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Passengers from virus-hit ship land in Israel, whisked to fresh quarantine

A group of Israeli travelers stuck for the last two weeks on a cruise ship off Japan landed at Ben-Gurion airport early Friday, marking what they hope will be the end of a dream vacation spoiled by global fears over the spread of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus.

The plane carrying 11 passengers from Japan was brought to a remote area of the airport just after 4 a.m., where the travelers were immediately put on vans to be taken to Sheba Medical Center, near Tel Aviv where they will spend the next 14 days in quarantine.

15 Israelis had been among the over 3,000 passengers and crew quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess since February 4. Four of them remain hospitalized in Japan in good condition after being diagnosed with the virus.

The Bombardier Global 6000, specially chartered by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, made a brief stop in Tbilisi. Georgia, to refuel before making its way to Israel.

Israelis who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Japan are seen on a plane bringing them to Israel, February 20, 2020. (Israeli Embassy in Japan)

The plane will return immediately to east Asia and its crew will not be allowed to enter Israel while it is being prepared for the flight back.

Video from a bus taking them to the airport in Japan showed passengers singing Am Yisrael Chai (‘The people of Israel lives’), a song originally composed to honor the plight of Jews stuck behind the Iron Curtain.

A spokesperson for the families said the group was “leaving with mixed feelings,” knowing that there were others staying behind in Japan.

At Sheba, the group will be kept in a separate area of the sprawling medical center and military base, far from where they can come into contact with the general population, according to authorities.

So far, at least four people flown to the US and another two Australians let off the ship have been found to have the disease, raising questions about Japan’s policy of allowing evacuees to return home after testing negative.

Centers for Disease Control spokesman Scott Pauley said test results for the cruise ship passengers have continued to trickle in from Japan even after their return to the US.

Japan’s government has also been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator.

Upon landing, the Israelis were greeted with a big smiles from Magen David Adom paramedics, who evacuated them on a MDA bus to the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.

MDA paramedics were protected with a special suit, mask, hat, and special glasses, according to the protocol used in cases where there is a risk of infection.

One of the paramedics who greeted the travelers upon landing in Israel, is Itzik Peer from Ashdod.

“When they asked me to take part in the evacuation of the Israelis who were on the cruise ship off the coast of Japan, I had no doubt in my mind that it is exactly what I would do,” Itzik said. “As emergency personnel in Magen David Adom, it is important to us to help all those in need, and we are sure to protect ourselves as well when we are on duty.”

Rami Meushar from Lod, paramedic in MDA and volunteer since the age of 15, also took part in evacuating the Israelis who arrived from the cruise ship off the coast of Japan.

“It’s a great honor, as a paramedic in the national rescue organization of Israel, to take park in the national effort to prevent the spread of Corona in Israel,” said Rami. “To greet the Israelis as they finally landed back in Israel, after being held in isolation on the cruise ship, was very exciting. It was important to us to act courteous, and we took all measures to make sure that they felt calm and safe.”

MDA Medical Director Rami Miller said, “The Magen David Adom teams are prepared throughout the year, and work skillfully and professionally wherever they are required to provide medical care and evacuation of patients suspected of carrying infectious diseases. Therefore, the issue of protecting MDA teams is not something new for us, and we are practiced and experienced in the routine.”

MDA Director General Eli Bin said, “At Magen David Adom, we were prepared ahead of time for the evacuation of the eleven Israelis who landed in the country, after spending two weeks in isolation on a ship off the coast of Japan. The paramedics who evacuated them, were provided with full kits designed for these cases, in order to prevent any possibility of infection. MDA works in full coordination and cooperation with the health and foreign ministries, with the airport authority and the Sheba hospital in Tel Hashomer, and will continue to assist in the national effort to prevent the spread of the Corona virus in Israel.”

The four Israeli passengers who were diagnosed with coronavirus which are still hospitalized in Japan and are expected to be released from the hospital next week and return to Israel.