delegation had not lived up to their obligations throughout the White House ceremony — with delegation members packed together in the audience, where many eschewed masks.

Netanyahu was not seen wearing a mask at any point throughout the day.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauds before a lunch in the State Dining Room of the White House after a signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Delegation organizers had also sought a complete waiving of quarantine for the delegation after its return, despite the US’s high infection rate, the paper reported, citing unnamed sources in the Health Ministry. Eventually it was agreed that the prime minister and those who accompanied him on the trip would remain in quarantine for five days upon their return instead of the two weeks normally required for travelers from the US.

A Health Ministry report Saturday showed 978,000 people had been ordered into quarantine since July 1 due to experiencing symptoms or meeting with known carriers.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, his deputy Yoav Kisch, ministry director-general Chezy Levy and other top ministry officials, along with national coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, all entered quarantine last Tuesday after a staff member in the government’s COVID-19 task force caught the coronavirus.

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