Testing Stalls as Cases Rise in ultra-Orthodox Enclaves

Members of the community with symptoms are turning to back channels to get tested: 'They told me to wait a few days until we get to you. But we realized that if we wait they might get to him too late'

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Police enforce Health Ministry guidelines in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim.
Police enforce Health Ministry guidelines in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim.Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

When Y. landed in Israel, he was certain he would be tested for the coronavirus. After all, he had arrived directly from one of the main virus hotspots, Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York. But nobody asked him anything, not even when he coughed and showed symptoms. He was directed to go into isolation in his home in Modi’in Ilit together with his wife and four children. Last Monday, when his condition worsened, he called Magen David Adom and asked to be tested. “They told me ‘wait a few days until we get to you.’ But we realized that if we wait they might get to him too late,” Y.’s son said.

The son wasted no time. He turned to one of the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community, who went to an aide of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. The aide in turn went straight to the head of Magen David Adom. A few hours later a Magen David Adom team showed up at Y.’s house. By Y. was so obviously sick that no test was needed, and he was immediately taken to the hospital, where he was tested.

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But then the hospital said it wanted to release Y. right away. “They called us and said, ‘come and pick up your father,’” the son said. “We don’t understand how they could release him; after all, he has the symptoms and comes from the world’s number one hotspot. But the doctor said there was only a slight suspicion of coronavirus,” the son added. Nothing the family could say made any difference, and Y. had to go home.

On Friday he collapsed and was hospitalized at Sheba Hospital, Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv. His condition is now stable. His wife, who was with him the entire time he was home, asked to be tested and was also told to wait. Once again, the son went to Litzman’s aides and the test was carried out this week within a few hours. The family is still waiting for the results. Y.’s story can illustrate the chain of apparent failures of the authorities in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, particularly when it comes to the ultra-Orthodox community.

In conversations with local authority officials in ultra-Orthodox enclaves, where according to numbers reported in Haaretz the coronavirus is spreading particularly rapidly with hundreds of new cases every day, Y.’s case is apparently no exception. In the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, a municipal official said he knows of “entire apartment buildings where people with symptoms are waiting to be tested,” adding, “My phone doesn’t stop ringing and people are asking, begging for me to help move up the test.”

The lack of available testing at people’s homes has led to some officials using connections in the Health Ministry to shorten the wait. “I have to make a selection and decide who I help and who I leave to deal with it by themselves. I feel it’s unpleasant already but I have no choice,” the official said.

The official said he has even begun to receive requests from outside of Jerusalem. “People from Modi’in Ilit are asking me to move up their test. The situation is serious,” he told Haaretz. According to a number of officials in Modi’in Ilit, the problems there are similar.

“A woman came to us whose husband and four children tested positive,” Miri Taviovitz of Modi’in, the founder of a grassroots group of residents to help each other during the coronavirus crisis, said. “Her husband was taken to the Sharon Hospital in moderate condition. The wife is at home without a car, and she has symptoms and she recently had surgery for a brain tumor. She asked us to help because Magen David Adom said it would take time before they got there to test her. We went to one of Litzman’s people and five minutes later he took care of it. That’s just one example,” Taviovitz said.

According to Taviovitz, many people find themselves waiting so long to be tested that they just give up. “They heard from others that it takes time so they don’t even ask,” she says, adding that she knows of dozens of such cases.

The Health Ministry has begun to recognize the problem over the past few days, and has decided to increase the number of tests in ultra-Orthodox enclaves. At this point it seems that the main solution proposed, to do the tests at HMOs in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, has not happened, and the ministry has not been able to meet the demand.

Taviovitz says the municipality is indifferent to the situation. “I’m in touch with all the communities and sub-communities in Modi’in Ilit and three weeks ago I realized that we’re facing a major challenge,” she says, explaining her reasons for establishing her new community assistance group.

“I turned to the mayor and other officials in the municipality and told them that we have to increase awareness. Most people didn’t even know what the coronavirus was, and certainly not how to protect themselves. Their response was ‘we don’t want to cause unnecessary panic. The mayor doesn’t want to.’ One of them even said ‘in any case everyone will be infected in the end.’ When I saw this I realized they would not save us and I decided to take action myself. If they want to, they’ll join, if not, then not.”

In response to this report, The Modi’in Ilit municipality said: “The most recent and precise information on these question is in the hands of the Health Ministry. They should be approached for answers.”

Taviovitz published an ad and within two days her group had 70 volunteers. “At first when there was no awareness of the virus people looked at me like I was crazy and over-anxious. But we kept at it. One of the local newspaper editors took it on himself to publish the ad and we were on our way.” Taviovitz now fields some 200 “building coordinators,” volunteers responsible for their apartment building and one nearby, who cover almost the entire city.

The Health Ministry did not respond to this report.

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