Israel moves towards mass testing as coronavirus detections rise

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel have jumped by 40% to 427 in the past 24 hours, authorities said on Wednesday, predicting a steeper rise as mass testing is implemented, and a blanket ban on entry of foreign nationals was imposed.

Israeli Health Ministry inspectors put on protective gear before they go up to the apartment of a person in self quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera, Israel March 16, 2020 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The Internal Security Ministry said compulsory closures, enforced by police, could soon be imposed across Israel, and the Palestinian Authority announced tighter restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“We will reach a situation in which there are many hundreds of new patients each day, and possibly more,” Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, the Health Ministry’s director-general, told Israeli Army Radio.

Israel also announced a complete ban on entry of foreign citizens. Foreign tourism had effectively been cut off by a previous edict requiring all arrivals to show they had made prior arrangements to go into self-quarantine for 14 days.

No fatalities from the global coronavirus pandemic have been reported in Israel or in the Palestinian territories. But an Israeli Health Ministry document seen by Reuters, dated March 17, informed medical and funeral staff of new regulations for handling anyone who dies from coronavirus infection.

These included decontaminating and hermetically wrapping bodies in double layers of polyethylene. For Jewish dead, ritual washing of the body will be conducted in one of four special stations in the country, the document showed.

Such measures would depart from standard Jewish rites in Israel, where the body is ritually washed by a local burial society and generally wrapped only in a cloth smock and shroud.

Having urged Israelis to stay home and approved cyber-monitoring of their movements to reduce infection risks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at least 3,000 coronavirus tests would be conducted daily.

Among the planned ways of doing that are drive-through testing stations in Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

Issuing new orders, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh banned movement in and out of the West Bank city of Bethlehem, and said its residents and those of two neighbouring towns must remain indoors. Medical personnel were exempted.

He also said Palestinians working in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a region Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, would no longer be able to do so for the time being.

Palestinian health officials have confirmed 44 cases of coronavirus infection. None has been detected in the Gaza Strip, where Israel and Egypt enforce tight border restrictions.

An official of Hevra Kadisha, a group that provides Jewish burial services in Israel, said contingency plans existed for mass burials in the event of a major catastrophe, such as an earthquake.

“But we are not there, nor should we expect to be. Such events would have tens of thousands of deceased, and that is not what is being anticipated now,” the official told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

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