Synagogues top coronavirus hotspot list, epidemiological report finds

Analysis of known infection points inside Israel assigns prayer houses the largest slice of the pie, followed by shopping centers, restaurants, hotels, yeshivas and medical clinics

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Jewish men pray outside a synagogue while maintaining social distancing as part of the campaign against the coronavirus outbreak, in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, on March 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish men pray outside a synagogue while maintaining social distancing as part of the campaign against the coronavirus outbreak, in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, on March 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Synagogues have been the top places for spreading the coronavirus in Israel, with infections in prayer houses accounting for nearly a quarter of known cases not brought in from abroad or contracted at home, according to a report published Tuesday.

Hotels, restaurants, shopping sites, yeshivas and even medical clinics also featured atop the list prepared by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, a government body of researchers that is an advisory group to the Health Ministry and the Home Front Command.

The report was based on an analysis of people who were found to be infected in Israel as a result of being in contact with a known patient, amounting to 35% of those in the country who were diagnosed with the virus by the time the report was compiled on March 22 (another 47% were infected abroad, 5% were infected at home by a household member, and for 13% the source is not known).

Researchers found that 24% of cases where the point of infection was known caught the disease in synagogues. In the worst incident, 17 people were infected in one synagogue.

An Israeli man walks past closed stores in the empty Mamila Mall in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

According to the report, hotels were the next on the list, with 15% of the total. Restaurants accounted for another 12%, supermarkets 7%, various other stores 7%, and yeshivas 5%.

Another 5% were infected in medical clinics, the report said.

Taken together, these places accounted for 75% of cases.

Researchers concluded that the epidemiological research should continue in order to “build an accurate picture that enables taking informed decisions to reduce the spread of the virus.”

They also noted that increasing the number of tests among the public for the virus, along with strict quarantine measures, would enable an easing of lockdown policies that have seen Israelis ordered to remain at home, only venturing out to go to work or purchase essential items.

The researchers pointed to South Korea saying strict isolation policies and active identification of those infected with the disease has halted a spread of the virus, without resorting to a lockdown of the population. The approach contrasts with that of the Health Ministry, which has reportedly been pushing for a total lockdown including halting public transportation and strictly limiting the time citizens can spend at leisure out of their homes, as well as the distance from the premises.

In response to the report the Ashkenazi and Sephardic chief rabbis of Israel swiftly issued a clarification that prayer services, which usually require a quorum of ten men, may only be held if the service can abide by Health Ministry guidelines limiting the gathering to just ten, and that all participants maintain a distance of at least two meters from each other, the Srugim website reported.

More than 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews defy Health Ministry coronavirus warnings and take part in a wedding in the city of Beit Shemesh on March 17, 2020 (Screen capture: Channel 12)

Among the strict measures taken so far to limit public life, the Health Ministry has ordered the country’s education institutes and recreation sites closed, as well as banning gatherings of more than 10 people, except in a handful of specific cases.

There has been concern among health officials that many in the ultra-Orthodox community are not adhering to the orders with prayer services and weddings continuing as usual, as well as yeshivas remaining open.

On Tuesday morning the Health Ministry said there were 1,656 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, up 214 from Monday night.

So far, 49 people have recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the ministry said in its morning update. Two people have died.

Over 71,000 Israelis are in quarantine, down from nearly 75,000 reported on Monday morning. In total, over 135,000 have spent time in self-isolation, almost 6,000 more than the number reported on Monday morning.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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