Forged Tests, No Masks: COVID Outbreak at Ukraine Pilgrimage Threatens 'Mass Infection' in Israel

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Pilgrims reading scrolls after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport last week.
Pilgrims reading scrolls after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport last week.Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP

The rate of COVID infection among Israelis returning from Uman this weekend is double that of the general population, validating health officials’ warnings that the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the Ukrainian city could pose a serious health risk.

Of the pilgrims tested in Uman by the Magen David Adom rescue service last week, 13.5 percent were found to have COVID-19, the Ynet news site reported Saturday – more than twice the national rate of 6.6 percent figure provided by the Health Ministry.

According to national broadcaster Kan, only around 2,000 pilgrims underwent COVID tests in Uman itself, as testing stations struggled to keep up with demand.

Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority said that, as of Friday, around 17,000 people had returned to Israel from Ukraine. According to Health Ministry data, 1,600 of them tested positive, representing a nine-fold positive rate compared to the average for arrivals from all other countries. 

Images published in the Ukrainian media showed few pilgrims wearing masks indoors or engaging in social distancing. And while one pilgrim told Haaretz he did see masks in use (“though it really depended on the area”), another said that many of those present had felt “no need” for such measures.

Hundreds of pilgrims are suspected of having forged negative test results in order to return to Israel, despite at least some of them testing positive for COVID, police said Friday,

One pilgrim, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described how easy it was to forge negative results, saying he knew of several people who had used counterfeit documentation created with a smartphone app to circumvent testing requirements.

“It’s just much easier. It doesn’t make sense: Why do you have to pay money and then get to Israel and do the test again? Does that make any sense to you?” he asked, adding, however, that he believed “most” pilgrims had undergone a real test.

Some 30,000 Jews from around the world attended this year’s Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the grave of the Breslov Hasidic movement’s founder, Rabbi Nachman.

In a letter obtained by Ynet, coronavirus czar Salman Zarka reportedly warned last month that the annual pilgrimage could be a “possible hot spot for mass infection,” which could have a negative impact on the entire country.

Pilgrims returning from Ukkraine at Ben-Gurion Airport last week.Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP

Infected pilgrims, he wrote, “are expected to come to synagogues during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” despite government quarantine regulations. He was concerned that their presence “could ignite a new wave of illness and import new variants to Israel.”

Zarka traveled to Ukraine earlier this month to supervise the public health aspects of this year’s pilgrimage, in an effort to ensure that pilgrims followed the guidelines while in Ukraine.

He said that many pilgrims were not wearing masks or keeping a distance from each other. "There are many lessons to be learned" from this year's pilgrimage, Zarka added. "We have to keep in mind that the objective is to keep the worshipers safe, but also the (general) population in Israel after they return at such a sensitive time," when Jews mark the High Holy Days.

Under the guidelines’ provisions, passengers heading to Uman were required to present a negative coronavirus test from the 72 hours before boarding their flight in Israel and another before boarding their return flight.

Returning passengers are also required to self-isolate for 14 days, or seven days after twice testing negative for the virus. This means many will be required to refrain from attending synagogue services on Yom Kippur, creating a strong incentive to break quarantine.

Last Thursday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called for a crackdown on any COVID cases who entered the country “under false pretenses,” stating that they would be investigated by law enforcement and be subject to “full criminal proceedings.”

They could potentially be charged with fraud, forgery and spreading an infectious disease, which is considered a criminal offense in Israel in certain circumstances. Over 100 people have been called in for questioning so far.

“The Government of Israel views with utmost gravity the entry of people who are verified to have the coronavirus under false pretenses with forged documents and who are willfully spreading a disease, which constitutes the irresponsible act of harming the public peace, and will continue to act severely against offenders,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.

This year’s pilgrimage was the first sanctioned by Ukraine since 2019, after Ukraine closed its borders in August 2020 in an attempt to block pilgrims from entering the country amid a surge in COVID cases. According to Channel 12 News, infected pilgrims were found on 17 separate flights back from Ukraine in September 2020, with one senior official complaining that they were “not willing to be tested, not willing to cooperate and not observing quarantine.”

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