Four in 10 people diagnosed with coronavirus are haredi

Death toll hits 1,600 • Netanyahu warns restrictions could be tightened already on Monday

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman crosses a street with her children in Bnei Brak, a town badly affected by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), and which Israel declared a "restricted zone" due to its high rate of infections, near Tel Aviv, Israel April 5, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman crosses a street with her children in Bnei Brak, a town badly affected by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), and which Israel declared a "restricted zone" due to its high rate of infections, near Tel Aviv, Israel April 5, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) make up around 40% of people diagnosed with coronavirus each day in Israel, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the coronavirus commissioner, said on Thursday.
Gamzu shared this statistic while speaking at a press briefing the same day that Israel hit 1,600 fatalities from the virus, and senior officials said that the population is not abiding by directives.
Among the sick are more than 5,000 yeshiva students aged between 17 and 24, according to Roni Numa, the coronavirus coordinator for the ultra-Orthodox community. He added that 95% of them were isolated either at their yeshivas or in coronavirus hotels.
However, he noted that the infection rate among those aged over 65, a high-risk group for COVID-19 complications, has doubled in the ultra-Orthodox sector and this could lead to a spike in the mortality rate among the community.
The latest data shows that the rate of infections in ultra-Orthodox society over the age of 60 is more than 1.5 times higher than their rate in the population, and that the proportion of adults aged 60 from the ultra-Orthodox community who contracted the virus last week was about 5%.
Ultra-Orthodox people aged over 60 account for about 3% of the population. The ultra-Orthodox make up about 12% Israel’s population.
As these numbers started to circulate on Thursday, several people came to the haredi public’s defense, including head of Public Health, Sharon Alroy-Preis. Speaking to KAN News, she said that the ministry has been meeting with leading figures in the ultra-Orthodox sector “trying to see how we can get information and what assistance we can give. It is difficult to do home isolation when you are with 12 people in a 70-square-meter apartment.”
Later, Interior Minister Arye Deri claimed that “there is no other community that is as disciplined as the haredi community,” in an interview with Channel 12. “I am only guilty that I did not manage to convince you that most of the haredi public listens to the directives,” he added.
But Deri’s words contradicted several scenes captured on Thursday that showed haredim in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood throwing stones at police officers who came to enforce directives, for example, or synagogues with worshipers packed inside. Police said they shut down three synagogues across the country that broke the regulations.
“It is an injustice to the Hassidic public - locking their synagogues,” Deri stressed.
Gamzu said during his briefing that the problem was not only among the haredim. There are complexities among the Arabs and the general population, he said. As such, “we must keep our finger on the pulse.”
On Thursday, the Health Ministry reported that 9,013 people were diagnosed with coronavirus the day before, plus more than 5,000 additional cases were found between midnight and press time. The number of serious patients stood at 817, with 186 intubated.
The IDF reported that as of Thursday, 1168 soldiers and other IDF employees have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. The report also stated that there are 12,700 IDF soldiers currently in quarantine.
The numbers, Gamzu said, “did not surprise me” and were a result of communal prayers and gatherings on Rosh Hashanah. He added that there is also an increase in testing – Israel screened more than 70,000 people on Wednesday for the first time – with a goal of reaching 90,000 per day in the coming days.
The commissioner defended the government’s decision to enact a closure, explaining that the infection rate spiked very quickly, from around 1,500 to 1,700 new cases per day at the start of last month to where Israel is today.
“You all know I did not want this,” he stressed, but reminded that the hospitals raised a red flag and the country needed to react.
However, the numbers do not yet reflect a decrease in infection and part of the reason is that the public is not adhering to the directives. There is much more traffic on the roads during this closure than the first and buses appear full. The Finance Ministry reported that the economy is operating at around 50%.
“The lockdown does not really exist,” senior officials were reported as saying by Channel 12. “People are leaving their homes, making excuses and are not really afraid of getting caught. It has become a joke. We cannot manage this way.”
The military has reinforced the Homefront Command with some 3,500 troops and another 3,000 reservists. An additional 1,450 troops and reservists are assisting authorities in red zones on behalf of the Homefront Command and 1,000 soldiers are assisting the Israel Police.
But in a Thursday briefing, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said, “it is difficult for me to say that assistance in enforcement is highly effective.”
On Tuesday night, the Israeli military decided not to place soldiers at police checkpoints in order to help enforce the lockdown in Jerusalem.
The coronavirus cabinet is expected to meet on Monday to discuss next steps based on new data. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a Facebook Live session on Thursday that, “if the closure does not seem to work well enough - we will tighten it. On Monday we will decide. It will be determined by data and not arbitrarily or whimsically. We are at war. In a difficult war against the virus.”
“Without the onset of a decrease in morbidity, it is impossible to say how long [the closure] will last,” Gamzu said Thursday. “An exit date has not yet been determined.”
He added that “anyone who thinks that after the holidays the closure will end and that it is OK to gather in the meantime” is mistaken. “This is not the time to endanger all of us.”
While on the one hand the government is talking about a tighter lockdown, on the other there is already discussion of an exit strategy and when Israel might open up again. Blue and White and the Finance Ministry are pressuring the government to allow more of the private sector to operate and to reopen preschools.
During Wednesday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting, Gamzu presented a plan that allows opening up based on data and not dates.
The metric that the ministry is recommending is that when the reproduction number (R) – the number of people that one infected person will pass on the virus to – reaches an average of 0.8 or less, restrictions can be reduced. When it is 0.8 to 1.1, the status quo will be maintained, and when it rises above 1.1, restrictions will be tightened.
The ministry wants a three-week gap between phase one and phase two – as opposed to the expected two weeks – to better gauge its impact on the rate of infection.
Will Gamzu stay on to see his plans come to fruition?
Gamzu took on the role of commissioner only through November 1.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that he does not “hide my view that I hope Ronni Gamzu stays after November 1. He is the right guy at the right time.”
When asked by The Jerusalem Post whether he would consider extending his tenure, Gamzu replied: “If Minister Edelstein asks… Edelstein has taken on a difficult and obligatory role. He acts diligently, faithfully and  honestly.”
But sources in the know have said that it is unlikely that Gamzu will choose to continue.
Annah Ahronheim contributed to this report.