With omicron pushing the world back toward lockdown, Israel’s quarantine program represents a key pillar of the government's strategy against the variant spreading among the population.
When Israelis return from coronavirus hot spots that Israel designates as high-risk “red” countries, they must quarantine either at their own home or at a “coronavirus hotel.”
According to Health Ministry regulations, a vaccinated or recovered Israeli traveler who visited a red country must agree to government tracking in order to be allowed to go into home isolation. If the traveler agrees, they undergo a PCR swab test upon entry into Israel and are allowed to go home for the seven-day quarantine period, ending upon the receipt of a further negative PCR test.
If the traveler does not agree to be tracked, they are taken to a “coronavirus hotel” for the remainder of the isolation period.
The program is supposed to help the authorities ensure that people are abiding by their quarantine requirements and remaining in isolation. As well as covering travelers returning from red countries, the program also covers people who are quarantining after testing positive for COVID or have had close contact with a COVID patient.
In the last month, 286,681 people entered Israel from countries that have recently been designated high-risk “red” destinations, although many of them arrived prior to the countries' designation. However, testimonies from those registered for the tracking suggest the country’s first line of defense is far from watertight. Meanwhile, ministries are refusing to disclose information about the program, leaving the nature and scale of the tracking up in the air.
According to an overview published by the Israel Police, those who register will receive daily text messages with a link to click in order to share their phones’ GPS locations. Alternately, they will receive a WhatsApp message with an invitation to a video call, during which they will be required to show their ID card.
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One such person is Sholem Hack, a Beit Shemesh resident who recently returned from overseas and was left in the dark about setting up the tracking on his phone.
“They wanted me to change settings on my phone, and I had no idea how or what was needed,” Hack says. “They kept on sending SMSes with no way to respond or get assistance. I just ignored it and went out of isolation once I had my second [negative] PCR result. I would have expected a phone call or something to check why I hadn’t set it up, but there was no follow-up.”
Steve Zeff also agreed to be tracked after landing in Israel from his native South Africa, which was one of the first countries to be declared red. He discovered that the police didn't seem to know when his quarantine ended.
“Every day I was contacted via the COVID Police app and asked to accept monitoring of my movements via my phone or risk the increased chance of the police arriving to verify that I was in isolation. I didn’t mind this till after day eight when I had already been released and the COVID police kept on messaging me to verify my whereabouts,” he recounts.
“This went on for about another five days. After day eight, I just refused to respond. Now I’m reluctant to travel again.”
A cloud of obscurity
At every turn, officials have been reluctant to discuss details of the program. And when they have, the responses have been muddled.
Asked how many people have opted in versus how many had been sent to hotels for the period of their isolation, a police spokesperson told Haaretz that this was “privileged information” and referred the question to the Health Ministry.
A Health Ministry spokesperson, in turn, stated that “the issue of enforcement and supervision with technological means is the responsibility of the Public Security Ministry and the Israel Police.”
The Public Security Ministry spokesman, meanwhile, said that around 30 percent of Israeli travelers have agreed to be tracked, though the ministry did not specify how many of these had arrived from red countries. It also declined to say how many people overall were enrolled in the program.
It is unclear how this figure fits in with the Health Ministry's statement on Monday that only some 60 people, out of a total of over 78,000 in isolation across the country, are currently staying at coronavirus hotels.
Nor was it consistent with figures presented at the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee last Thursday, where officials were more open about the project's failings.
Addressing the committee, Public Security Ministry chief scientist Dr. Gadi Frishman said the number of Israelis consenting to technological enforcement had increased to a steady level of 50 percent, though the figure stood at just 6 percent among the ultra-Orthodox community.
But many of those who initially indicate a willingness to be tracked in order to avoid being quarantined in a hotel "actually do not cooperate,” Deputy Superintendent Orit Friedman of the Israel Police conceded to the committee. Only the day before, she said, hundreds of people had refused to answer calls, lacked identification or were unable to provide their location due to technical glitches.
Health officials at the committee meeting also noted that only around three out of 10 people in home isolation had requested the second PCR test necessary to end their quarantine early, indicating that flouting of the rules may be widespread.
Such flouting is likely the result of lax enforcement, one traveler who recently agreed to be tracked told Haaretz.
“What's really cool is they checked my status every day at the same time – so as long as I was home by 3 P.M., they would mark me as a good citizen,” the traveler said.
“I did keep quarantine, for the record, but immediately saw how stupid it is to check at the same time every day. They also kept pinging me after my official release. [It] gives me so much faith in the system meant to save lives,” the traveler added sarcastically.