Health Ministry officials warn that hundreds of Israelis are likely to get infected with coronavirus during trips to the United Arab Emirates this month.
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More than 15,000 Israelis visited the UAE in the first half of December and a similar number is expected to travel to the Persian Gulf state during the second half of the month, bringing the total number in December to at least 30,000.
Ministry officials say they expect at least 240 of the travelers to test positive for coronavirus after their return to Israel.
Of the 1,658 Israelis who visited the UAE in November, nine – 0.54 percent of the total – later tested positive for the virus. The enormous increase in the number of people traveling to the country this month is expected to cause a sharp rise in the number of “imported” coronavirus cases.
There are several reasons for the steep rise in Israeli travel to the UAE. One is the start of direct flights to Dubai. Another is the fact that the UAE has been defined as a “green” country, meaning Israelis aren’t required to quarantine when they return.
Others include Israelis’ curiosity about a country that until recently was closed to them, visits by numerous official delegations from various agencies and organizations and the fact that Israelis are no longer able to go to many popular destinations due to those countries’ coronavirus restrictions.
All this combined has made the UAE one of the preferred tourist destinations by Israelis. But the ministry is also worried by rising coronavirus cases in Greece and Turkey, two other favorite spots for Israeli tourists.
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A Health Ministry committee meets every two weeks to decide which countries should be labeled red and which green. This label determines whether or not returning travelers need to quarantine.
At last week’s meeting, there was a disagreement over whether to leave the UAE’s green status intact. The committee ultimately decided to do so, because some of the Health Ministry’s representatives on the panel argued that the country didn’t meet the criteria for being labeled red. But it agreed to revisit the issue at next week’s meeting, meaning in another week and a half.
There is no universal definition of red and green countries set by the World Health Organization or any other body. Rather, each country sets its own rules, and the list can therefore vary from country to country.
In Israel, the decision is made by an advisory panel headed by Health Ministry Deputy Director General Prof. Itamar Grotto. The panel includes representatives from the health, foreign affairs and transportation ministries, as well as the National Security Council and the army’s coronavirus information center.
The criteria for whether a country is labeled red or green include incidence of the illness, the number of daily tests and the country’s coronavirus safety regulations, including issues such as wearing masks and social distancing.
A Health Ministry official said the UAE is considered to be very strict about enforcing its coronavirus regulations. Moreover, it conducts between 120,000 and 160,000 coronavirus tests per day.
But once Israelis start visiting, the official warned, “It’s enough for one to come into contact with a patient there and there will be no end to it.”
Ministry officials explained that the problem isn’t necessarily incidences of COVID-19 in the destination country, but rather Israelis’ behavior while traveling.
“Israelis tend not to obey the regulations overseas,” one said. “They travel in large groups and aren’t strict about the rules of social distancing and masks. Moreover, there are quarantine violations by tens of percent of people returning from abroad, and it’s very hard to enforce this.”
A ministry official issued a similar warning last week, saying the UAE was likely become the next big source of “imported” coronavirus cases, since there were already a lot of preparations, including “huge parties” and “performances by Israeli singers there,” to welcome Israelis to the country during Hanukkah, which started last Thursday. “To say that I trust all the Israelis in the UAE to obey the regulations? I’m not certain,” he added.
The ministry recently tried to beef up both the regulations and enforcement by proposing that anyone returning from a red country be required to take a coronavirus test at the airport after landing to quarantine at home.
People who refused would have to go to quarantine hotels. The army’s Home Front Command has already started preparing to open additional quarantine hotels. However, the proposed regulation hasn’t yet been approved.