New York Orthodox Jewish Community Lacks Necessary Test Kits to Combat Coronavirus

Testing tents set up for the community quickly ran out of tests, only sporadically receiving more: 'Everyone wants to get tested, but we just can't'

Medical workers serving the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, which has become an epicenter for the spread of the coronavirus, are overworked and lack the necessary test kits to properly check members of the community.

“We are being [flooded] by hundreds of calls from people wanting to get tested, everyone wants to get tested, but we just can’t,” Gershon Schlesinger, CEO of the ParCare Medical Centers in Brooklyn, told Haaretz on Monday. “I wish we would get these kits thate the president has announced that he is going to get, millions of test kits, but that hasn’t materialized. So at the moment, we can only do what we can do,” he said, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise to provide large numbers of test kits to medical providers.

Since last Sunday, Schlesinger’s medical centers have set up three COVID-19 testing tents: One in Williamsburg, another on Bay Parkway near Borough Park and Bonsonhurst in Brooklyn, and a third center in the Orthodox Jewish village of Kyrias Joel, north of New York City. While most of the patients showing up to the testing tents are Orthodox Jews, the one on Bay Parkway has a more diverse attendance, Schlesinger said.

“We’ve tested well over a thousand [people], and we had to limit it to elderly over 60 or anyone who had severe symptoms,” he added.

The medical teams started with over 1000 testing kits, spread between the three testing sites at the onset of the outbreak, Schlesinger said. They have since run out of tests, according to Schlesinger, and are “just getting like 50 kits here and there each day.”

“Since we’ve only tested those with symptoms, the possibility of them having it was very high, as it was with the high-risk population, over 60,” he said. “But it seems to me right now that about 20 to 25 percent [test] positive,” Schlesinger said, noting that because it takes 72 hours to get results, they do not have the full data yet.

Schlesinger said that several members of the Orthodox community with pre-existing conditions had passed away from COVID-19. One of them was a 102-year-old Holocaust survivor of the Satmar Orthodox Jewish sect in Williamsburg. Liba Ettel Silberstein leaves behind some 1,200 grand and great grandchildren, according to her great grandson Moshe Klein.

After being tested at one of the three tents, suspected patients are sent home with a letter detailing the process for receiving their results and explaining that they must stay in quarantine for 14 days.

“I really feel that if people heed the quarantine and stay home, I hope it’s going to peak in about a week or two,” Schlesinger said. “I hope that the test kits arrive in big numbers and the curve will go down instead of up.”

The COVID-19 testing tent in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, March 2020.
Gershon Schlesinger