A ground-breaking study on SARS-CoV-2 in the chareidi kehillah has shown that, in common with other ‘ethnic minority’ communities, it was disproportionately affected during the first wave last spring, generally due to factors outside their control.
The study, by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine working with University College London’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, was instigated by MARS, the Medical Advocacy and Referral Service.
Rabbi Hershel Grunfeld, Founding Director of MARS explained, “The decision to initiate this study was made in May 2020, during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, with senior rabbinical support. By developing a better understanding of the effect of Covid-19 in chareidi settings, the study’s purpose is to protect people, save lives and inform safety planning within communities.
“We want to thank the LSHTM team for their support in developing this research project with these objectives in mind.”
Working closely with the kehillah to whom they expressed their appreciation, the research team invited more than 1,750 individuals to complete a demographic and medical information survey and provide a blood sample between November and early December 2020. The logistics of the project in the community were coordinated by David Lubelsky, Director of David Sky Consultancy Ltd.
Blood samples from 1,242 individuals were collected. These were then tested for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The overall infection rate was found to be 64 percent, which is one of the highest rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection recorded anywhere in the world.
The lowest rate was in children aged under five years (28 percent), and the highest in secondary school children and adults (75 percent). Overall, men were found to have higher rate of infection than women.
Suspected infections peaked in early March and fell sharply during the first lockdown. Cases then began to rise again throughout the autumn of 2020.
Dr Michael Marks from LSHTM who co-led the study said, “Our work has revealed the extremely high rates of infection in this very interconnected population. Working in tandem with the community we are conducting further work to understand the potential factors involved. These findings could support potential new interventions that may help reduce infection in the community.”
Ethnic and religious minorities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. A range of factors including deprivation, reduced ability to work from home, larger household sizes and higher rates of underlying health conditions are all thought to contribute to this increased risk.
In the U.K., attention has been focused on the Afro-Caribbean and South Asian populations. However, data from Public Health England shows other minority groups have also been severely affected. Jewish men aged over 65 years were found to have a rate of death twice as high as Christians, even after adjusting for socio-demographic factors.
This distressing statistic is paralleled by the team’s estimate that 64% of the chareidi kehillah were infected is much higher than recent estimates of seven percent infected nationally and 11% in London by the Office for National Statistics.
Dr Marks said, “We would very much like to thank the community. It was a privilege to work directly with them, and think this community partnership approach could be a blueprint to further understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on other groups in the U.K.”
The team say that the characteristics of the community involved are shared with many other ethnic and religious minority groups. The findings are therefore likely relevant to understanding the severe impact COVID-19 has had on these groups in the U.K.
Dr Rosalind Eggo from LSHTM and co-lead on the study said, “Our work demonstrates the large impact that SARS-CoV-2 has had on this community up until December 2020. Religious and ethnic minority groups have been at increased risk at all stages of the pandemic leading to preventable health inequalities.”
This work was jointly funded by UKRI and NIHR [COV0335; MR/V027956/1], a donation from the LSHTM Alumni COVID-19 response fund, HDR UK, the MRC and the Wellcome Trust.