Israel Readies for Coronavirus Patients, Bars Foreigners Who Visited At-risk Countries

As coronavirus quarantine regulations are expanded, Israeli hospital expects rise in returning tourists admitting themselves for examinations

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Diamond Princess cruise ship, with people quarantined onboard due to fears of the new COVID-19 coronavirus, is docked at the Daikaku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port on February 16, 2020.
Diamond Princess cruise ship, with people quarantined onboard due to fears of the new COVID-19 coronavirus, is docked at the Daikaku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port on February 16, 2020. Credit: AFP

Three Israelis infected with the coronavirus COVID-19 onboard a quarantined cruise ship in Japan were taken to a local hospital for treatment, while twelve others are expected to be released on Wednesday. They should return to Israel by the weekend. 

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have tightened entry restrictions for foreign visitors from at-risk countries. Interior Minister Arye Dery announced on Monday that, following recommendations from the Ministry of Health, foreign citizens and non-residents of Israel would not be granted entry to the country if they visited Macau, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong in the two weeks prior.

This follows a similar order for people who visited China, and the enactment of more stringent quarantine regulations on Israeli citizens returning from the region.

The Japanese Health Ministry has been carrying out tests on passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked in Yokohama, a port city near Tokyo, where 454 were found to be infected so far - the largest single outbreak outside mainland China.

Tent with beds for potential coronavirus patients at Sheba Medical Center, February 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Despite their release from quarantine by Japanese authorities, Israeli health officials remain concerned that the twelve Israelis coming back could be carriers and bring the virus home with them.

Upon their return, they will be put in quarantine for two weeks. They will also undergo further testing at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer hospital.

Most experts say the new virus's incubation period is two weeks, but some believe it could last for as long as 24 days

Sheba has allocated a structure for their isolation, at a distance from any other ward. This structure has its own sewage, water and ventilation systems, not connected with those serving the rest of the hospital.

Food will be prepared by a different kitchen, likely to make sure they don't use the same plates or cutlery as other patients. They will also be treated by a special medical team not associated with the rest of the hospital. Staff will be wearing protective gear and use "remote medicine" procedures.

The structure however is designated only for isolation, and does not have respiratory isolation rooms. If one of the cruise passengers develops symptoms and is found to carry the novel coronavirus, he or she will be moved to yet another quarantine area at Sheba, which does have respiratory isolation rooms.

Meanwhile, Sheba has been fielding 10 to 15 people a day with suspected coronavirus. A tent has been put up at the entrance to the ER through which symptomatic people who came from one of the countries suffering from the outbreak have to go through.

Sources at the hospital predict that adding new countries to the list of places requiring isolation upon return from them – such as Thailand, a favorite holiday destination for Israelis – will significantly increase that number.

On Sunday, Israel's Health Ministry expanded the restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and announced that travelers returning from Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau will have to remain quarantined at home for 14 days after returning.

Until now, Israelis returning from those areas had to remain at home only if they showed symptoms of the virus. Travelers returning from China had already been required to remain at home for two weeks, even without symptoms. The decision was made after a situational assessment Sunday morning by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and a team of experts.

According to the ministry announcement, travelers coming to Israel from those areas, "Must not go out in public and must stay away from public places, including educational institutions, workplaces, public transportation, stores and places of entertainment, hospitals and clinics, for a period of 14 days from their stay in those [countries]."

A flight attendant wearing a face mask in Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion international airport, February 17, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

Sources at Sheba are concerned that the mere knowledge that Israelis who have been on the ship in Japan are in quarantine at the hospital will deter other people from coming. All precautions to show that the hospital is operating as usual are being taken, they said.

Outside China, the Diamond Princess has had the largest number of cases of the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus that emerged in China late last year. The ministry said it now has tested 1,723 people onboard. The ship had about 3,700 passengers and crew.
Two chartered planes flew 340 Americans who were aboard the vessel out of Japan late Sunday. About 380 Americans had been on the ship. The State Department announced later that 14 of the evacuees were confirmed to have the virus in tests given before they boarded the planes.

Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Italy were planning similar flights for their citizens.

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