United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams addressed a remote meeting of rabbanim affiliated with the Orthodox Union (OU) to discuss best practices for upcoming tefillos on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The talk lasted for roughly and hour with Dr. Adams offering general guidance and support as well as answering specific questions from Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the OU’s executive Vice President, who served as moderator.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Adams emphasized the importance of faith leaders in helping their congregants deal with the challenges of the COVID pandemic, not only in offering spiritual strength, but in designing workable guidelines and emphasizing the importance of continued vigilance.
“There’re more likely to listen to you than to their doctor,” said Dr. Adams. “It must have been so painful for you to close many of your synagogues, I hope you take strength in knowing [how much] you helped.”
Several months ago, the OU released relatively strict guidelines for re-opening shuls and, in general, those in the organization’s network have maintained this approach. Dr. Adams gave some detailed advice on points like creating alternatives for older and high risk congregants who he felt would be better off remaining at home. He also advised that markers be placed to direct attendees path in and out of shul in order to avoid crowding and doorways and lobbies, and the schedule sizable breaks between services to allow for rooms to ventilate.
Blowing the shofar presents a unique challenge as the act by its nature spreads the baal tokea’s respiratory droplets further than the standard six-foot distance. Dr. Adams recommended that the shofar be held a fair distance away from others and also commented on other OU recommendations.
“Anything you put [on the shofar] is better than nothing,” he said. “I don’t think it would hurt, but don’t be overly assured. It’s worth doing anything you can, but don’t think that it will make up for social distancing.”
As much as Dr. Adams encouraged careful planning, he said it was imperative for rabbis to know the level of spread presently going on in the community they serve.
“No matter how good your open up plan is, you are set up to fail if there is runaway community spread,” he said.
Rabbi Hauer brought up the much discussed issues as to whether Orthodox communities that experienced very high levels of infection during the initial outbreak, could possibly be protected by some degree of herd immunity. While each of those communities has recently experienced minor spikes linked to large celebrations and out of state travel, for most of the summer after camps, schools, and shuls opened their doors there was no notable rebound of infections.
While acknowledging that the theory might explain some of what seems like a mitigation in transmission, Dr. Adams said that a lack of conclusive science on the durability of antibodies made such a hypothesis unwise to rely on. He also dismissed a theory that the novel coronavirus itself had mutated or weakened significantly.
“We have no indication that the virus is weakening in its ability to make people sick or to kill people,” he said. “The reason we think fewer people are dying is better treatment and doing a better job of protecting the vulnerable.”
Dr. Adams was appointed the nation’s “top doctor” by President Donald Trump in 2017. Before that, he served as Indiana’s State Health Commissioner. Since the COVID outbreak, he has been a key member of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force led by Vice President Mike Pence.
Citing encouraging reports on the likelihood of a safe and effective vaccine by this coming winter, Dr. Adams told the group of rabbis that the light at the end of the tunnel, could in itself be a source of encouragement to uphold procedures to mitigate viral spread in the meantime.
“This will not be forever,” he said. “Assure [your congregants] that this is temporary. The Jewish People, more than any other people out there, know what it is to make a sacrifice for a greater gain down the road.”