Attendees of IAC Miami Conference Arrive in Israel With COVID

Many 'were able to get into Israel and later on found out that they were sick,' said a participant, after 17 passengers on a Miami flight to Israel tested positive for COVID, with almost all suspected of carrying omicron variant

Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol
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Holiday travelers push their luggage inside Miami International Airport, in November.
Holiday travelers push their luggage inside Miami International Airport, in November.Credit: Marta Lavandier,AP
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol

Multiple attendees of this month’s Israeli-American Council summit in Miami have reportedly contracted COVID-19, sparking fears that despite masking and vaccination requirements, the virus was able to spread.

According to Hebrew media reports, attendees who tested positive for the virus include Eyal Kitzis, the star of the Israeli satire show "Eretz Nehederet," Israel Hayom’s Boaz Bismuth and former Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir, who is currently Israel's consul general in New York. Zamir reportedly broke the news of his infection via his wife's Instagram account.

The Hebrew edition of Times of Israel also reported that 13 employees of the consulate, including Zamir, are COVID positive. The Foreign Ministry did not reply to a request for comment.

Other high profile guests who attended the mass gathering, held December 9-11 in Miami, but did not test positive for the virus include Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Israeli ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan and Olympic gymnast Linoy Ashram.

“There were at least seven people who were infected that I was with,” said one attendee, who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity. “I know of at least 10-15 people, but there are more. There’s a lot more.”

The IAC took COVID seriously, requiring participants to show negative test results before entering the venue but masking, while encouraged, wasn’t rigorously enforced and attendees did not always practice social distancing, the attendee said, adding that the IAC did not send out any updates about the virus’ spread following the event.

“I’m surprised that up until now nothing came out. It ended a week ago,” the attendee said. “The interesting thing is all these people were able to go on a flight, meaning they had a negative test going on the flight and some of them only got a positive on their second test and so were able to get into Israel and later on found out that they were sick.”

Asked if cases diagnosed among attendees correlated with any increases in cases coming into the States, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry noted that “there are about 17 verified who returned on the flight from Miami, some verified to omicron and some more are in high suspicion of omicron.”

Earlier on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned that a “fifth wave is arriving in Israel,” as almost 10 percent of that flight tested positive for COVID, with most of 17 cases suspected of carrying the omicron variant.

On Sunday, Israel recorded 40 new omicron cases, taking the total cases of the variant to 175. 

The IAC did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The group’s flagship conference was one of the first large Jewish events to be held following the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, when multiple attendees at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington contracted the virus, spreading it in local communities across the country. AIPAC subsequently canceled its 2021 and 2022 gatherings, while the Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly remotely this year.

>> The weekend COVID-19 changed the Jewish world

The outbreak from the Miami flight, confirmed by the Health Ministry, comes as Israel's cabinet is set to discuss expanding the list of red countries to include the U.S., Canada, Portugal, Turkey, Germany, Hungary, Morocco and Belgium on Sunday. The Health Ministry recommended that the countries be added to the list.

Travel to and from so-called red countries (omicron hot spots) is expressly forbidden, unless permission is granted by a special committee. 

The red designation of France, Spain, United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Norway, Finland and Sweden will go into effect on Sunday at midnight.

The government set three criteria for categorizing a country as red: when the omicron variant constitutes 10 percent or more of a country's domestic COVID-19 cases; when there are at least five confirmed omicron cases per 10,000 passengers arriving from a particular country, or when at least 10 percent of the cases among incoming passengers from a country are omicron; and when a country has a “strong geographical connection,” like a shared border or geographic proximity in areas without hard borders, to a country with an omicron incidence of over 10 percent. 

According to Health Ministry regulations, a vaccinated or recovered Israeli traveler who visited a red country must agree to government tracking in order to be allowed to go into home isolation. If the traveler agrees, he or she undergoes a PCR swab test upon entry and is allowed to go home for a seven day-long quarantine, whose end is "conditional on negative results of a PCR test taken at the end of isolation.” If the traveler does not agree to be tracked, he or she is taken to an isolation hotel for the remainder of the isolation period.

"Due to the highly contagious nature of the variant, we must understand that the collective national defense provided by the state is not enough," Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.

"Every citizen must worry about themselves, their family and their children," he added.

Assessments presented to Bennett on Saturday predicted that the number of omicron cases in Israel will reach 400 to 600 over the next week, in light of the number of cases that cannot be traced back to people who traveled abroad.

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