Ultra-Orthodox Londoners roll up sleeves to fight COVID

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Two men from the Haredi Orthodox Jewish community arrive at an event to encourage vaccine uptake in the ultra-Orthodox community at the John Scott Vaccination Centre in London, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. In hopes of breaking down barriers that sometimes isolate the Orthodox from wider society, community leaders organized the pop-up vaccination event for Saturday night to coincide with the end of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

LONDON – As people across England huddled indoors amid freezing temperatures and a national lockdown, nearly 300 elderly men and women lined up outside a health center in northeast London to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

But the wide-brimmed hats and long black coats that shielded them against the cold were more about religion than the weather. These ultra-Orthodox Jews are members of a community that has been especially hard hit by the virus, which has killed almost 117,000 people in Britain.

In hopes of breaking down barriers that sometimes isolate the Orthodox from wider society, community leaders organized the pop-up vaccination event for Saturday night to coincide with the end of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. They believed this was the best time to attract the faithful because it would fit perfectly into post-service schedules — and people would be more relaxed since no one was working.

“I want to see the grandchildren and I haven’t seen them for months, so you know this is an ideal time to get it,” Asher Warmberg, 66, said after he rolled up his sleeve. “And hopefully we can see them soon.”

As Britain’s National Health Service reached its goal of giving a first dose of vaccine to more than 15 million people, including health care workers and everyone over 75, authorities are trying to reach those who have been missed in the national drive. The need is particularly great in Stamford Hill, the center of north London’s ultra-Orthodox community.

Since many ultra-Orthodox shun social media and the internet, people here were slow to realize the dangers of COVID-19 and their community has experienced some of London’s highest infection rates. Many fell ill last March after the Jewish festival of Purim, a day of feasting and merriment.

Local leaders, determined not to allow history to repeat itself, raised 10,000 pounds ($13,840) and asked to be studied by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine to find out why they were so hard hit.

An analysis of blood samples from 1,242 people found an infection rate of 64% — one of the highest recorded anywhere in the world. In contrast, the Office for National Statistics estimates that about 16% of England’s population has had COVID-19.