After Pilgrimage, Ukraine Becomes Israel's Top Source of Imported COVID Cases

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Returning travelers in Ben-Gurion Airport, after the landing of a flight from Kiev, Ukraine, two weeks ago.
Returning travelers in Ben-Gurion Airport, after the landing of a flight from Kiev, Ukraine, two weeks ago.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

About one in 10 people who returned to Israel from Ukraine in the past month were infected with COVID-19, far more than any other foreign country, Health Ministry data showed on Monday. This follows the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the city of Uman, which officials warned could pose a serious risk to public health.    

During that period, as of Sunday, 9.87 percent of the 33,224 travelers from Ukraine – 3,278 people – tested positive for the coronavirus. For the United States, which accounted for the second-most arrivals with COVID-19, that number was 523 out of 45,532 travelers (1.15 percent). The third most came from Egypt, with 170 out of 13,706 travelers testing positive (1.24 percent). 

Health Ministry figures show that Ukraine has led the pack in its share of infected arrivals since May 2021, with 4.97 percent of all travelers from the country testing positive during that period. The vast majority of those travelers returned to Israel in the past month – 3,278 out of 3,480 arrivals since May.

That is significantly higher than Turkey, the country with the second most ill arrivals since May, with 1.46 percent. Only 0.58 percent of arrivals from the United States were carrying the coronavirus. The data does not differentiate between Israeli citizens and non-citizens.  

Immediately after Rosh Hashanah, on September 9-10, there was a spike in the number of returning travelers who tested positive for the virus. Most of them were not vaccinated, the ministry's figures show. 

This coincided with the return of thousands of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims from Ukraine, where they celebrated the holiday at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman. The rate of COVID infection among Israelis returning from Uman was double that of the general population, the Ynet news site reported on September 11, validating health officials' warnings that the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the Ukrainian city could pose a serious health risk.

Pictures published in the Ukrainian media showed few pilgrims wearing masks indoors or social distancing. And while one pilgrim told Haaretz that he did see people wearing masks (“though it really depended on the area”), another said that many of those present had felt no need for such measures.

Many pilgrims were fined by police for failing to observe social distancing and masking requirements, said Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk.

“The believers have to obey the rules when they come to our country,” he said, calling the behavior of some pilgrims “unacceptable” and accusing some of trying “to bribe the local authorities for documents showing negative results.”

Prof. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at Hebrew University and, until recently, the chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, told Haaretz on Sunday that “The event was not handled properly.” He added, "I am afraid that if there is new variant, it will easily spread.”

After the holiday, police announced that over 200 Israelis who had returned from Uman used forged coronavirus tests, despite at least some of them having tested positive for the virus. These arrivals from Uman are suspected of fraud, forgery, and spreading an infectious disease, which is considered a criminal offense in Israel in certain circumstances.

Investigations into nearly 120 suspects came to a close, Haaretz learned Monday, after it was clarified that they did not actually have COVID. This does not mean that law enforcement officials believe that their test certificates were necessarily valid, but rather that they are no longer suspected of having knowingly entered Israel while infected.

One pilgrim, who spoke last week on condition of anonymity, described how easy it was to forge negative results. He said he knew of several people who had used counterfeit documentation created with a smartphone app to circumvent testing requirements.

"It’s just much easier. It doesn't make sense: Why do you have to pay money and then get to Israel and do the test again?” he asked. However, he said that he believed “most” of the other Israelis in Uman had undergone a real test.

In a letter obtained by Ynet, coronavirus czar Salman Zarka warned last month that the annual pilgrimage could be a “possible hot spot for mass infection,” which could have a negative impact on the entire country.

Infected pilgrims, he wrote, “are expected to come to synagogues during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” despite government quarantine regulations. He was concerned that their presence “could ignite a new wave of illness and import new variants to Israel.”

As of Monday morning, there are currently 714 coronavirus patients in serious condition, most of whom – 478 – are not vaccinated at all. There are 250 patients in critical condition and 194 on ventilators. On Sunday, 6,456 people tested positive, over 4,000 of whom are also unvaccinated, with 5.17 percent of tests coming back positive. 

The R number – the number of people each COVID patient infects – stands at 0.92; when the number is less than one, it is a sign that infection is on the decline. The number is calculated using the weekly infection rate of the previous 10 days; it represents September 10.   

Nearly 44,000 people got a third COVID booster shot on Sunday; over 3 million Israelis have received it thus far. Over 6 million Israelis have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine.   

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