'Did we steal anything? Is there any danger? We are helping'

Secret ultra-Orthodox program treating thousands of COVID patients at home

Organizer tells TV report private initiative is saving lives, alleviating pressure on hospitals; 170 unregistered serious patients mean tally is at 1,000

Oxygen concentrators used by a private ultra-Orthodox medical initiative treating coronavirus patients at their homes, without authorities' knowledge, October 2020. (Screenshot/Channel 12)
Oxygen concentrators used by a private ultra-Orthodox medical initiative treating coronavirus patients at their homes, without authorities' knowledge, October 2020. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

A widespread network of volunteers in ultra-Orthodox areas has reportedly been secretly treating thousands of coronavirus patients in their homes for months, as an alternative to increasingly overcrowded hospitals, without authorities’ knowledge.

The initiative began in anti-Zionist Haredi sects that wanted to avoid using Israeli hospitals, but has spread to the entire community as hospitals come closer to being overwhelmed, and their staff overworked, Channel 12 reported Sunday evening.

Organizers of the private initiative argue that their program provides better treatment than the medical establishment and lifts some of the burden off the health care system, and advocate a similar initiative outside of the ultra-Orthodox community.

At least 170 people bring treated by the secret volunteer network are in serious condition right now, and over 2,000 serious patients have received the underground treatment over the past six months, according to the report. Organizers claimed that only a total of 10-15 of its patients ended up going to hospitals, of whom just three — including one patient who was filmed by the Channel 12 crew last week — have died.

The network said that among those who have received the home treatment were several Haredi leaders, including the head of the major Belz Hasidic sect, who made a full recovery.

Footage from the headquarters of the initiative in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim showed much medical equipment and many COVID-19 test kits, with organizers telling the network that they had a total of 220 oxygen concentrators in several cities and towns.

“We only provide initial consultation, and we immediately send the [oxygen] saturation levels and blood pressure,” said an organizer, Yitzhak Markovich of the “Hasdei Amram” organization. “A doctor and a nurse come to their homes to take blood samples, and we transfer the samples to a legal lab. There are two labs working with us.”

Markovich showed a list of 170 patients currently in need of medical equipment, adding that the state does not know about them and that some 330 others in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Modiin Illit and Elad who require no more than medication to treat the symptoms are not registered anywhere.

He assessed that the 170 people on the list would be deemed by hospitals to be in serious condition, which would mean that Israel in fact has almost 1,000 serious COVID-19 patients, not 824 as reported Sunday by the Health Ministry.

He said the doctors decide when hospitalization cannot be avoided.

A man being treated by a private ultra-Orthodox medical initiative treating coronavirus patients at their homes, without authorities knowledge, October 2020. (Screenshot: Channel 12)

Channel 12 filmed a volunteer visiting the home of several elderly men in serious condition, including a 76-year-old man who was visited three to four times a day by health workers, could not speak and had trouble breathing for several days.

He refused to go to the hospital, with his family claiming that would be very dangerous and that the treatment received there would be lacking, due to the overloaded system and because he would be separated from his family.

Channel 12 said the man was ultimately taken to the hospital against his will after his condition deteriorated, and that he died there hours after they filmed him.

The doctors taking part in the project, all from established medical institutions, refused to be named publicly.

One of them said, “I, as a doctor, treat human beings. Our goal is not to help people circumvent the law. Our goal is to help the system and take some off the load off it. There is no issue here of a ‘state within a state.'”

However, ultra-Orthodox organizers think differently.

“There is an autonomy here, so what?” one said. “Did we steal anything? Is there any danger? We are just helping. People are recovering and almost no one is dying, so people can say what they want, I see this as saving lives.”

Hospital workers in protective gear are seen in the coronavirus ward at Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed on October 7, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

An estimated 7,000 Israelis currently have in their homes oxygen devices belonging to the Yad Sarah medical aid volunteer group, its director-general Moshe Cohen told Army Radio on Thursday, enabling home hospitalization.

Cohen argued that without Yad Sarah, the health care system would be overwhelmed. Yad Sarah provides medical equipment to many in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Health Ministry figures published Sunday evening put the number of Israelis confirmed to have the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic at 290,493, including 59,854 active cases. The nation’s death toll rose to 1,980.

It said 824 serious patients are being treated in hospitals, including 230 on ventilators. Another 303 are in moderate condition and the rest have mild or no symptoms.

The ministry said 888 cases were confirmed Saturday out of 12,238 tests conducted, a positive rate of 7.3 percent — a number that has been steadily declining, after hovering around 15% late last month.

Testing levels are typically significantly lower on weekends. On weekdays, some 50,000-60,000 tests are carried out every day, resulting in thousands of new daily cases.

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