Jews in South Florida concerned but not panicked over Zika virus crisis

Florida has 322 or 16% of all cases of travel associated Zika in US States, second only to New York.

Mosquito (illustrative). (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Mosquito (illustrative).
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
NEW YORK - With over 2000 cases of the Zika virus found in the United States and even more in US territories, particularly Puerto Rico, the virus has made headlines for months in the United States.
As the crisis grows, officials across the country have been calling on Congress to approve federal funding to tackle the mosquito-transmitted virus.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday his city needs federal help “so badly."
According to numbers reported by the national arboviral surveillance system ArboNET, 27% of the travel-associated cases of Zika in the US as of August 10th 2016 were found in New York, home to the largest Jewish community in the United States.
Florida is a close second with 322 or 16% of all cases of travel associated Zika in US States.
The Sunshine state however leads the nation when it comes to locally acquired cases of Zika: the six patients who have locally acquired the virus so far were all in South Florida.
As the region is home to some half a million Jews, Jewish organizations and religious leaders have been making sure to stay informed on the topic.
Rabbi Shmuel Gopin of the Chabad at Midtown Jewish center in the Wynwood section of Miami, told The Jerusalem Post that while his congregants are concerned about Zika, they have not changed their plans or the way they live in recent months.
“People still go outside, they haven't changed their plans of where and how they live, but it comes up in shul almost every time: what’s the update? Did they clear a little bit more of the neighborhood or not? But other than this, people are not so much concerned about it,” he said.
Chabad at Midtown is located within the perimeter designated by the Center for Disease Control as a Zika danger zone. The neighborhood has a particularly high rate of the infection, Earlier this month, a travel warning, advising pregnant women not to visit the Wynwood was even issued.
Head Rabbi of the modern orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue, Efrem Goldberg, also told the Post that while the question of Zika has been coming up with his congregation recently, he has not felt that his community is very worried about it.
“I wouldn't say that people are panicking over it,” he said. “Even with the cases that have happened in South Florida, it’s still something that remains very unlikely for a person to contract statistically.”
Last week, the Boca Raton Synagogue, attended by some 800 families including 175 doctors, put out a notice about Zika in their weekly newsletter detailing some of the precautions to be taken in order to avoid contracting the virus, including using mosquito repellent and getting rid of any standing water.
Making sure the religious Jewish community is aware of the effects of Zika, Rabbi Gopin of Chabad said, is very important.
“I find that we are not educated enough,” he said. “You can see that because we have a kosher bakery in the neighborhood called ‘Zak the Baker’ and they lost a lot of business because religious people would not come to visit the neighborhood as much.”
“And I’m talking about older people who do not have risks with Zika,” he continued. “It’s a lack of education.”
Rabbi Gopin said he has been researching the virus and reading up on the latest news so that he can better explain it to his community.
He added that the main concern they currently have is about the authorities spraying their neighborhood with anti-mosquito chemicals.
“The truth is people are divided about the spraying, because they spray very heavily here,” he told the Post. “They are divided as to whether its good or not . There are people who say that the consequences of the spraying is worse than the Zika virus and some are happier about it because it gives you some sense of protection.”
The Center for Disease Control has issued advice for people living in Florida and especially in the Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where the US locally transmitted cases are concentrated. The instructions especially focus on pregnant women, for whom Zika is most dangerous, as it can cause severe birth defects such as microcephaly, where babies are born with abnormally small heads.
The CDC advises pregnant women not to travel to South Florida, prevent mosquito bites, and be assessed for possible Zika virus exposure during each prenatal care visit. It is also advised to pregnant women to use protection when having sex with their partner during the pregnancy, as Zika can be sexually transmitted as well.
In addition, women with Zika should wait at least 8 weeks and men with Zika should wait at least 6 months after symptoms began to try to get pregnant.
Rabbi Goldberg told the Post the question of using condoms, has been brought up several times in his Orthodox congregation.
“The doctor told [some men] that because their wife is pregnant, if they were to be bitten by a mosquito and contract Zika, they could pass it on to her and the most vulnerable is obviously the fetus,” he said.  “So the doctor instructed them that they were not allowed to be together without the use of condoms to ensure that it wouldn’t be transmitted from him to her.”
“In the Orthodox community, generally condoms are not considered to be a legitimate form of birth control, even when birth control is allowed, so the Halacha question that was put forward is: would this be an exception because it’s for the well-being of the baby?” he explained
As a general rule, Goldberg said, “any time there is awareness of life-threatening or generally health-threatening illnesses, the Jewish law responds to be very vigilant and careful”
“We put a premium on well-being and safety,” he continued.
As local government representatives have been engaging in bipartisan efforts to get Congress, which is currently in summer recess, to allocate funding in order to fight the virus, Jewish organizations too have been advocating alongside them.
This includes the Orthodox Union of South Florida, which has met with Florida Congressman Ted Deutch last week to discuss the response to Zika.
Rabbi Judah Isaacs of the Orthodox Union said they have been “carefully looking into into the situation”.
“I think if the government intervenes quickly, we could find a vaccine or something that can help eradicate the virus,” he added.
Both Rabbis Goldberg in Boca Raton and Gopin in Wynwood told The Jerusalem Post that as religious leaders, they often finds themselves talking about health issues with their congregants.
“People definitely ask their questions,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “There are end of life questions, there are personal choices in terms of surgeries, elective surgeries, plastic surgeries.”
Health issues are in fact so prevalent that his synagogue has been organizing for a women’s health and Halacha day for the past couple of years. This year, they will be  introducing a men’s health and Halacha day as well.
“That’s what leadership is about. It’s about having your fingers on the pulse of the issues of the day are,” he explained. “We believe that the Torah and Judaism have a lot to say about all that is occurring and really should inform, inspire and guide our lives, certainly for something as important as our health and well being.”
Rabbi Gopin told the Post that oftentimes, rabbis play a key role in how a person who is ill will seek treatment.
“We are almost secondary to the doctor,” he said. “After they go to the doctor’s office, people come to us, and we try to help as much as we can.”
One of Rabbi Goldberg’s congregants in Boca Raton, Dr Borzack, who pushed for the synagogue to include the Zika notice in its latest newsletter, said he believes that the community should remain alert about Zika.
“Just like we are concerned about hurricanes, we should be concerned about Zika,” he told the Post.