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A quarter of all new virus cases diagnosed are among ultra-Orthodox

Health Ministry point man for community says politics contributing to poor enforcement of quarantine rules in education institutions

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men during a ceremony in Meron, near Safed, December 7, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men during a ceremony in Meron, near Safed, December 7, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Health Ministry official overseeing action to counter the coronavirus among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population revealed Sunday that the community has recently accounted for over a quarter of all the new cases diagnosed, even though it makes up little more than a 10th of the total population.

During a video press briefing, Roni Numa said that enforcement of lockdown restrictions and quarantine for virus carriers among the ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredim, was not good enough, in part for political reasons.

“Regrettably, enforcement in some of the places, principally in the education institutions, is not effective enough,” Numa said, after reporting numbers that showed over the past day or so that 26 percent of all new virus cases were in the Haredi community.

The positive test rate for the virus in the Haredi community is 15%, he said, compared to 11% in the Arab community, where there has also been a significant outbreak, and considerably higher than the 4% of the rest of the population. Three weeks ago, the positive test rate in the Haredi community was 5%, he said. Of those infected, 60% are aged 10-19 and most are asymptomatic, unwittingly infecting their families at home.

Asked if politics was playing a role in preventing proper enforcement of virus-related restrictions, Numa affirmed that was the case.

“Certainly, everything has an effect,” he said. “Certainly, these things are connected.”

Noting that Israel is now in the run-up to elections, Numa said “Anyone who says it doesn’t have an effect is distorting the truth.”

Ultra-Orthodox parties are key allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the coalition government.

Screen capture from video of Roni Numa. (YouTube)

However, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy rejected the claim, telling the Kan public broadcaster that it was the large number of elderly in the Haredi community, and the crowded living conditions in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, that was to blame.

The Ynet news site reported Sunday that serious outbreaks of the coronavirus were being seen in a number of Haredi yeshivas, or talmudic seminaries, two weeks after students returned from their Hanukkah vacation.

According to the report, an internal Health Ministry document revealed that verified patients at a number of yeshivas and boarding schools were not being separated from the rest of the students, leading to clusters of infection.

The report said that even institutions that previously had good records on maintaining the regulations that saw students divided into smaller pods were starting to see wider outbreaks.

However, Numa said while there had been 500 cases among yeshiva students since Hanukkah, the outbreaks were centered on just 12 institutions out of hundreds, and were not enough to warrant ending the pod-study system and closing the yeshivas.

“It is under control,” he said. “There is no need to panic. It is not good, but it is not a collapse.”

Part of the issue, Numa said, was that it took too long for students who were exposed to the virus to get the results back from tests they took and, growing impatient, they broke quarantine.

“We didn’t manage to get control of those things,” he said. “We are trying to improve it.”

The Haredi community has seen some of the highest levels of infection since the start of the outbreak earlier this year, with leading rabbis initially pushing back against government ordered restrictions on public life, later discouraging yeshiva students from bothering to get virus tests, and opening schools even when the country’s entire education system had been ordered closed. There was also initial hesitation to back the country’s mass vaccination program, although on the eve of its launch key community leaders issued declarations supporting the drive.

Numa’s remarks came as the Health Ministry said that it has found seven new cases of a mutated, highly contagious, strain of the coronavirus originally detected in the UK.

Out of 96 samples to detect the strain among virus patients, the seven that were confirmed were from Jerusalem, Givat Ze’ev, and the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Another 300 samples are still being processed, the ministry said.

None of those infected with the strain had recently returned from abroad. So far there have been 30 cases of the new strain in the country, of which only six are known to have come back from abroad.

The closed down Hatikvah market in Tel Aviv, during a nationwide lockdown to curb coronavirus infections, on January 3, 2021. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Israel on Sunday entered its second week of a national lockdown ordered to curb rising daily infection rates that last week broke through 6,000 new cases a day. Though the lockdown places many restrictions on public life, schools have largely remained open, while non-essential stores and commercial centers have been shuttered.

Health Ministry figures released Sunday evening showed there were 4,141 new cases diagnosed the day before, though testing figures are always lower over the weekend.

There are 48,366 active patients, of whom 761 were in serious condition, with 209 on ventilators. The death toll rose by 20 from a morning update to 3,412.

In light of the still-climbing numbers despite over 1,000,000 Israeli already having been given the first does of the two-shot vaccine, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he would push for a full national lockdown.

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