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Israel's fear of coronavirus spread jumps as election day approaches

Feb 23. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Steve Hendrix · WORLD, HEALTH, MIDDLE-EAST 

JERUSALEM - Concerns of a widening threat from coronavirus spiked just as millions of Israelis are preparing to gather at polling places for national elections next week, following reports that a group of South Koreans who had visited some of the country's most popular religious and tourist spots tested positive for the infection.

Dozens of school students who may have been in proximity to the South Korean tourists were directed to stay in home-based quarantine for two weeks, as were hotel housekeepers and employees of Masada, Tel Ber Sheeva and other national parks. Officials, who had previously expressed cautious optimism that Israel could avoid significant risks from the global epidemic, immediately increased restrictions on those entering the country.

Non-Israeli travelers from South Korea and Japan have been barred from entering the country, according to local media reports, and Israelis arriving from multiple Asian countries face two-weeks of mandatory quarantine. Officials reported added South Korea and Japan to that list, which previously had included China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Macao.

Officials from multiple agencies scrambled to address the sudden increase in risk. A Health Ministry official released the itinerary of the South Korean group at a hastily called news conference Saturday night, beseeching anyone who may have been within six feet of the group for at least 15 minutes to isolate themselves for two weeks. As many as 200 people reportedly entered quarantine based on the criteria. 

Others who may have overlapped with the group from a greater distance were advised to monitor themselves for fever or other symptoms of covid-19 infection. 

"We have an opportunity here to stay on top of the virus," said Bar Siman Tov, the ministry's deputy director, according to the Jerusalem Post. "The potential that someone caught the virus from the tourists is high; whoever doesn't enter quarantine is endangering the public."

The group of 77 South Koreans were reportedly on a nine-day pilgrimage of Christian sites in Israel and the West Bank, including more than a dozen churches in Jerusalem's Old City, Bethlehem and Hebron. It was only after the group flew home in mid-February that nine of the travelers tested positive for the virus, prompting the South Korean government to alert Israel. 

The move to bar Korean travelers quickly sparked complaints from Seoul, where officials reportedly summoned the Israeli chief of mission to explain after some 200 South Korean nationals were turned away at Ben Gurion Airport. Cases of coronavirus infection have surged in South Korea in recent days, with most of the infections centered around a religious community in the southern city of Daegu. 

News of the infectious travelers' presence at crowded sites in Israel came just as the country reported its first confirmed case of coronavirus infection. One of the nine Israeli passengers who had been flown home from a stranded cruise ship in Japan tested positive for the virus Friday. 

The increased risk of an outbreak arose as Israel readies for its third national election in less than a year, raising fears that voters already exhausted from the country's prolonged political stalemate would be scared away from crowded polling places.

Orly Ades, head of Israel's Central Elections Committee, told Army Radio Sunday that 20 polling stations would be readied for voters in isolation due to possible exposure to the virus.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said police were preparing for the possibility of disruptions to voting from fears of the virus, including the spread of rumors or deliberately false information, according to reports. Officers would enforce the Health Ministry's quarantine orders if those implicated refused to comply, he said. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would hold an emergency meeting Sunday on the government's coronavirus response. 



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