Hundreds of Israelis contact coronavirus hotline as fears of epidemic rise

Hundreds of Israelis have contacted medical professionals over fears they contracted the COVID-19 contagion, authorities said Saturday night, as groups from across the country were ordered into quarantine and the government announced an emergency meeting aimed at stopping the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The Magen David Adom rescue service said Saturday night it had received hundreds of inquiries within hours of opening a hotline for those that far they have contracted the deadly novel coronavirus, which has swiftly spread from China across the world.

It said specially trained paramedics were being dispatched to peoples’ homes to collect samples and test for the virus, or in some cases, to evacuate patients under special isolation conditions.

“Dozens of experienced and professional paramedics have joined the mission, as they recognize the importance of conducting medical examinations in the patient’s home to prevent the spread of the virus in Israel,” MDA head Eli Bin said in a statement. He said the hotline had been set up at the request of the Health Ministry.

Those who were in contact with anyone suspected of carrying the illness and showing symptoms including a cough, fever or respiratory issues were urged to call the hotline.

In a briefing Saturday evening, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov urged Israelis who feel they may have contracted the illness “not to arrive at the hospital independently, but contact Magen David Adom’s emergency hotline by phone.”

The hotline is reached via the 101 emergency number.

One person in Israel so far as been confirmed to have contracted the virus, a woman who returned to the country after being quarantined on a cruise ship off Japan that saw a large number of infections, but fears have spread over an outbreak here, especially after it emerged that some Korean tourists who visited the country recently had been found to be carrying the contagion.

Some 200 students and teachers who came in contact with the group were ordered to self-quarantine.  The Health Ministry has called on anyone else who was in close contact with the Korean visitors to report and self-quarantine for 14 days from the date of their last interaction. It published a list [Hebrew] on its website of the group’s itinerary.

“The potential that there is someone ill in Israel due to the group has risen significantly,” Bar Siman Tov said. “We are working under the assumption that the South Korean tourists were carrying the virus while in Israel.”

He warned that anyone breaking quarantine guidelines would be endangering others and face punishment.

He also said that Israelis returning from South Korea and Japan would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Such guidelines are already in effect for those returning from China, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau.

Israel has banned non Israelis who visited many of those places in the last 14 days from entering the country and on Saturday blocked some 200 people on a plane arriving from Seoul, though it said the case was a one-off and Korean tourists were not being banned.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was slated to hold a situational assessment Sunday morning on containing the potential spread of the coronavirus in Israel, to be attended by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, ministers, hospital managers and other top officials.

Globally, nearly 78,000 people have been infected in 29 countries, and more than 2,300 have died.

Though the overwhelming number of cases have been in mainland China, hotspots have begun to spring up around the world, including in South Korea, Iran and Italy, with some health officials saying cases can no longer all be traced back to Wuhan, the epicenter of the potential pandemic.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz called an emergency meeting at his ministry over the possible ramifications of the case of the South Koreans visitors.

In a statement, Katz said he’d instructed ministry officials “to support any strict decisions issued by the Health Ministry on preventing the entry of foreigners from various world countries who could pose a health risk to Israel’s population.”

Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center, noted that unlike in the case of the 11 Israelis who’d returned from a quarantined cruise ship in Japan, and who were being kept in isolation at Sheba under constant monitoring, “these people were exposed to a large population in Israel.”

He added: “From our experiences this virus is apparently very contagious and so there is a great risk at the moment that there are infections in the country.”

The Health Ministry has posted a list of places the group visited, among them Netanya, Caesarea, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, Beersheba, Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In the West Bank the group was reported to have visited Nablus, Jericho, Bethlehem and Hebron. The Palestinian Authority called on anyone who had come into contact with the South Korean tourists to enter quarantine. PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh instructed all West Bank sites visited by the tourists, included restaurants, closed until further notice, and their employees screened.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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