Who's Responsible for Israeli Airport's COVID Testing Fiasco

Just like the failures in implementing mask use and the high death rate in nursing homes, it seems that sometimes, the epidemiological opinions of Health Ministry professionals simply fail the test of reality

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Health workers test passengers for the coronavirus at Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel's main international airport, in January 2021.
Health workers test passengers for the coronavirus at Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel's main international airport, in January 2021. Credit: Moti Milrod

“Why isn’t every foreign tourist who is permitted to enter Israel obligated to be tested for the coronavirus?” asked a naïve commenter on a Facebook Live chat conducted by the Health Ministry on August 8.

Five months later, this question would top the public agenda, and not only regarding tourists – but regarding all those entering Israel. Everyone has already tired of watching with indifference as the country indiscriminately imports COVID-19.

On Monday, the Health Ministry volleyed the question to the Justice Ministry, claiming that it was the legal obstacles they piled on that have thus far prevented the identification of coronavirus patients at Ben-Gurion International Airport. But on August 8, ministry officials were singing an entirely different tune.

“The problem is that when we rely on testing, we’re likely to miss a large number of cases in which infection took place four to five days before boarding the plane, or during the flight itself, which is why it’s impossible to rely on a test [at the airport] in order to exempt someone from quarantine,” was the reply that Dr. Itamar Grotto, deputy director general of the Health Ministry, gave to the Facebook Live commenter.

A janitor walks through an empty hall at Ben-Gurioin Airport, January 2021.Credit: Moti Milrod

“There’s also a logistical issue here,” added Grotto. “We believe that it’s an ineffective step; very few countries have adopted it, and most countries are following a policy similar to Israel’s, which includes mainly preventing the entry of people from red countries, or entry subject to quarantine.” Red countries, as designated by the Health Ministry, have a high incidence of infection; green countries have relatively few coronavirus cases.

In other words, it was not “legal difficulties” that preventing the monitoring of COVID-19 carriers at Israel’s borders, nor “the opposition of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit,” or any other such excuse, but a reasoned, professional opinion, to the effect that coronavirus testing at the airport is not effective, and is therefore unnecessary.

In July, Grotto told the Knesset State Audit Committee: “One, testing stations have been installed only in a small number of airports worldwide; two, if we have a surplus of testing kits, we need them in order to break chain of infection before administering them to people returning from abroad; and three, we don’t even think it’s necessary to test people coming from green countries.”

Committee Chairman Ofer Shelah challenged him: “In Austria, you can come with a negative test from three days prior to the flight, or be tested at the airport, wait for the result, and if it’s negative, then you can enter without quarantine. Or you can take the test, go into quarantine, and be released if it comes out negative. Isn’t such a system acceptable to you?”

The coronavirus testing stands at Ben-Gurion International Airport, December 23, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Grotto replied: “No. It’s not acceptable to us. We think that testing is unnecessary for people coming from green countries, because what’s the difference between someone coming from Greece, which is a green country, and someone coming from Tiberias? I don’t test at the entrance from Tiberias to Tel Aviv.”

Grotto noted during the committee meeting the ministry was considering some kind of “model” and some kind of “pilot” for red countries – but he lowered their expectations and once again expressed reservations, saying “Don’t rely only on that.” In any case, six months later, any sort of testing for those returning from any sort of destination remains nonexistent.

The Israeli reality

The opposition of Grotto & Co. to COVID-19 testing upon entry into Israel was based on four basic assumptions. First, quarantine is preferable to a COVID-19 test; second, a test will certainly come at the expense of quarantine (it’s not clear why); third, it’s better to rely on the “traffic light” model of the countries of origin, and to deal only with those who arrive from countries with a high rate of infection; and fourth, we have to prioritize local cases rather than dealing with imported exposure to the coronavirus.

The near-empty arrivals terminal at Ben-Gurion International Airport, December 22, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

And if the words came straight from the horse’s mouth, why is the Health Ministry now denying the reasons, rejecting them and placing the responsibility on others? Well, just as in the failures in implementing mask use and the high death rate in nursing homes, the answer lies in the fact that sometimes, the epidemiological opinions of Health Ministry professionals simply fail the test of reality.

In the Israeli reality, after all, quarantine has been violated right and left. The labeling of countries as green or red has become political, and have become redundant in any case, considering the large number of quarantine exemptions granted to people requesting them. And the coronavirus mutations that returnees from abroad brought with them were actually a game changer, and caused the rate of infection to spike once again. So the Health Ministry might have been “right,” but the Israeli public loses out both ways – without quarantine for those landing, and without monitoring the infections that may be entering.

“Legal obstacles?” Clearly it’s impossible to force a citizen to insert a swab into his nose, and it’s clear that by law it’s impossible to imprison an Israeli at the airport and condition their release on an invasive test. There is no need for complex legal advice to understand that. But this almost trivial fact does not meant that you can’t prevent people from boarding a plane without a valid COVID-19 test, as is required even in the Seychelles. It also doesn’t prevent requiring foreign tourists to undergo a test, or offering everyone a voluntary test at the airport – or changing the law (and 10 months is a long time).

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but when professional decisions are made on a national level without a guiding hand, and then are diluted by egos and childish arguments, then the jig is up.

And just a reminder: The Health Ministry also opposed COVID-19 testing for those leaving via Ben-Gurion Airport. The ministry even tried to block the tender published by the Israel Airports Authority for installing coronavirus testing stations for those traveling abroad, denied its existence and – after it turned out that the prices for testing offered in the tender were lower by dozens of percentage points than the prices that the ministry pays to the Magen David Adom emergency service, China and MyHeritage – officials in the Health Ministry tried to sabotage the project at the airport. And who knows, maybe the whole story here is just an argument over whose hands it is that will manage the money.

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