U.S. Orthodox Jews Rush to Donate Plasma as States Push for More Antibody Testing

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Members of the Orthodox Jewish community in the New York region donating plasma in Delaware, which had the capacity to accept donations.
Members of the Orthodox Jewish community in the New York region donating plasma in Delaware, which had the capacity to accept donations.Credit: Chaim Lebovits

Thousands of Orthodox Jews from the New York and New Jersey areas who have recovered from COVID-19 and tested positive for antibodies are now donating their plasma to help fight the pandemic, as New York state becomes increasingly focused on the question of immunity. 

“Testing is what we are compulsively, obsessively focused on now – both diagnostic testing and antibody testing,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in his daily briefing on Saturday, which marked the 35th day since the state was put “on pause.”

An average of about 20,000 tests are currently being conducted every day in the state, but with help from the federal government Cuomo said he hopes to reach a daily average of 40,000 tests. 

Antibody tests, which may indicate immunity to COVID-19, are being prioritized for essential workers such as front-line health care professionals at four New York City hospitals, MTA and transit workers, as well as NYPD officers and the New York State Police. 

One of the people behind the Orthodox community’s effort to donate plasma is Chaim Lebovits, an Orthodox resident of Monsey, New York, who was approached in mid-March by a group of doctors asking for help. 

“I called a couple of rabbis in Monsey and explained to them what these doctors told me. They actually sent out messages to their congregants, to tell them that anyone who had [COVID-19] and has been symptom-free for 14 days is obligated to go test themselves to see if they have antibodies – and if they do, they should go donate, even during chag [holiday] or Shabbat,” Lebovits told Haaretz in a phone interview. 

The Orthodox community in the United States has been disproportionately hit by the coronavirus. Although New York does not track fatalities by religion, Hasidic media outlets reported last week that some 700 members of that community alone had died from COVID-19.

The impact has mostly been attributed to denser living situations in Orthodox neighborhoods, as well as large events that took place during the Purim holiday in early March before social distancing guidelines were published. 

According to Lebovits, some 3,500 Orthodox Jews from areas including New York City, Rockland County, Orange County and Long Island, as well as Lakewood in New Jersey, have donated convalescent plasma to organizations such as the New York Blood Center, the American Red Cross and Vitalant.

A Hatzalah medic drawing blood from a man in Brooklyn to test for antibodies against the coronavirus. Credit: Chaim Lebovits

The effort has been so successful that some local blood banks were full to capacity and could not take any more donations.

“This week, we are sending about 100 people to Pennsylvania because there is a local blood bank there” that needs plasma, he added. 

“Donating plasma isn’t like donating blood – it’s not a 10-minute thing. Depending on the machine, it can take 45 minutes, an hour and a half,” Lebovits explained. “I’m getting the sense that people feel they’re potentially saving lives by going through this discomfort, this weakness maybe for a day. But if this can save someone else’s life, we feel obligated to do it.”

Lebovits hasn’t slept much this past month, and when he does he keeps his phone by his side “just in case” someone from the hospital calls needing any help. Since the shoe wholesaler is not an essential worker, he has fully immersed himself in the effort to collect plasma, and helps hospitalized patients with their needs. 

The Orthodox community has been the subject of much criticism in recent weeks after media reports focused on the few community members not complying with social distancing rules. Many felt the reports generalized the community and even fanned the flames of anti-Semitism. But when his efforts were first reported in The Forward last week, Lebovits wasn’t looking for any publicity, he told Haaretz. Although getting the word out about the plasma donations may be good public relations for Orthodox communities, “that would be secondary,” he said. 

“I did not expect it to hit the media. The Forward got it somewhere from my Twitter [account]. That wasn’t the intent,” he said. “Does it bother me? No, but I don’t think anyone donating had the intent to get a positive story out of it.”

The number of hospitalizations in New York and New Jersey, two of the states with the largest Jewish communities in the United States, has been on the decline in recent days. During Saturday’s briefing, Cuomo said New York is now down to 13,524 COVID-19 hospitalizations, which places the state back at the point it was 21 days ago. On Friday, 1,100 new coronavirus patients were hospitalized, also a decline from the previous few days.. 

“Only in this crazy reality would 1,100 new cases be good news,” Cuomo said, adding that he would like to see the number drop to between 200 and 400 new cases a day. 

As of Friday at 10 P.M., there were 6,722 people in New Jersey hospitalized for COVID-19, showing consecutive decreases since Thursday, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in his Saturday briefing. 

But both governors have also warned against too much optimism at this stage, urging people to continue practicing social distancing and staying home, despite warm spring weather starting to kick in. “There will be many more beautiful spring days ahead, and I want us to be able to enjoy them together,” Murphy said. 

The number of deaths due to the coronavirus in New York state reached 16,599 as of Saturday, and in New Jersey it stands at 5,863. 

“We’ve lost more New Jerseyans to coronavirus than we lost in World War I, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined,” Murphy said. “When we say we’re in a war, we mean it. This is literally a war.”

Cuomo last week extended the state’s “New York on pause” order to May 15. 

The past month and a half in quarantine has not been easy for Lebovits and his community in Monsey.

“It has been extremely difficult for me for several reasons: I have parents that obviously are locked in at home that I usually see everyday – it’s difficult to convince them to stay at home for their own safety; I’ve lost a brother to cancer a couple of weeks ago, so that isn’t easy for me either,” he said. “But I feel I’ve been put in a unique situation to help people, and I feel that I have to fulfill that obligation.”

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