The case of a U.S. immigrant in her eighties who was allowed to board a flight to Israel this week even though she was infected with the coronavirus has raised questions about what, if any, measures are being taken to screen new immigrants arriving in the country.
Information obtained by Haaretz shows that Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization responsible for aliyah from North America, knew that the woman and her daughter, who planned to travel together, might be carriers of the virus and had instructed them several days before the flight to conduct tests.
However, the two women were allowed to board the flight before receiving their results. Only upon landing in Israel was the woman notified that she had tested positive for the coronavirus. Her daughter was negative.
The mother and daughter were among 51 immigrants traveling to Israel on an El Al flight from New York that landed in Israel on Tuesday. The oldest person in the group – not the infected woman herself – was 87 years old, putting them in the higher risk category for severe illness if they were to contract COVID-19.
Israel Hayom reported Tuesday that a passenger with the coronavirus was on board the plane, adding that social distancing rules were not being observed during the flight.
With the exception of new immigrants – and, more recently, individuals possessing special student visas – only Israeli citizens have been allowed into the country since mid-March. A Tel Aviv University study, published last month, found that 70 percent of coronavirus cases in Israel had originated in the United States. All individuals entering the country are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Some 2,000 immigrants from all over the world have arrived in Israel since mid-March, when the country went into lockdown, with Nefesh B’Nefesh reporting a surge in interest in aliyah during this time. This appears to be the first known case of an oleh arriving with the coronavirus.
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All individuals applying for immigration under the Law of Return are required to sign a health form. However, this form is often signed months before they board their planes.
Nefesh B’Nefesh spokeswoman Yael Katsman told Haaretz that the organization was notified by the woman in question that she had tested positive as soon as she arrived at her new home in Israel. “It is worth noting that the olah [immigrant] is currently asymptomatic and feeling well,” she said.
“Once the olah notified the relevant parties that she had tested positive, the information was immediately forwarded to the Health Ministry and the proper authorities, who were updated on the details of her case,” Katsman said. “Additionally, the organizations involved have emphasized to the other olim from the flight the importance of adhering to the two-week isolation, which will be monitored.”
When asked to comment on information that Nefesh B’Nefesh had instructed the woman to be tested for the coronavirus, indicating it had grounds to suspect she was infected, Katsman responded: “It turns out that the additional examination (the PCR test) that the olah in mention was recommended to do is actually not required according to the guidelines and was initiated by a representative of the organization as an extra layer of caution. Therefore, since the olah presented a serological test showing antibodies to the virus (from May 20, 2020), signed a health declaration before the flight and showed no symptoms of the virus, she was allowed to board the flight.”
Katsman added that “the very presence of the antibodies in her body, according to medical experts with whom we consulted, indicates she is not likely contagious.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading national public health institute in the United States, advises that antibody tests should not be used to diagnose whether a person has the coronavirus. “To see if you are currently infected, you need a viral test,” it says.
Asked whether Nefesh B’Nefesh planned to change its screening procedures to prevent recurrences of such incidents in the future, Katsman said: “It’s still too early to say, but we’re looking into this very seriously.”