COVID-19 study focusing on Orthodox Jews releases first results

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People congregate outside of Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar in Brooklyn (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images via JTA)

By Shira Hanau

One year after COVID-19 first walloped Jewish communities in the United States, a scientific study has confirmed something that many in the communities have long believed: gatherings during the week of Purim served as superspreader events.


A paper published March 10 in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, a peer-review journal that is open to the public, concludes that the coronavirus was spreading widely in Orthodox communities across the country last spring around that Jewish holiday — before public health warnings were given about the dangers of large assemblies. Its authors — 14 Orthodox Jewish physicians who engineered a study of thousands of blood samples from Orthodox Jews who contracted COVID-19 spanning five states — say their paper has lessons as public health officials steer Americans through the pandemic’s next phase.

“There should be specific recommendations for each religious and ethnic community,” said Dr. Israel Zyskind, a pediatrician in Brooklyn and one of the authors. “They should be culturally sensitive, which is not something we’ve seen with the pandemic, especially early on.”

Dr. Avi Rosenberg, a renal pathologist at Johns Hopkins University and another author of the paper, said for Purim in particular, “the guidance all came a week too late.”

The paper is the first publication to come out of a research project started by three Orthodox Jewish doctors who decided early in the pandemic to turn a tragic turn of events — the extensive spread of the coronavirus in Orthodox communities around Purim — into an opportunity to learn more about the virus through research. Through their project, which they called the “Multi-InstituTional study analyZing anti-CoV-2 Antibodies” — or the MITZVA cohort — they collected thousands of blood specimens that would go on to be used in 10 research labs for virology studies related to COVID-19 in addition to their own paper.

The most important finding in their paper, according to the authors, is in understanding how the timing of Purim and lack of public health guidance at that time allowed the disease to spread widely in Orthodox communities.

The paper also suggests that the infection rates in Orthodox communities in the early stages of the pandemic were higher than in surrounding communities, something the authors attribute to the highly social nature of the Orthodox community. But while many in certain Orthodox communities came to believe that their communities had reached herd immunity by late spring and early summer, the data in the study shows that to be unlikely.

The study first came together in the early days of the pandemic when Rosenberg reconnected with Zyskind, his former Brooklyn College classmate. The two were answering similar questions from members of their community about COVID. They soon started thinking about the possibility of doing research related to COVID within the Orthodox community and got in touch with Dr. Jonathan Silverberg, a dermatologist and epidemiologist at George Washington University, also a college classmate.

The three doctors say they are excited to publish their findings nearly a year after it began. And with eight studies currently in process using the samples, there are more papers expected on subjects like the differences between T-cell immunity and antibody immunity and the detection of antibodies in saliva.

“It’s a credit to the Orthodox community and their efforts in coming out and helping put this all together,” Silverberg said.

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