'Imported Infection': Israelis' Trips Abroad 'Achilles' Heel' in War on COVID, Officials Say

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A medic collects a swab sample at the COVID-19 rapid testing center at Ben Gurion International Airport on December 2, 2020.
A medic collects a swab sample at the COVID-19 rapid testing center at Ben Gurion International Airport on December 2, 2020. Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

The Health Ministry seeks to impose mandatory quarantine on all Israelis returning from abroad, with passengers arriving from “green” locations isolating at home and those coming from locations with high infection rates going to so-called coronavirus quarantine hotels. 

On Monday night, Israel's coronavirus cabinet announced new measures on re-entering the country, conditioning home isolation for those returning from "red" countries on their taking a coronavirus test upon arrival, and mandating that those who refuse be required to self-isolate in a state-run facility. Toward that end, Home Front Command is preparing to open six new isolation facilities.

“Imported infection is a serious problem,” said Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the ministry’s head of public health services. “The problem is mainly from red countries. But we know that the state of infection in other countries is dynamic and there is illness coming from green countries as well ... We cannot have any additional infection beyond what we have domestically. That’s why I think we have to consider all countries ‘red’ and insist on quarantine for everyone returning, and in cases of expected severe illness to improve quarantine enforcement.”

Israel does not require coronavirus tests for arrivals. Residents returning from red locations are required to self-isolate for 14 days (or 12 under certain conditions). Many people simply ignore the guidelines, and enforcement is spotty. 

The degree to which people returning from abroad contribute to Israeli infection rates is disputed. The figures provided by the Health Ministry suggest the answer to this is “not much.” Of the 73,000 or so people who entered Israel in November, a total of 567 tested positive for the coronavirus – less than half the daily average of confirmed cases last month. In October, 110,000 people entered Israel, 72 percent of them from red locations. A total of 639 later tested positive. The country accounting for the greatest number of cases, 200, was Turkey, where 15,000 Israelis had been that month.

Despite these relatively low numbers, the Health Ministry sees these “imported” infections as unwanted additions to the illness that is already here, particularly since the dozens to hundreds of passengers on each flight with a coronavirus carrier then disperse throughout the country without any control.

Some Health Ministry officials blame the Israelis who are traveling abroad, saying that when people go overseas, especially to green countries, social distancing precautions go out the window. “When we see how those flying to green countries behave, suddenly they come back sick and they weren’t necessarily infected in the [other] country but rather [infected each other],” said one ministry official who was speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a behavioral problem that creates a dilemma.”

This official expressed concern over what will happen when the large number of Israelis that is planning trips to the United Arab Emirates return from the Persian Gulf state. “We are already seeing the organization of very large [events] for Hannukah there, big parties, performances by Israeli singers. Can I say that I’m sure that Israelis will observe the coronavirus guidelines in the UAE? I’m not sure.”

He noted that the UAE is considered to be strict about its pandemic rules and that between 120,000 and 160,000 tests are conducted there on a daily basis. “But the moment Israelis come, it’s enough for one person to go there sick and there’ll be no end to it. What happens is that the infection rate in Israel goes up, the infection coefficient rate goes up (the number of new infections estimated to stem from a single case). And yet they still want to open schools and malls. So maybe we can spare ourselves the illness from abroad.”

But no matter what countries the infection is coming from, there is still a serious problem with lack of enforcement of the quarantine regulations here. “That is the Achilles’ heel in this war. We know that quarantine violations are in the dozens of percentage points. The police have a hard time visiting the quarantined every day to fine violators,” the Health Ministry official said.

Incapable of stopping the spread of infection through voluntary quarantine, the ministry wants aggressive enforcement in the form of forced quarantine in coronavirus hotels for travelers returning from places with high infection rates. This is an expensive project that the coronavirus cabinet has yet to approve.

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