Coronavirus testing centers open in Bnei Brak

Residents of ultra-Orthodox cities diverted from ER of major Israeli hospital

Arriving at Sheba Medical Center, people from virus hotspots Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit and Elad reportedly to be taken straight to side area for treatment, unlike rest of population

Illustrative: Beds at a new coronavirus critical care unit at Sheba Medical Center (Courtesy)
Illustrative: Beds at a new coronavirus critical care unit at Sheba Medical Center (Courtesy)

Residents of predominantly ultra-Orthodox cities with large numbers of coronavirus cases are to be diverted from the emergency room at Sheba Medical Center, just outside Tel Aviv, and treated in an isolated area, according to a Tuesday report that cited an internal directive at Israel’s largest hospital.

The rule applies to residents of Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit and Elad, and other places, the Walla news site report said, even if there was no known exposure to the virus or symptoms of the COVID-19 disease it causes.

There has been a spike in virus cases in some ultra-Orthodox communities where hardline sects have resisted government directives shutting synagogues, schools, and other houses of study. While some rabbinical leaders initially dismissed the concerns over the virus, most have since urged their followers to adhere to Health Ministry rules.

According to the report, patients from those towns and cities seeking emergency medical care are to be screened before entering Sheba’s ER.

“When I see a Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] person, I immediately think he has the coronavirus,” a senior health official told Walla. “This is the right thing to do, it is our obligation to do it this way.”

Information poster about the coronavirus (COVID-19) seen in the an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak on March 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

According to the hospital directive, sent out earlier this week, there are six primary risk sources for exposure to the virus: people who have had contact with someone confirmed to have the disease, those returning from abroad, patients from the Palestinian Authority, people who have already been admitted to the hospital, people who recently received medical treatment, and ultra-Orthodox residents of the listed cities.

Thus, any person from one of the high-incident cities will be automatically defined as a risk.

Those in the other listed categories in the directive are to be handled in a similar way at the hospital, which abuts Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv.

The health official, who was not named in the report, told Walla that in his opinion ultra-Orthodox visitors to the hospital — not those seeking treatment — who come from virus hotspots should not be granted entry to the facility.

“We have to protect everyone,” he said.

The official, who is in favor of a total lockdown of the worst-hit ultra-Orthodox communities, said that infection rates among the ultra-Orthodox are around 20 times higher than the rest of the population.

“The prevalence of the disease in the general population is at the level of one in a thousand,” he said. “For a hospital worker, the chances of him [having the disease] goes up to one percent — ten times as much. If he comes from an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood it is already two percent. So shouldn’t we be careful?”

It was not clear if he was referring to the general ultra-Orthodox community or just those in areas where the virus outbreak has been particularly bad.

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing, as a preventive measure against the coronavirus seen as they evacuating a man with suspicion for coronavirus at Shaarei Tsedek hospital in Jerusalem on March 30, 2020 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

A Sheba Medical Center spokesperson implicitly confirmed the report, telling The Times of Israel that the hospital has a policy of screening all patients who arrive from virus hotspots, religious or secular, and that there is no specific discrimination against ultra-Orthodox patients.

“There is no separation — religious and secular are treated the same,” he said. “If you come from a hotspot we work to keep those people together. If a non-religious person came from Bnei Brak he would be treated the same way.”

The spokesperson noted that any person who wants to be treated at an Israeli hospital has to provide some form of identification, which includes their place of residence. Staff also routinely check details of where the person has arrived from, he noted.

“Every hospital is checking people for hotspots,” he said.

At Sheba, patients arriving at the ER from any virus hotspot are taken to a side area away from the general public to be checked by medical staff. Only a doctor can order an immediate COVID-19 test, and that is done on a case-by-case basis, the spokesman said.

The Haaretz daily quoted health officials as saying that the Sheba policy of diverting virus hotspot patients on arrival at the ER unit will soon be implemented at all hospitals. The report said that Sheba was quick off the mark with the system because it has received so many patients from Bnei Brak.

On Tuesday morning four testing and treatment stations opened in the overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox city, along with a Magen David Adom ambulance service mobile drive-thru test area.

An Israeli man comes to get checked at a Magen David Adom national emergency service drive through complex in Bnei Brak on March 31, 2020 (Flash90)

The Health Ministry said in a statement that its director-general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, had ordered the country’s four public health funds to each make available a clinic in the city for testing and treatment of those with symptoms of the disease, such as fever, coughing, and difficulty breathing.

The four sites are a Clalit clinic at 83 Rabbi Akiva Street, a Maccabi clinic at 64 Harav Kahaneman Street, a Meuhedet clinic at 9 Avnei Nezer Street, and a Leumit clinic at 89 Hazon Ish Street.

Patients seeking treatment at the clinics must call ahead to coordinate their arrival, the ministry said.

On Monday, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is Orthodox, asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a quarantine on Bnei Brak.

According to a report from Channel 12 news, Litzman wants police to control the entrance and exit from the city, and also to provide food and essential products to residents to keep them at home. Sources close to the minister believe that the residents of Bnei Brak will cooperate with the move. A spokesperson for Litzman confirmed the report.

Bnei Brak has seen the second-highest number of infections in the country, according to Health Ministry figures, after only Jerusalem, where the coronavirus has also spread through the ultra-Orthodox community.

The city, east of Tel Aviv, is one of the most densely populated in the world, with 198,863 residents crammed in at over 27,000 people per square kilometer, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Police patrol the ultra-Orthodox Jewish town of Bnei Brak, on March 30, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

According to unofficial figures cited by the two leading Israeli news channels on Sunday, ultra-Orthodox patients make up around half the coronavirus patients being treated in various major hospitals around the country, despite making up just 10 percent of the population.

Officials have attributed the high infection rates to a lack of adherence to Health Ministry guidelines (there have been many reports of large gatherings taking place in those communities for weddings, prayer services and other events in spite of announced restrictions), the crowded conditions in many ultra-Orthodox communities, and a lack of access by many to media and communication means.

As of Tuesday morning Israel had 4,831 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to Health Ministry figures.

Of them, 83 people are in serious condition, including 69 who have been put on ventilators. Another 95 are in moderate condition, according to the ministry.

The vast majority — 4,473 — display only light symptoms, and 163 have fully recovered from the disease, the ministry said. Eighteen people have died.

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