(February 23, 2020 / JNS) At least 180 Israeli students have been put in isolation after coming in contact with a group of South Korean tourists who tested positive for Covid-19, the disease spread by the SARS-Cov-2 virus (aka “coronavirus”) after returning from a trip to the Holy Land, as the Jewish state begins to reject entry to visitors from countries at high risk of exposure and concern rises that the infection may have reached Israel.
According to Israel’s Channel 12 news, a group of 77 South Koreans arrived home on Feb. 15 after an eight-day tour of Israel, following which nine of them tested positive for the potentially life-threatening disease. Several hours later, the number of infected rose to 18.
It is unknown whether they were infectious while they were in Israel.
The group was reported to have visited numerous churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as well as the Dead Sea, Masada, Beersheva, Caesarea and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Subsequently, Israeli authorities determined that 90 students from Afula, 30 from Beersheva and 60 from Kiryat Haim, as well as 10 teachers, had been exposed to the visitors, including a group which came in contact with them during a trip to Masada. An additional 12 Israeli Border Police who had been in Hebron during the Koreans’ visit were also ordered into isolation.
“Contact” is defined as having been within two meters of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. All of the potentially infected Israelis have been instructed to remain in isolation for two weeks.
To stem a possible pandemic in Israel, officials decided to block the entry of an airplane full of South Korean visitors on Saturday evening after disembarking 12 Israelis who were then ordered into two weeks of isolation. The South Korean government responded by summoning Israel’s ambassador to issue a strong protest against what they called excessive and unreasonable measures.
South Korean diplomats reportedly contacted their Israeli counterparts to request that Israel reconsider allowing the passengers to enter, a request which the Jewish state refused.
Additionally, Channel 12 reports as of Sunday morning indicated that a group of 200 South Koreans currently in the country may be quarantined at an army base in Gush Etzion, and that flights to and from Seoul would be postponed indefinitely, effectively stranding hundreds of foreign nationals currently visiting in the country.
A notification on the Korean Air website stated that Israel was currently denying entry to nationals of China, Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Macau.
On Saturday night, Israeli Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov announced that Israelis returning from those countries, as well as from Japan, would all be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Since the Korean cases were reported over the weekend, hundreds of Israelis have contacted medical professionals, concerned that they may have been infected with the coronavirus.
Saturday night, the Magen David Adom rescue service said a new dedicated Health Ministry hotline had received hundreds of inquiries, and that specially trained paramedics had been dispatched to many homes to collect samples, test for the virus and even evacuate some patients.
Despite the potential for diplomatic fallout as a result of Israel’s measures, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz instructed ministry officials to stand behind the Health Ministry in all its advisories and decisions.
“Our main consideration is the health of Israeli residents and preserving Israel’s ability to maintain and grow ties with countries around the world, as a state that adheres to strict rules and has not been touched by the coronavirus,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Last week, 15 Israelis were released from quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan’s coast, with 11 given a clean bill of health and brought back to Israel. One of those returnees was subsequently diagnosed as having been infected by the virus.
The Palestinian Authority has also taken steps to stem the illness, shuttering tourist sites under their control until further notice and sending employees for medical screenings.
Korea currently maintains the highest number of infections—556—outside of China, which is officially reporting 76,936 infections and 2,442 deaths as of Sunday morning.
Globally, more than 78,000 people have been infected in 29 countries.
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