May 24, 2021

Orthodox Jews and Covid-19 Vaccine

The Orthodox Jewish community was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Swift community action ensued; Jewish schools were closed and synagogues were shuttered. While anticipation for the Covid-19 vaccine grew, physicians and leaders within the community wondered: will Orthodox Jews get the Covid-19 vaccine?

A new study published by Dr Ellie Carmody, Assistant Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and co-authors, surveyed 102 Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, NY between December 2020 and January 2021. At that time, 41% were undecided about the vaccine and 47% were strongly hesitant.

While many U.S. citizens fought for access to the vaccine, others were understandably hesitant to take a new vaccine. The vaccine has had its fair share of doubt including concerns about fertility and safety monitoring (neither concern has been proven).

In the past, Shoshana Bernstein, an Orthodox community activist in NY, worked to educate community members about the measles vaccine. Her experience taught her that the majority of Orthodox Jews do indeed vaccinate. \"There are outliers who are openly anti-vax and the movable middle who are unsure. Unfortunately, it has become more and more the norm for the media to focus on Orthodox Jews which can and does create the erroneous assumptions.\"

At the same time, Ms. Bernstein explained that the insular lifestyle of many demographics in the Orthodox Jewish community limits their access to credible medical information. Many individuals in these communities don’t use the internet, social media, and smartphones. There, Ms. Bernstein recommends \"it is imperative that culturally sensitive, written and spoken education be written and made available. Unlike the secular world, written publications are very much alive and well in the Orthodox Community. Dial-in hotlines and Yiddish language radio stations reach a large swath of the population and should be utilized. Doctors, nurses, physician assistants and urgent care centers are generally widely trusted and should be provided written material.\"

Dr Miriam Andrusier, MD, MPH a member of the Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, echoes Ms. Bernstein’s concerns about targeted misinformation. \"Both in terms of how the virus spreads and what information people have available to them are very unique and could be quite insular. The Orthodox Jewish community is very tight knit. The ways in which information is dispensed and shared is very unique: people tend to get a lot of their information from social media and groups like Whats App where it is incredibly easy to pass along misinformation that can be forwarded thousands of times within minutes.\"

When the pandemic eased in the summer of 2020, anti-vax and anti-medical establishment groups made efforts to spread misinformation specifically in the Orthodox Jewish community. At an event in Crown Heights on February 16th, 2021, Dr. Simone Gold urged attendees not to get the Covid-19 vaccine because dying from Covid-19 itself is \"exceedingly uncommon.\" The second speaker, Rabbi Michoel Green told (unverified) stories of individuals who lost relatives and suffered side effects from the vaccine.

\"The anti-vaccine movement is finding fertile ground in people today in general because they succeed by sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt, and this pandemic is already rampant in all three,\" says Dr. Alissa Minkin, a pediatrician and Chair of the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association (JOWMA) Preventative Health Committee. Dr Minkin also hosts the JOWMA Podcast, which covers health topics geared towards the Orthodox community. Full disclosure- I serve as president of JOWMA and have been actively involved in JOWMA’s educational efforts for the Covid-19 vaccine.

Dr. Minkin believes \"the politicization and polarization of this pandemic is contributing to anti-vaccine sentiment across the board, not just in the Orthodox community. Because religion is not one of the metrics for vaccine uptake, we do not have exact statistics for percent vaccinated in each of these communities.\"

While the exacts numbers of those vaccinated in the Orthodox community isn’t quite clear, informal surveys by synagogues, physicians, and schools indicate that vaccine uptake is high. Suri Kasirer, President of Kasirer LLC, the #1 lobbying firm in New York, has been working with government and community organizations like JOWMA to educate NY residents about the Covid-19 vaccine. \"I come from this community, which was among the most impacted by the pandemic. In reaching out to the Orthodox community with timely information about the vaccine, there are unique challenges, such as language barriers, or limited access to TV and the Internet. We’re so proud to have helped effectively counter disinformation and build confidence in the vaccine as we see this vibrant community back to good health post-pandemic.\"

“Most of my elderly patients wanted to get the vaccine as soon as it was available. As part of my work as the medical director of Chevra Hatzalah Volunteer Ambulance Corps, we facilitated hundreds of vaccines to home-bound Holocuast survivors,\" said Dr Jason Zimmerman, medical director at Boro Park Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Brooklyn, NY.

Dr. Zimmerman cares for patients from the Orthodox community in Brooklyn, NY. He shared \"Many younger patients were initially hesitant to take the vaccine, but over the past few months, they’ve watched their healthcare providers, family and friends get vaccinated and this visibility has really helped alleviate people’s initial hesitation.”

Dr. Minkin believes that while we haven’t yet reached herd immunity, \"the percent of people who had Covid-19 already are contributing to the percent who are immune along with the vaccinated. There are good reasons to get vaccinated even if you had Covid-19, but public health officials should acknowledge that people who had Covid-19 are making a risk benefit decision from a different position than those who never had it.\"

Dr. Ellie Carmody MD, MPH, agrees that some hesitancy around the vaccine may be understood from a scientific and health perspective. \"Within some Orthodox communities that have been very highly impacted by Covid-19, reasons for not vaccinating are complex. Some are wary of new technologies and are subject to similar misinformation that circulates within wider anti-vaccination discourse. But for many people who have had Covid-19, there is simply not a sense of urgency to be vaccinated, given that they observe that symptomatic re-infections in their communities are low and they feel protected.\"

Dr. Carmody believes that vaccine strategies should be re-evaluated for those who have recovered from Covid-19, \"as more studies demonstrate that there is a robust immune memory response to one dose of either an mRNA vaccine or adenoviral vector vaccine in people who have recovered from Covid-19.\"

\"A one-dose ‘immunity booster’ may be more well received than a two-dose mRNA vaccine series, as it validates the contribution of natural immunity toward protection from disease. One-dose mRNA vaccine strategies could also help stretch the world’s supply of these vaccines,\" said Dr Carmody.

In the meantime, educating patients about Covid-19 vaccination remains a priority.


As seen on Forbes.

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