Israel limits gatherings to 100 people as coronavirus cases climb to 97

Jerusalem Israel
Photo: Thomas Coex/Aep/Getty Images

Events and gatherings exceeding 100 attendees will be banned in the government’s latest measure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus inside Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, as the number of confirmed cases of the virus climbed to 97.

Speaking a short time after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Netanyahu said schools will continue to operate as normal, while universities and other higher education institutions are encouraged to prepare for distance learning ahead of their possible closure.

“After we dealt with the external surroundings, we are now forced to change our domestic way of life to deal with the virus arriving from outside,” said Netanyahu at a press conference alongside Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov. “I request from you, citizens of Israel, to change your lifestyle to deal with an external threat. It’s not easy and it requires a lot of changes.”

Emphasizing dangers posed to the elderly or sick by the virus, Litzman called on the public to refrain from visiting hospitals and retirement homes.

While schools, public transportation and places of work will remain unaffected by the new measure, Bar Siman Tov said employers should enable their employees to increasingly work from home. Meetings will be held between the Health Ministry and the Council for Higher Education to enable distance learning for university and college students.

“We call on everyone with a fever or respiratory difficulty to enter isolation. We are taking a protective step,” said Bar Siman Tov, instructing those with a fever exceeding 38 degrees Celsius to remain at home until two days after their body temperature returns to normal.

The ministry also confirmed a second diagnosis of “unknown origin,” bringing increased fears of local transmission. The male patient in his 60s – referred to as patient number 71 – is from central Israel. The results of an epidemiological investigation showed that he had attended a Yad L’Banim conference in Eilat, later attended by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate Maj.-Gen. Moti Almoz.

The only previous case of “unknown origin” was confirmed on Sunday – a Magen David Adom employee in his 40s, referred to as patient number 29.

Among the 22 new cases confirmed on Wednesday, a 32-year-old woman from Southern Israel traveled on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London Heathrow to Ben-Gurion Airport on March 7 after attending a conference in Edinburgh. Another woman in her 40s from Ma’aleh Adumim tested positive after returning to Tel Aviv on an El Al flight from Paris on March 1, and subsequently visited a series of stores in the West Bank city.

Two individuals with the virus are in severe condition, health authorities said. For the first time, three confirmed cases were being treated at home, and three other individuals have recovered and have been discharged from the hospital to date. Over 5,250 individuals have been tested for the virus so far and more than 31,100 individuals are currently in home-isolation nationwide, including over 5,000 schoolchildren and preschoolers, and 450 teaching staff.

The Israel Airports Authority (IAA) also confirmed that one of its employees, a manager in its fire detection department, had tested positive for the virus. The IAA said he had not been at the company’s facilities during the past 10 days, but that other employees who came into prior contact with him had been sent home for self-quarantine.

Since the announcement on Monday that all individuals entering Israel from abroad – citizens and non-citizens alike – will be required to spend 14 days in home isolation from their date of arrival, thousands of foreign nationals have left the country.

More than 10,800 foreign nationals departed Israel on Tuesday of their own accord, according to figures published by the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) on Wednesday, bringing the total departures during the last two weeks to approximately 197,000.

A total of 8,945 Israelis also entered the country on Tuesday, bringing the total of those arriving to over 235,000 citizens during the past two weeks. More than 400 foreign nationals have been refused entry into the country at Israel’s air and land points of entry since Friday, PIBA said.

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