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Greatly disproportionate number of COVID cases among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox

25% of tests in Haredi towns returning positive, compared to 7.4% countrywide; virus czar says easing of lockdown could begin as early as end of next week

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray in The Hurva Synagogue sukkah on Hoshana Raba, the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 9, 2020. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray in The Hurva Synagogue sukkah on Hoshana Raba, the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 9, 2020. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis account for a disproportionately high number of the total coronavirus cases across the country, according to Health Ministry figures released Friday evening.

Twenty-five percent of tests conducted in Haredi towns came back positive, Channel 12 reported, citing figures from the Health Ministry. The countrywide positive test rate stood at 7.4%

In addition, Haredi locales made up for over 60% of the Health Ministry designated virus hotspots, Channel 12 reported. Overall, the number of hotspots nationwide dropped from 130 last week to 80 as of Friday night.

Channel 12 also cited figures from Weizmann Institute of Science Professor Eran Segal showing that “46% of the contagion at the moment is in the ultra-Orthodox community,” in what appeared to be a reference to the percentage of active cases countrywide. The ultra-Orthodox make up some 12 percent of the total population in Israel.

There has been growing criticism of Haredi communities for not adhering to government guidelines, including continuing to host mass gatherings over the High Holiday period.

Police dispersed hundreds of worshipers who gathered near a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Illit in violation of lockdown restrictions in the early hours of Friday morning.

A Shaare Zedek staffer wears protective gear as he takes a swab from a woman to test for the coronavirus, outside the hospital in Jerusalem on September 14, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

As is, ultra-Orthodox communities tend to be more susceptible to the virus given the lower average socio-economic conditions, which lead to large families living in small apartments.

While concern regarding morbidity rates in Haredi towns has continued, overall virus numbers continued their downward trend Friday evening, with the percentage of positive tests sliding from 7.9% on Thursday to 7.4%.

However, the number of tests conducted remained lower than earlier this week, when it had reached almost 50,000, and far lower than previous weeks, when numbers were above 60,000.

As of 8 p.m. Friday evening, just 24,727 tests were conducted Friday, with 1,749 of them returning positive.

The country’s total case count stood at 287,858, of which 60,722 were active. The number of seriously ill patients stood at 860, of whom 241 were on ventilators. The death toll climbed by 12 Friday, reaching 1,886.

Police patrol the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on October 9, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In an interview with Channel 12, the government’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said he was “encouraged” by the latest figures, while expressing concern over the significant drop in testing numbers.

“We are seeing the drop in the numbers of confirmed cases and also in the percentage of positive tests. But we are waiting to see it as a continuous trend,” Gamzu said.

He also warned that there may be a spike in cases in the coming weeks as a result of those who violated health guidelines against crowding over the Sukkot holiday, which ends Saturday night.

However, Gamzu expressed optimism that the government will be able to begin easing the lockdown either at the end of next week or at the beginning of the following week. However, he warned that “there will be some areas where we will have to carry on with the closure.”

He said the intention would be to start with the reopening of daycare centers, while keeping grades one through five learning remotely until the next stage of the “exit strategy.”

Jewish men pray during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Mount of Olives observatory, in Jerusalem on October 9, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

He said his most imminent goal was to see positive cases drop to 2,000 a day.

The current lockdown, Israel’s second since the pandemic started, began on September 18 before Rosh Hashanah and was tightened a week later. It is currently set to end on October 14.

It has been marked by clashes between enforcing police and ultra-Orthodox protesters, as well as between police and anti-government protesters who are calling for Netanyahu’s resignation due to his ongoing corruption trial and the government’s handling of the virus outbreak.

Israel’s chief rabbis implored Israelis Friday to refrain from praying indoors and kissing Torah scrolls during the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, which will begin Friday evening amid a nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The holiday, at the end of Sukkot, marks the end of the yearly cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of a new one. It is traditionally celebrated with hakafot, when worshipers gather at synagogues and circle the prayer hall en masse while holding Torah scrolls and dancing.

The letter comes a day after Yedioth’s Ynet news site reported that top rabbis in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv that has the second most infections of any city in Israel, told residents they could pray and dance in synagogues during Simchat Torah, in contravention of coronavirus guidelines.

The rabbis published a letter saying prayers in open spaces are preferable but that gathering inside synagogue yards, as well as in the buildings themselves, is allowed.

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