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Haredi towns see drop in COVID morbidity rate, but remain among highest

Cases in Jerusalem, Bnei Bak, Beit Shemesh, Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit dropping by 20-40% in last week, while Tel Aviv sees slight infection rate increase

A medical worker tests an ultra-Orthodox man for coronavirus in Safed on February 10, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
A medical worker tests an ultra-Orthodox man for coronavirus in Safed on February 10, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox towns across Israel, which have been hardest hit by the pandemic, are beginning to see significant drops in their rates of positive coronavirus cases, according to Health Ministry data released Friday.

In Jerusalem, where some 500,000 ultra-Orthodox residents make up over 40% of the city’s population, the percentage of positive tests in the past week stood at 14% — a 25% drop from the week before.

The city still leads the country in active cases — 9,084 — and its percentage of positive tests is more than double the national rate. The capital is designated as “orange,” according to the Health Ministry’s Traffic Light program, which means it faces stricter health guidelines.

Both red and orange locales were prevented from partially reopening schools on Thursday along with green and yellow towns — though Jerusalem is divided by neighborhoods, allowing some of the city’s students to return to classes.

Like Jerusalem, Bnei Brak also saw a drop in the weekly rate of positive tests, from 45% to 15% in the past week. As of Friday morning, there were 2,971 active cases in the city, that shifted from red to orange.

In the Haredi city-settlements of Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit, the weekly rate of positive tests dropped by 42% and 22%, respectively. In Beit Shemesh, where over 50% of the town’s 150,000 residents are ultra-Orthodox, the weekly rate of positive tests fell by 37%, the Health Ministry data showed.

Meanwhile, in largely secular Tel Aviv, an 8% increase was marked in the weekly rate of positive tests. The city currently has 2,660 active cases among its population of nearly half a million.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews participate in the funeral for prominent rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik, in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The promising numbers in the Haredi sector come after it incurred a significant blow as a result of the pandemic.

According to a Monday report from the Shomrim investigative journalism nonprofit organization, one in 73 ultra-Orthodox Israelis over the age of 65 has died of COVID-19 — more than four times the number in the same cohort of the general population.

The report found that 1.3 percent of ultra-Orthodox over 65 has died of COVID, compared to 0.27%, or 1 in 373, in the same group in the general population.

Shomrim attributed the disparity to the ministry’s decision not to count deaths in cities with mixed populations of ultra-Orthodox and non-Haredi toward the total for the ultra-Orthodox, which Shomrim did.

Regardless of the disparity between the numbers, the death rate among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox makes clear the degree to which the community has been impacted by the coronavirus, even as parts of the community continue to go about their lives as usual and refuse to wear masks or socially distance.

Over the course of the pandemic, there has been growing public anger over frequent large-scale violations of lockdown rules in parts of the ultra-Orthodox community, as well as the government’s apparent reluctance to strongly enforce health rules in that community.

There have been widespread violations of coronavirus regulations in Israel, but the most flagrant have been in parts of the ultra-Orthodox community. Some Haredi groups largely adhere to the restrictions, while others ignore them, including by opening schools and holding massive funerals.

Overall in Israel, the number of seriously ill patients continued a steady decline, reaching 1,002 on Thursday, the lowest number in weeks. There were also just 54 new seriously ill patients on Thursday, half the amount from the day before.

There were 4,931 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total number to 718,746 with 61,920 being active. Of the 75,587 tests carried out on Thursday, 6.7 percent of them came back positive. Six more Israelis died on Thursday, 23 fewer than the previous day, bringing the total death count to 5,304.

Over 3,780,710 Israelis have received the first dose of vaccine and 2,415,692 have received both doses.

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