By Larry Gordon
Last week, many young men from England arrived in Israel for their year in yeshiva in Israel. The early arrival was precipitated by the decision not to allow anyone from Britain into Israel as of last Friday due to the significant increase in coronavirus infections throughout England.
You may recall that last summer we spoke with Rabbi Reuven Taragin of Yeshiva HaKotel about the effort a year ago to try everything possible to allow students from abroad to spend their year of education in yeshivas and seminaries in Israel without interruption. The hope was that by now we would have a better handle on the pandemic situation and that things would be running much more smoothly than it did a year ago.
Last year at this time we were still half a year away from the first vaccine being administered. Now over six million people have been vaccinated in Israel and over 165 million people have been vaccinated in the U.S. Those numbers, as well as our experience with the virus over the last 18 months, should have provided us with a bit of an advantage about how to proceed going forward.
In Israel, aside from the early arrival of the students from England, everything is on schedule for a smooth transition to a productive and exciting year ahead in the yeshivas and seminaries in Israel. However, travel for non-students is still somewhat of a challenge. Up until about two weeks ago there was hope that unlike last year, Israel would be open for the chagim, but those plans are now somewhat doubtful. Those involved in the travel-to-Israel industry are checking on the data and the ever-changing science on a daily basis.
New regulations now require a 7–14 day quarantine upon arrival in Israel regardless of the results of your serological test. If you test negative twice in seven days on a PCR test you can leave quarantine; otherwise, it is 14 days in quarantine.
At Yeshivat HaKotel, as in most of Israel, most people have received the vaccine. Rabbi Taragin points out that all staff and all students attending the yeshiva this year are vaccinated. Still, now there will be testing upon arrival in Israel and a seven-day quarantine.
“We are in much better shape this year than we were last year at this time,” Rabbi Taragin says. He adds that the group that was formed last year, the Igud for Yeshivas and Seminaries, led by Rabbi Nechemya Malinowitz and Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, is still very active representing the schools that belong to the Igud. “We have come to realize that there are many additional benefits being realized as a result of our being organized,” he said.
Here, we are dealing with much the same issues they are dealing with in Israel, except with a much greater population. At Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence, all staff members are required to be vaccinated. Rabbi Zev Friedman, the rosh yeshiva, told me this week that there has been no opposition to the requirement from the staff.
At some of the other Five Towns and Far Rockaway yeshivas with larger staffs there has been some, but for the most part very minimal, resistance to the requirement that all employees receive one of the available vaccines. The choice given to staff members in some schools was either to be vaccinated or have their employment terminated. It was no doubt a difficult policy to implement, but medical guidance advised that this was the best route to take at this point. In some other schools, while vaccines are preferred, those who choose not to be inoculated are being given a choice that includes regular weekly testing for the virus. Most of those who prefer this option have already resolved the coronavirus or have some other medical exemption.
Dr. David Schechter is a cardiologist who resides in Cedarhurst. He has medical offices in Queens and Woodmere and is affiliated with Jamaica and New York Presbyterian hospitals. We discussed the ins and outs of the issue with what he says should be a risk–benefit analysis that should contribute to the decision-making process on the matter of the vaccines.
He said that requiring employees to vaccinate is a benefit that outweighs the risk involved, as most vaccines are administered with either minimal or no side effects. He added that over the last week he has seen an uptick in positive results from tests, most stemming from exposure to the Delta variant.
In his estimation, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were over 90% effective in combating the original strain of the virus but only about 30% effective against the Delta mutation.
Dr. Schechter adds that he feels that there needs to be more education about the virus and there needs to be greater emphasis placed on therapeutics like hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin. Both medications have been effective, he says, when administered early on after contracting the virus. “People show up to my office four or five days after symptoms appear and that is often too late for the therapeutics to be effective.”
He says that if you have flu-like symptoms, you are best off assuming that it is COVID-19 and you should get tested immediately.
The subject of most contention is that there are those who choose not to be vaccinated. Some object based on the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has only provisionally approved the vaccines and they are uncomfortable with what they believe might be long-term effects of the shot that may not manifest for years. Some also feel that people have a right to choose whether they receive vaccinations or not. That is a questionable and divisive section of law, as some vaccines—like for tuberculosis—were once required by law.
The greatest vaccine-related issue today is that confusing and even contradictory policies are emanating from the CDC and the Biden administration. There are still 100 million people in the U.S. who have not been vaccinated. The original messaging was that once someone is vaccinated, that individual will no longer require a face mask or covering. Last week that was reversed, with the CDC and President Biden recommending that even those vaccinated should be wearing masks indoors if not at all times.
This flip-flopping, critics say, contributes more than any other policy to vaccine hesitancy, which is dramatically slowing down the vaccine efforts.
In Israel, children 12 years old and over are being vaccinated, but that is not the case here in the U.S. Dr. Schechter says that when children that age contract the virus they are usually asymptomatic or, at worst, run a fever for a day or so and quickly recover. The doctor says that the best way to stay healthy is by consistently washing your hands and wearing masks when among others.
Israel’s daily positive cases are up. They have largely remained stable at about 2,000 per day over the last week but jumped to over 3,000 on Monday. Here in the U.S., hospitalizations are up, but only slightly, with the number of deaths on a daily basis diminishing. Last Sunday, 62 people died of COVID in the U.S.; 102 people died in traffic accidents.
Medical professionals are beginning to talk about the need to learn to live with COVID in the same way that we live with the flu.
According to Rabbi Taragin, students arriving from the U.S. will be required to quarantine for seven days. Last year, he says, the requirement was 14 days of staying on the campus or not leaving the dormitories. “That’s a big improvement,” he says. “It looks like we are hopefully making progress.”
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