Nine South Korean nationals who visited Israel and the West Bank in February have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, Israel's Health Ministry said on Saturday.
All 77 members of the group have already returned to South Korea, and at this stage it is unknown whether they were infected with the virus before or after arriving in Israel.
Meanwhile, the ministry's Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said Israel has expanded quarantine regulations, requiring all those returning from South Korea and Japan to remain in isolation for two weeks.
So far, quarantine was mandated for Israelis returning from Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau and China, where the latest outbreak began.
"People must understand that we have a limited window of opportunity to control the disease, otherwise it will spread to the entire country," said a senior health ministry official. She added that the public must obey quarantine orders out of solidarity and concern for the sick and elderly.
The Korean tourists were part of a group on a trip organized by the Catholic Church and had visited many tourist and religious sites throughout the country, including over a dozen churches. The Health Ministry is currently trying to locate all the poeple who socialized with the tourists and might have been infected.
According to Bar Siman Tov, officials "assess the potential for a [coronavirus] case in Israel to be significantly higher as a result of the group's visit."
The Health Ministry published the tourists' itinerary, which includes locations around Israel, Jerusalem and even Hebron in the West Bank:
February 8: Tower of David and Gallery hotels in Netanya.
February 9: Caesarea; Basilica of the Annunciation, St. Joseph's Church and St. Gabriel hotel in Nazareth; Ein Gev hotel in the Sea of Galilee.
February 10: Church of the Multiplication, Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter, Tanoreen restaurant and Ein Gev hotel in the Sea of Galilee.
February 11: David hotel in the Dead Sea.
February 12: Masada national park, Timna national park and Leonardo hotel in Be'er Sheva.
February 13: Be'er Sheva national park, Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Grand Court hotel in Jerusalem.
February 14: Bethphage, Chapel of the Ascension, Church of the Pater Noster, Dominus Flevit Church and Gethsemane in the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Cenacle (Room of the Last Supper), Tomb of the Virgin Mary and the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu in the Old City of Jerusalem.
February 15: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Church of Saint Anne and Jerusalem Gold restaurant in Jerusalem; St. John's Church and Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem.
As a precaution measure, the ministry called on all those who were in close contact with the tourists to be placed in home isolation for two weeks.
According to the ministry's guidelines, close contact includes being less than two meters away from one of the tourists for a time period of 15 minutes. Over 200 residents of Israel who may have been in contact with those infected are currently in quarantine.
The ministry added that all those who interacted with the tourists, without meeting the criteria for close contact, are not required to be placed in isolation. They are, however, required to be alert in the event that they develop symptoms like fever, cough and other respiratory difficulties and inform the ministry about it immediately.
The Education Ministry said it has instructed 30 students and two teachers from a school in the southern city of Be’er Sheva who came into contact with the group of tourists to remain at home until Thursday. A third teacher has gone through examinations at the Soroka hospital in the city.
60 more students, five teachers and a security guards from northern Israel, who visited Masada while the Korean group was at the site, were also ordered to self-quarantine.
Ninety more students and 10 of their teachers from Afula are to be quarantined. The students and teachers stayed near the Korean tour group during their trip to Masada a week and a half ago. Though none of them show symptoms of the virus, they will remain in quarantine until Wednesday, 14 days after their contact with the Korean group.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has also ordered 20 of its employees who came into contact with the group while touring Masada, Caesarea and Tel Be’er Sheva to remain at home until Wednesday. All of the employees are said to be in a healthy condition.
The Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah also called on all those who came into contact with the Korean tourists to remain in quarantine for two weeks, adding that they had visited Jerusalem, Nablus, Bethlehem, Jericho and Hebron.
Also on Saturday, South Korea reported an eight-fold jump in viral infections in four days to 433, most of them linked to a church and a hospital in and around the country's fourth-largest city, where health workers scrambled to screen thousands of worshippers.
Although hundreds of coronavirus cases were reported in South Korea, Israel's Health Ministry didn't bar entry to Korean nationals to Israel, nor did it instruct Israelis returning from South Korea to be placed in isolation at home. The Korean prime minister has defined the speared of coronavirus in the country as a "state of emergency."
Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority barred foreign passengers on board a Korean Air flight from Seoul from entering Israel Saturday. Twelve Israeli citizens who were on the plane were let into the country after being provided with protective suits and masks. They were driven to their home for house quarantine by Magen David Adom.
South Korea has reported its third death of a virus patient, a man in his 40s who was found dead at home and posthumously tested positive.
There’s concern that South Korea's death toll could grow. Virus patients with signs of pneumonia or other serious conditions at the Cheongdo hospital were transferred to other facilities, 17 of them in critical condition, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.
He said that the outbreak had entered a serious new phase, but still expressed cautious optimism that it can be contained to the region surrounding Daegu, where the first case was reported on Tuesday.
China, however, said that the daily count of new virus cases there fell significantly to 397, though another 109 people died of COVID-19.
The new figures, along with an upward revision of Hubei’s earlier count, brought the total number of cases in mainland China to 76,288, with 2,345 deaths. China has severely restricted travel and imposed strict quarantine measures to stop the virus from spreading.
Beijing has recently said that the incubation period for COVID-19 could be as long as a month, after a 70-year-old man developed systems only 27 days after he was infected, contradicting previous assessments that the incubation period lasts 14 days. This might compromise efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
Jack Khoury, Noa Shpigel and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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