Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport Ill-prepared for Coronavirus, Experts Warn

‘Posters that nobody reads’ provided by Health Ministry insufficient to control potential outbreak of the coronavirus, according to an Airports Authority source

A traveler in a face mask at Israel's Ben-Guiron International Airport, February 17, 2020.
Moti Milrod

Israel's healthcare system is gearing up to cope with a potential coronavirus outbreak, but the main entry point to the country, Ben-Gurion International Airport, remains wide open, a source at the Airports Authority charges.

Preparations at the airport are minimal and ineffective in locating possible carriers of the disease, prevention, and advising inbound passengers on what measures should be taken, the source added. 

The airport lacks the vital infrastructure to carry out coronavirus checks and to quarantine potential patients and there is no organized plan of action, according to Professor Hagai Levine, head of The Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.

Initially, the Health Ministry decided against taking action to detect the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, at Ben-Gurion entry points to avoid creating gratuitous panic, with passengers arriving from China or Hong Kong not tested for fever. While such a stance may have been appropriate in the first week of the epidemic’s spread, it isn’t so anymore, the Airports Authority source said, adding that the Health Ministry should take a more decisive action.

Currently, coronavirus countermeasures at Ben-Gurion consist of posters in four languages – Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and English – displayed at several locations. They only mention arrivals from China, although people in other countries have tested positive for the virus as well.

The signs ask those who have visited China over the past two weeks and are suffering from fever, coughing or respiratory problems to urgently contact the Magen David Adom station in the transit lounge. These posters are displayed after passport control and it is possible that passengers may simply walking past them.

“They’re trying to stop coronavirus with posters and fliers that nobody reads,” said the source. “The masses move on and ignore them. After a protracted transatlantic flight people just want to get home. If anybody asks what to do, they have to start looking for the Magen David Adom post, which is in a problematic place and is hard to find.”

The post itself "is manned by two volunteers who know how to measure blood pressure and, maybe, call for an ambulance,” he added.

Medical sources and visitors say the posters have no efficacy whatsoever, and that there is no clear course of action should passengers have symptoms of the virus.

The posters also advise that questions should be directed toward a Hebrew-only hotline which requires you to tap in your Israeli ID number, making it unhelpful to tourists. Upon telling the hotline attendant that he is at Ben-Gurion Airport, one caller had his call transferred to the Ben-Gurion first aid station, which shouldn't be handling coronavirus.

“It all feels unplanned and doesn’t work,” said the Airports Authority source. “People pass and don’t notice the fliers, the posters are too small and don’t stand out enough. Instructions to self-isolation at home won't matter to a guy coming off a 12-hour flight, with his daughter waiting for him at the terminal. Yet, there are some people who are afraid and do want to know what to do, such as those who took a connecting flight for example, and there’s nobody to advise them.”

At this stage, Ben-Gurion Airport should be better prepared, the source said, arguing that the airport should have an “assessment room” manned by representatives of the Health Ministry and doctors; all arriving passengers should receive individual written material on the plane before it lands, or right after; information should be provided before they pass through passport control, not afterwards and loudspeaker notices should be announced in multiple languages. Professor Levine said that Ben-Gurion "lacks professional public health staff," adding that general guidelines are not sufficient.

"Each stage of the arrivals process must be considered so that suitable solutions can be found for each person," he said. For example, if the Health Ministry requires certain travelers to refrain from using public transportation, it is upon them to provide a suitable way to enforce the restrictions. "There is room to consider a telephone hotline for those who are suspected of having the coronavirus," he added, "one that could give specific instructions, in particular at the critical point of crossing Israel's main border."

In response, the Health Ministry said it is their policy "to take effective steps to prevent infected passangers from entering Israel. Screening for fever at the state's point of entrance is an inefficient method according to experience and scientific literature, as was recommended by the ministry's panel of experts – and was even reported this morning in Haaretz [Hebrew edition]. The ministry has barred entrance to Israel to those who have visited China in the past 14 days, and has just expanded this restriction to include other places as well – steps that very few other countries have taken."

The Health Ministry added that they "are carrying out many checks on a wide variety of people who are at a high risk of catching the illness, in order to identify sick people. The information given to travelers entering Israel includes an instructive text messaging service, information sheets and important notifications which are being updated at this very moment."