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Health official says 75,000 Bnei Brak residents likely have coronavirus

A top health official told a Knesset panel Thursday that nearly 40 percent of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak has contracted the coronavirus, a far higher figure than the current number of confirmed cases in the ultra-Orthodox city.

Dr. Ran Saar, who runs the Maccabi health maintenance organization, said according to his group’s projections the Tel Aviv suburb of 200,000 residents was harboring tens of thousands of hidden cases that had not been confirmed by testing and called for government action to prevent an even larger outbreak during the Passover holiday.

“Maccabi treats half of the residents of Bnei Brak, and according to various indicators, some 38% of Bnei Brak residents are sick,” Saar told the Knesset’s special coronavirus committee.

The claim would put the number of sick in Bnei Brak at around 75,000, much higher than the 900 confirmed cases there, according to official Health Ministry data.

Maccabi is one of four major state-subsidized HMOs, and has a particularly large presence in Bnei Brak. Saar did not elaborate on the data he had to back up his claim, though officials around the world fear that most coronavirus cases go undetected.

Bnei Brak has the second highest number of confirmed cases of any Israeli city, though it is the ninth largest in the country by population. Per capita, its infection numbers are four times higher than Jerusalem, the most infected city.

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, who chairs the committee, clarified that Saar was referring specifically to the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

“I call on all the responsible offices to deploy the police ahead of the Passover holiday. Otherwise the situation will get worse. Bnei Brak is a city with a large population of elderly, and we will find ourselves with many, many more dead in Bnei Brak if we do not prepare,” he said.

Officials have attempted to step up testing in the city, but Shelah said some residents may be avoiding getting tested in order to not have to isolate during Passover.

“From different healthcare providers, it appears the ultra-Orthodox public is afraid of getting tested before Passover, and the decisions on the matter at the government level are lacking and are influenced by political considerations,” Shelah said, apparently referring to the government’s hesitation to place a cordon around the city.

Authorities have upped enforcement in recent days of social distancing regulations in Bnei Brak and other ultra-Orthodox areas, where some have flouted rules against congregating or leaving home for non-essential reasons. Officials are looking at ways to reduce the outbreak in Bnei Brak in particular, where Health Ministry data earlier this week showed one in three residents tested for the coronavirus have been found to carry it. The high percentage of positive tests compared to 6% in Tel Aviv and 10% in Jerusalem.

This week four public health clinics in the city were tasked with testing and treating virus patients, and a Magen David Adom mobile virus testing unit was also sent in.

On Wednesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced strict limitations on travel in and out of Bnei Brak as part of new directives to stop the spread of the pandemic.

“We have decided to limit to the bare minimum the entrances and exits from the city,” he said, adding that all sick people in the city will be evacuated to special medical hotels in an attempt to stop family members from infecting one another.

The coronavirus has rapidly spread among ultra-Orthodox communities with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is ultra-Orthodox and lives in Jerusalem, confirmed on Thursday to have COVID-19. The minister, 71, is said to only have mild symptoms of the disease. His wife is also infected.

A Health Ministry breakdown of coronavirus cases by city published Thursday morning showed that the number of patients in Bnei Brak jumped by 173 in the past 24 hours, an increase of nearly 25%.

Outside of Bnei Brak, the national rate of increase is around 11%, ministry figures show.

Several other ultra-Orthodox towns and cities have also shown sharp increases, among them Modiin Illit, which saw nine new cases for a total of 70, an increase of 18%, and Elad which climbed from 79 cases to 106, an increase of 35%. The cities have populations of 73,000 and 46,000 respectively.

Jerusalem, which also has a large ultra-Orthodox community, has the nighest number of coronavirus patients in the country. As of Thursday morning there were 916 cases, a climb of 109 from the day before for the city with 875,000 residents.

Tel Aviv, which has a population of 450,000, was third on the virus hotspot list with 324 cases, up 23 from the day before, an increase of 8%. The next most infected city is Ashkelon, with 151 cases, up 27 — 21% — from Wednesday.

Haifa showed no increase in cases in the past 24 hours, with 81 cases in the city of 272,000 residents.

The Health Ministry on Thursday morning raised the tally of people infected with the coronavirus to 6,211, an increase of 620 over the previous 24 hours. So far 33 people have died of the disease.

There were 107 people in serious condition, including 83 patients on ventilators, and another 127 people in moderate condition. There were 289 people who had fully recovered from the virus, and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

Israel has been implementing increasingly stringent measures to thwart the spread of the virus, with citizens generally required to stay home.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and a dry cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause severe symptoms including pneumonia, and lead to death.

Header: Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Stuart Winer and Associated Press contributed to this report.