Maccabi HMO says it’s worried about Bnei Brak but ‘no idea’ of infection levels

Nation cites health provider’s CEO saying 38% of city residents residents have coronavirus, but senior executive says he was misunderstood

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Police officers at a checkpoint located at the entrance to the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, April 5, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Police officers at a checkpoint located at the entrance to the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, April 5, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Bnei Brak has become widely known as the city where one in three people has coronavirus, but the medical experts behind the figure say it is based on a misunderstanding.

Ido Hadari, senior executive director at Maccabi Healthcare Services, told The Times of Israel on Sunday that his organization actually has “no idea” how many Bnei Brak residents have coronavirus, despite it having become the source for the figure that is being discussed across media and social media.

Bnei Brak is closed off, as police enforce the city’s new status as a “restricted zone” due to the high prevalence of coronavirus in the population.

Ran Saar, CEO of Maccabi, the HMO for one in two Bnei Brak residents, was widely quoted on Thursday telling a Knesset committee that 38 percent of people in the city are infected with coronavirus. But Hadari said that Saar wasn’t giving numbers for the general population of the ultra-Orthodox city, but rather discussing a very different statistic: what percentage of people there who felt unwell and went for a test in recent days actually had coronavirus.

Screen capture from video of Ran Saar, CEO of the Maccabi Health Services. (Twitter)

All of the 1,300 people tested, Hadari stressed, had some coronavirus-like symptoms, and many had been referred by family doctors. Saar is “worried” by the situation in the city, and was trying to express this in general terms, but not trying to quantify infection levels, said Hadari.

Saar’s statistic came amid anger on the part of some Israelis toward ultra-Orthodox communities that were perceived as adopting social distancing rules too late, and therefore being culpable for their infections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out on Sunday about what he called the “wild incitement against the ultra-Orthodox public.”

Hadari said that his colleague’s analysis was misquoted by many to imply a negative view of Haredim. “It’s amazing that his words have been taken and turned against the Orthodox population,” said Hadari.

Experts say that the 38% figure for positive tests in Bnei Brak is stark, but doesn’t actually help to build a picture of just how bad the situation is in the city. Ben-Gurion University microbiologist Tomer Hertz, who is affiliated with the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev, said that it is “very high,” and reported that at Soroka Medical Center, where he works, just 4% to 7% of tests show a positive result.

However, he cautioned people against trying to estimate, based on the difference, how many cases Bnei Brak has, as test levels are complex.

While the figure “definitely shows something is happening in Bnei Brak,” he said, there are too many unknown factors, meaning that “you can’t translate this into the rate of infection in the population [of the city] as a whole.”

As of Sunday morning, there were 1,214 confirmed cases of the virus in Bnei Brak, which has a population of some 200,000.

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