After Lifting All COVID Restrictions, Israel's Airport Emerges as Its Weakest Link, Again

Health experts are mainly concerned about the Indian COVID strain entering Israel as it might be vaccine-resistant ■ Health Ministry officials fear Ben-Gurion Airport isn't prepared for the summer

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel, June 2021.
Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel, June 2021.Credit: Hadas Parush
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The lifting of all coronavirus restrictions in Israel has left Ben-Gurion International Airport as the main line of defense against the entry of variants of the virus. But as has happened repeatedly over the past year and a half, the airport has once again emerged as a critical weak point, with people returning from abroad apparently responsible for the outbreaks of the past few days.

Coronavirus tests are supposed to be performed on all incoming passengers at the airport to prevent the entry of variants. But last Friday, hundreds of people entered without being tested.

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The Health Ministry authorized vaccinated people returning from countries that are not defined as high-risk to skip the test because it became clear that the testing compound, run by the Femi Premium company, wouldn’t be able to test all the passengers before Shabbat began. Later that day, the ministry promised that additional testing stations and personnel would be added this week.

Femi Premium started operating the testing compound just last week, after taking over from another company, Omega. Health Ministry sources said the new operator wasn’t prepared for such a large number of passengers, nor was its staff sufficiently skilled at taking samples.

They attributed Friday’s problems to a combination of the company’s and staff’s inexperience, the unfortunate timing of the handover from Omega to Femi, and the absence of an overlap period between the two companies. They also said they are worried about what will happen at the airport in July and August, when the number of flights will increase significantly.

Femi Premium said it is still in the process of taking over from Omega, and when the process is finished, waiting times will shorten. It also said Friday’s backlog happened because some flights landed late, and that it had brought in extra staff to help.

But the company’s name has also been linked to an investigation into bribery at the Health Ministry. A senior company official and its former CEO, Itzik Hamo, have been questioned in the case. The company is suspected of having bribed Motti Babchik, an aide to former Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, to promote its interests with the ministry.

Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel, June 2021.Credit: Hadas Parush

Ministry professionals are mainly worried about the entry of the Indian variant, since it contains two mutations that could make it vaccine-resistant. This variant is currently the dominant one worldwide and has been found in more than 80 countries.

Moreover, according to the World Health Organization, it is 60 percent more infectious than the British variant, which itself is 50 percent more infectious than the original virus. The Indian variant is currently responsible for 10 percent of all new cases in the United States.

One way the state planned to prevent the spread of new variants was through electronic monitoring bracelets to enforce quarantine on people required to do so (unvaccinated people or vaccinated people who returned from high-risk countries). It invested 40 million shekels ($12 million) in setting up the system, including purchasing tens of thousands of bracelets.

But the system’s use was never authorized, because the March election and the lengthy delay in forming a government paralyzed the work of the relevant Knesset committees.

Thus, for now, the only way to stem the entrance of variants is through testing. Travelers are required to show a negative coronavirus test before boarding their flight to Israel, take a second test at the airport upon landing, and then a third test a few days later.

But Health Ministry director general Chezy Levy said a month ago that 70 percent of returning passengers never take the third test.

Entering Israel through Ben-Gurion Airport was a problem at earlier stages of the pandemic as well, and a few months ago, the government banned entry into the country entirely – even for Israelis – without approval from a special exceptions committee. But that ban was eventually overturned, in part because the committee’s own legal adviser said in February its decisions were arbitrary, with no clear criteria.

Temperature checks at Tel Aviv school in March.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israel also tried forcing some returning travelers to quarantine in hotels. But in January, Haaretz reported that in many cases, passengers raised such a fuss that they were simply fined and then sent home.

On Sunday, the ministry ordered 450 Scouts who attended a show in the Emek Hama’ayanot Regional Council on Thursday to quarantine because a girl in the audience was diagnosed with the virus. This order applies even to vaccinated people or people who have recovered from the virus.

The ministry isn’t yet certain where the girl caught the virus, but she was found to have a connection to another patient who recently returned from abroad.

It said the mass quarantine order is merely a precaution, and if the girl turns out not to have one of the variants that may be vaccine-resistant, it will be rescinded.

Also on Sunday, the ministry ordered schools in Modi’in and Binyamina to reinstate mask-wearing requirements, even in outdoor areas of the school grounds, due to new outbreaks of the virus there. The patients in both towns are thought to have contracted the Indian variant from someone who returned from abroad.

And Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov closed its elementary school after a kibbutz resident who returned from the United Arab Emirates was diagnosed with the virus and infected his children.

Sunday is the last day of school at high schools. Elementary schools will be in session for another 10 days.

Due to the recent outbreaks, the ministry is now considering expanding its recommendation that children aged 12 to 15 get vaccinated. Until now, it has recommended vaccination for this age group only if the family is traveling abroad or if a member of the family is in a high-risk group.

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