Nearly 1-in-4 new virus patients is Haredi, data shows, amid ire over crowds

On a positive note, ultra-Orthodox vaccination rates catching up with general population, but remain low in some virus hotspots, according to Health Ministry stats

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

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

Almost a quarter of all new Israeli coronavirus patients are from the ultra-Orthodox community, Health Ministry figures released Monday showed, highlighting the disastrous spread of COVID-19 through Haredi cities and neighborhoods.

The news comes amid rising public anger over violations of virus rules in parts of the Haredi community, and as the British variant of the virus, which spreads especially fast in high-density environments, runs amok.

The Health Ministry’s data, based on averages of new cases over the last week, showed that 23 percent of new cases were from people who come from areas that are predominantly Haredi, even though just 12% of Israelis belong to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Data also showed that some 20% of coronavirus tests conducted among people from Haredi areas have returned positive over the past week, while the national average is 9.8%.

All eight locales with the highest per capita COVID-19 diagnoses are predominantly Haredi or have sizeable ultra-Orthodox populations.

“We are very worried,” Tehila Kalagy, a Haredi Ben Gurion University academic, who studies health policy in her community, told The Times of Israel.

Doctors are warning that while morbidity among middle-aged Haredim has been low until now, the sheer numbers of infections, heightened by the British variant, means this could quickly change.

A volunteer team members wearing safety gear help a COVID-19 patient lay his tefillin and pray in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on January 27, 2021, (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Now it’s for real,” said Dr. Ian Miskin, who heads coronavirus response for the Clalit healthcare provider in the Jerusalem area. “Until the penny drops, showing people that they need to keep the regulations and go for vaccination, people will be dying.”

The statistics come amid anger over disregard shown in parts of the Haredi community towards coronavirus restrictions. This reached new highs on Sunday, when authorities failed to stop two large Haredi funerals from taking place, with tens of thousands of people brazenly breaking lockdown regulations and utterly failing to observe any social distancing, creating major health hazards.

Israel is more than four weeks into a nationwide lockdown, and despite a world-leading vaccination drive, infection numbers have remained stubbornly high. Israel is recording over 6,500 new cases daily, according to the Health Ministry’s moving 7-day average.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox men attend the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Many Israelis have complained about uneven police enforcement of lockdown regulations, with people sitting alone in parks in Tel Aviv being fined, while large Haredi gatherings continue to take place and are largely ignored by authorities.

Police patrol Tel Aviv on February 1, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

On Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz lambasted the government’s “fake lockdown” and “unequal enforcement.”

Some inside the community have also spoken out about the lack of leadership on the issue from rabbis and political figures.

Zaka emergency service head Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who lost both parents and a brother to COVID in recent weeks, told The Times of Israel that rabbis who approve rule-breaking have “blood on their hands.”

Officials and experts stress that while they are worried about rule-breaking, environmental factors also play a large part in the high Haredi virus rates, which have only been compounded by the British variant’s fast-spread.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral procession for the head of the Brisk Yeshiva, Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem on January 31, 2021, following his passing, at the age of 99, due to months-long illness compounded by the coronavirus. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“It must be remembered that many people live in cramped conditions, close to one another,” said Kalagy.

Mini Hadad, a member of the Health Ministry team that prepared the figures, noted, “The catchier British variant is disproportionately spreading among Haredim, who live in large families and often in high-density housing.”

Immune response

Haredim are flocking to vaccination centers in larger numbers than expected, though in some virus hotspots, traffic is slow. “Haredim are more reticent about getting vaccinated than others, while actually, given their higher infection rates, we really need them to have higher vaccination rates,” said Miskin.

The locale currently topping the table for new diagnoses has rock-bottom vaccination rates — half the national average for the elderly: just 41% of residents aged 60-plus in Tifrah, a Haredi moshav, are classed as immunized or with developing immunity after initial vaccination, compared to a national average of 81%.

An empty vaccination center in Jerusalem on January 31, 2021. (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

Only 65% of Beitar Illit residents over the age of 60 are at least partially immunized, and in Emmanuel, only 44% are. Bnei Brak, one of the most notorious hotspots of the pandemic — currently 13th in the new infections table — stands at 63%.

That said, overall, 72% of people aged 60 and up from Haredi areas have been immunized, only 8% behind the national average for that age group.

Officials define immunization, in these statistics, as people who are either at least two weeks after their first injection, or those who have recovered from coronavirus, and are therefore thought to have immunity, and ineligible for a vaccination under current guidelines. They stress that this is a statistical tool, and actual immunity only takes hold a week after the second vaccine dose.

A Haredi man receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The stats point to high regional variations, seemingly suggesting that local culture, including whether rabbis encourage vaccination or not, plays a large role. In the Haredi settlement of Modiin Illit, some 96% of the 60-plus age group is immunized and in Kiryat Yearim, where the municipality has urged virus vigilance, the figure is 84%.

Hadad said that rabbis are increasingly coming on board to promote vaccination, and surmised that low vaccination rates in some areas may also be due to people who had the virus and recovered — and are therefore ineligible for the vaccine — but were never registered in official stats because they took private tests.

“We thought it would be much, much harder to promote vaccines [to Haredim] and the rates would be much much lower,” said Hadad. “We are very happy. We see it as a very big success. The gap is not big, and it will close.”

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