Residents of virus hotspot Bnei Brak to be randomly tested — report
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Residents of virus hotspot Bnei Brak to be randomly tested — report

Mobileye founder Amnon Shashua said to hold talks with leading rabbi in ultra-Orthodox city to get support for move, in bid to better gauge spread

Ultra-Orthodox Jews some wearing face masks line up to buy eggs, in Bnei Brak, Israel, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews some wearing face masks line up to buy eggs, in Bnei Brak, Israel, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

The Health Ministry will conduct some 1,500 random coronavirus tests for residents of Bnei Brak starting Friday, Channel 12 news reported Thursday evening.

Until now, coronavirus tests have been conducted under criteria set by the Health Ministry, but there are concerns that figures in Bnei Brak could be far higher than the 1,594 cases of infection reported by the ministry on Thursday.

According to the report, tech entrepreneur and Hebrew University professor Amnon Shashua spoke shortly before Passover with the daughter of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a prominent leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak, to gain his blessing for the project.

Shashua, founder and CEO of Mobileye and Senior Vice President of Intel, is an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the coronavirus crisis and on formulating an exit strategy from the pandemic.

Amnon Shashua, co-founder and chairman of Mobileye, is seen at a Science Committee meeting in the Knesset, June 04, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Channel 12 said that the project would be carried out by the volunteer emergency medical organization United Hatzalah together with the Weizmann Institute and Kama-Tech, a program that facilitates integration of ultra-Orthodox into the hi-tech sector.

Bnei Brak, a city of 200,000 people, has almost as many confirmed cases as Jerusalem, where 1,630 people have been confirmed positive for the virus, with a population over four times larger.

Health officials believe the true number to be several times higher, and have expressed concerns that some in the city may have avoided getting tested out of fear of being isolated away from their families over the Passover holiday.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew prays during a lockdown following measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, April 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Some residents of Bnei Brak expressed unhappiness with the plan, complaining that it would make it look like Bnei Brak had yet higher numbers of confirmed cases than the rest of the country.

“In every city where they do 1,500 random samples, the numbers will shoot up. They realize the closure of Bnei Brak is unjustified, and are doing everything to keep us in this terrible lockdown,” one resident told the B’Hadrei Haredim ultra-Orthodox news website.

Bnei Brak has been under full lockdown since last Friday, with entry and exit permitted only to those working in essential industries and persons requiring medical treatment not available within the city.

Some have pointed to the model of only placing harsh lockdown measures on areas with larger outbreaks as a blueprint for attempting to roll back virus restrictions and return to the economy to some semblance of normalcy.

On Tuesday, ahead of Passover Eve, the rest of the country was also put under full lockdown, with residents forced to stay in their hometowns until Friday.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew crosses a mainly deserted street because of the government’s measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

In an apparent public spat between top government officials Thursday, Health Ministry leaders were quoted by multiple media outlets calling for an extension to the city closures, only for the idea to be shot down by officials in the Finance Ministry soon afterwards.

Reports on major networks Channel 12 and Channel 13 news, as well as the Ynet news site, said top officials in the Health Ministry were seeking to extend the severe lockdown barring intercity travel until after the Passover holiday ends on April 15.

Ynet later said that Netanyahu would chair a discussion later Thursday on continuing the specific restrictions on Bnei Brak, which were originally also supposed to end Friday morning at 6:00 a.m., with the rest of the country said set to return to partial lockdown restrictions in place before Passover Eve.

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