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Gamzu: 40% of new virus cases are ultra-Orthodox, with rise in older patients

Coronavirus czar cites ‘disturbing’ increase in number of diagnosed over age 60 within community, says he will stay on in role if health minister asks him to

People walk in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, October 1, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People walk in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, October 1, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Forty percent of all new coronavirus infections are coming from the ultra-Orthodox, coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said Thursday, amid increasing concern over morbidity rates in the community.

Gamzu told a press conference that 40 percent of those recently diagnosed with the coronavirus were ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, though the community constitutes only approximately 12 percent of the population.

He noted that cases among the older members of that community were on the rise.

“It is disturbing that the proportion of patients over the age of 60 in ultra-Orthodox society is rising,” Gamzu said, in comments that appeared to support a statement from Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy on Wednesday that there was a “steep increase” in the death rate from COVID-19 within that community.

Gamzu also said the surge in cases on Wednesday was due to a lag from the weekend and Yom Kippur, when most testing centers and labs were closed.

Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu visits the Ziv Hospital in Safed, September 27, 2020 (David Cohen/FLASH90)

“The 9,000 new cases didn’t surprise me, since it was taken after Yom Kippur. This is a total from Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We can assume we’ll see these numbers continue today,” he said.

It was not clear how patients were categorized as ultra-Orthodox.

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.

The community has been among the hardest hit by the virus in Israel, with many ultra-Orthodox cities leading the way in new daily infections.

Rabbi Elimelech Biderman and ultra-Orthodox Jews pray for forgiveness (Selihot) at the burial site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in Meron, northern Israel, September 12, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

At least three ultra-Orthodox sects were reportedly preparing on Wednesday for mass gatherings in Jerusalem during the upcoming Sukkot festival, despite regulations against large groups and the surge in infections within the community.

Accounts published by Hebrew-language news sites identified several large sukkahs, temporary structures used by Jews during Sukkot, being built in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of the capital, raising fears of the virus continuing to spread virtually unchecked in parts of the already hard-hit Haredi community.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray outdoors in Jerusalem, during the second nationwide lockdown imposed by the government in a bid to stem the increase of COVID-19 coronavirus cases, on October 1, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Gamzu also said Thursday that he would consider staying on in the role of virus czar if Health Minister Yuli Edelstein asked him to, although he wanted to return to his job as director of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center on November 1.

Reports over the last several days have pointed to an early exit for Gamzu over the souring of his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet.

Asked whether former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov would replace him as head of the national effort in the pandemic, Gamzu said that he would be a good choice for the job.

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

“Bar Siman-Tov is my friend — we go back a long way. There has been dialogue with Moshe while I have been managing the crisis. If it is decided that he will be the next virus czar, I will be happy. I’m sure it will be a good thing — it is a job that requires a lot of resistance and he can handle it,” Gamzu said.

Bar Siman-Tov, who headed the ministry when the pandemic began, was the face of Israel’s widely touted response during the first wave of the virus, when the country successfully managed to bring infection levels to near zero by implementing a tightly controlled national lockdown.

He resigned as Health Ministry director-general in May, days after the cabinet voted, against his recommendation, to significantly ease coronavirus restrictions throughout the country, a move widely seen now as a major factor in the resurgence of the virus. He was replaced by current director-general Chezy Levy.

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