Could Uman’s COVID-19 deluge become an Israeli tsunami? - analysis
Will ultra-Orthodox travelers flooding into Ben-Gurion Airport from Uman ahead of Shabbat usher in what could be Israel’s next COVID-19 tsunami, undoing any moderate gains made in the last few weeks through the third shot campaign?
While Health Ministry officials may have been helpless in stopping mass travel to Uman over Rosh Hashanah, the real test will now be whether the country can enforce isolation over Yom Kippur but it is likely to fail.
The result, health officials warn, could be yet another spike in infections just as children return to school.
Some 25,000 Israeli pilgrims traveled to Ukraine last week to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslau in a scene that played out just as it always does: dozens of prayer houses tightly packed with maskless worshipers.
At least 1,500 returned with coronavirus and, according to some officials, this number could reach as many as 3,000 as test results are confirmed in the next few days.
A high percentage of people who enter the country from abroad do not test positive at the airport but only seven days later, when they take another test to end isolation, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of Public Health Services, has said. In this case, the situation will likely be no different.
But circumstances could become acute this year, because between the return of travelers from Uman and a seventh-day COVID test is Yom Kippur.
On this, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, nearly all Israelis who traveled to Ukraine are supposed to be in isolation. Yet, those close to the community said that it can be assumed that the majority of people who tested positive but have no symptoms – and even more so, those who tested negative – will go to their synagogues to pray.
It can also be expected that there will not be proper police enforcement on Yom Kippur.
Tomer Lotan, director-general of the Public Security Ministry, told The Jerusalem Post that there is no special protocol for monitoring those who returned from Uman, except for those who may have forged negative coronavirus test certificates and are being questioned by police.
To date, the police and the Population and Immigration Authority have apprehended around 175 passengers returning from Uman whom they believe were carrying forged documentation, and officials said they assume there could be others. However, of those who underwent preliminary questioning, one official said only some 20 people appear to have broken the law.
Check Point Software Technologies said on Sunday that it was tracking an Israeli group on Telegram called “COVID vaccination certificates/COVID tests” that was actively being used to sell forged COVID tests and vaccination certificates. The group has been operating since last November, but had been actively targeting travelers to Uman with personalized forged documents that are sold for NIS 100 each, the Israeli cybersecurity company said.
The group is also selling similar documents to Israeli soldiers, using the format of files issued by IDF medical units.
Check Point has passed the information on to the Israel Police’s 433 Lahav international fraud unit for investigation, it said.
“We have been following the sales of fake coronavirus tests and vaccines from November 2020 and we see how this field is developing,” said Oded Vanunu, Head of Products Vulnerability Research at Check Point.
“What started as a group of hackers on the Dark Net has moved to free trade on messaging apps like Telegram, in groups that sometimes contain hundreds of thousands of people. In recent days, we have discovered the sales for travelers to Uman, and we can see how easy it is to forge coronavirus tests and enter Israel, even as people are getting sick.”
Authorities are expected to launch criminal proceedings against those whom they believe were knowingly spreading a communicable disease.
On average, Lotan said, police check in with 6,000 people a day who are supposed to be in isolation, many fewer than the number of Uman travelers or the number of Israelis who are supposed to be quarantining on the holy day.
The level of infection stemming from Uman should not surprise anyone. Health officials knew this situation could happen, but depending who you ask, they either felt helpless to control the situation, decided to look away, or tried to offer a solution but their efforts did not go as planned.
From any perspective, according to Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash, around 10% of Uman travelers caught the virus and almost as many brought it back with them to Israel.
Ynet reported on Sunday that it had seen a letter sent a month ago by coronavirus commissioner Prof. Salman Zarka to internal authorities warning about the danger of letting the Uman pilgrimage take place.
“These returnees from Uman are citizens from all parts of the country, and are expected to be at synagogues during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Zarka wrote in the letter.
“There is a fundamental concern that upon their return they could ignite a new wave of infection and import new variants to Israel.”
Ash responded that “when all other flights were open, it was not possible to stop these particular flights,” in an interview with 103 FM on Sunday morning.
“If a person decides to pray in a way that is against his best interest and he gets sick, that is his choice,” a Health Ministry spokesperson told the Post. “Whoever traveled to Uman, traveled at his own risk of being infected.”
What really went on in Uman? The people who traveled there paint a picture of COVID-19 chaos: Thousands of people crammed into dozens of small spaces, sleeping together, eating together and, of course, praying together for hours over three days.
“There was no isolation, no social distancing, no masks,” R from Bat Ayin told the Post. “It was just like a year without coronavirus. Sure, some people took care of themselves, but most – like me, did not.”
“It is not surprising that people would be infected?” another hasid who traveled to Uman said. “What result do you want?”
The Health Ministry and Religious Affairs Ministry touted their “Uman outline” ahead of the holiday, but in reality, the outline was really just the standard travel outline for anyone heading to an orange country.
All travelers were required to take a PCR test within 72 hours of traveling abroad. They were also asked to take a test within 72 hours of their return – though this was quite complicated since these tests could not be performed on the holiday and most travelers were returning to Israel almost immediately after the holiday to be back home before Shabbat.
Rosh Hashanah ended Wednesday at sundown.
To help support the travelers, the Health Ministry paid and recruited Magen David Adom to go to Uman and set up rapid PCR testing complexes for Israeli visitors.
“We could have just made Ukraine a red state and banned people from traveling there,” the ministry spokesperson told the Post. “We tried to make it easier for them. We tried to make concessions.”
But this is not what happened in actuality, visitors said.
R said some people got tested and received a positive result. Then, a few hours later, they went to another complex questioning the original result, retested and got a negative result, which they used to board their plane.
Others saw long lines at the testing sites and decided to skip testing altogether, getting test results sent to them from their friends that they could show at the airport in Kyiv instead. Travelers said airport officials hardly checked their documentation. These travelers returned to Israel not knowing if they were infected or not.
Some people assumed they could be tested and get their results at Kyiv airport, but when they arrived, they realized that without a smartphone they could not access their documentation.
“It was a huge balagan,” R said, describing “pushing and shoving” and “young and old people stepping on each other” in an effort to get screened for the virus. Many ultimately gave up because they had to make their flights. Others stayed to be tested and were forced to purchase updated tickets.
“Look, people wanted to go home,” another traveler told the Post. “I cannot judge, but from what I hear, people were positive and came back negative anyway.”
The Health Ministry spokesperson said that of the 175 who were originally apprehended, some 113 – the majority – were found to be unvaccinated. As such, it is possible that these people’s infection did not yet show up on the rapid test or that they caught the virus on the way back at the airport or on the plane.
Among the haredi community in general, vaccination rates among all people over the age of 16 are the same as among the general population.
“We cannot stigmatize a whole community based on outliers,” said Prof. Eyal Leshem.
He added that the Uman event should be put in perspective.
“If you look at the big picture, 1,500 cases is a lot, but it does not change a trend,” Leshem said.
Rather, the mass prayers of millions of Israelis inside synagogues over Yom Kippur – people who are unvaccinated or ill – could cause Israel to lose control again of the fourth wave, he said.
Leshem warned that Israel is not yet out of the eye of the storm.
“We cannot relax,” he said.
Zev Stub contributed to this report.