Negev city mayor takes initiative to cut Covid-19

Tal Ohana  / Photo: Shlomi Yosef , Globes

Tal Ohana did not sit around waiting for the government to act and has transformed Yeruham from a 'red' city to 'green' by taking responsibility for the situation.

Yeruham Mayor Tal Ohana calls on other municipal leaders to take responsibility and not sit around waiting for the government and Ministry of Health to wake up and deal with the rapid spread of Covid-19. Between September 8 and September 18, Yeruham was defined as a "red" (high infection rate) city with a peak of 100 people sick with the virus on September 13.

Ohana, the Negev city's mayor for the past two years, understood the seriousness of the problem on the day after the school year opened, when three teenagers in the same grade in the city's largest high school tested positive for the virus. That night Ohana ordered the entire school to close immediately and 400 students between seventh and twelfth grades and their 60 teachers stayed at home the next day.

Ohana recalls, "Even though the instructions were to close only sections of specific classes and grades, I decided to close everything. I also ordered closed all informal educational activities in the city. Extra-curricular activities, sport, music, community centers, art, youth movements. And we also ordered all cultural activities to close after we had had a municipal festival in August with thousands of participants and performances and a cinema festival. The events were outside in separated groups because we believe in leading full lives alongside the virus."

Yeruham's story should be studied throughout Israel. By closing the schools swiftly shortly after the school year opened, Ohana cut the spread of infections. It was since found that two teachers were also infected with virus but by the end of September the virus was on the wane. The number of infections fell from 100 to 44 and the city was once again 'green' (low infection rate).

What did you do in the city during this period with commerce and industry?

"Industrial factories are essential and the rules there are observed very seriously. People work in shifts, in small groups, keeping their distance from each other. There is no casual contact in the factories. Otherwise they are carrying on as usual. I didn't impose any additional restrictions on commercial activities but I did create more enforcement in the city. Our inspectors walked around the shopping center, the post office and the market. The police handed out fines and the municipal inspectors raise awareness."

Did you stick to halting all the extra-curricular activities?

"There were certain difficulties in the sports sector because the season had only just started. But I insisted. We have since found that there was a chain of infections in the fitness club. Luckily we closed it. Private fitness clubs only closed down with the start of the national lockdown before Rosh Hashana."

What about the stores?

"Stores are closed at the moment. Whoever is able are working with deliveries. I hope they can continue with deliveries. Food deliveries, household products deliveries, grocery deliveries, clothing deliveries. It can be done."

How did you make the decision to close down the synagogues?

"Firstly, I have to say that the city has a chief rabbi, Yitzhak Shalev, who is an amazing and responsible man. I couldn't have done it without him. Shalev worked with rare courage, also in the first wave which was during Passover as well as in the current wave. He wrote to all the wardens of the synagogues and then personally phoned each one of them and asked that they act responsibly towards their congregants. After all wardens cannot block their congregants from coming. It's difficult."

"This time, already at the start of September, I invited all the synagogue wardens together with the chief rabbi for a meeting in my office. I told them, 'I understand that it is difficult for you to enforce the instructions. I want to make it easy for you and simply ask that you close down the synagogues. By Saturday, September 12, the Saturday before Rosh Hashana all prayers were outside. Synagogues were closed on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur."

Providing computers - connecting to Zoom

Yeruham has a population of 12,000 and 70% of residents are orthodox, haredi, or traditional asnd regularly attend synagogue. Two weeks before Rosh Hashana, Ohana realized that holiday prayers would be Yeruham's true test, and that she needed to provide an immediate solution for the public-at-large.

Ohana decided that she would put up awnings (shade sails) outside each synagogue, provide plastic seats and arrange lighting and holiday prayer books.

She contacted army bases near Yeruham for large awnings and eventually expanded her search and even asked army bases as far afield as Ramla. All places were happy to loan her what she asked for.

She said, "It's not the same conditions as inside the synagogue but outside conditions and we are talking about many older congregants who had to be outside in the heat on Yom Kipppur. The aim was to say to them that we won't forego prayer and we will do everything we can so that you can pray according to the instructions as part of a congregation."

But how did you persuade the public that staying inside the synagogue was a cause for serious concern?

"By being proactive. I published posts on Facebook tracking every person who was ill. I wanted to create awareness among the people of Yeruham that the strict steps taken over the schools and extra-curricular activities were not for no reason and were not enough. This put everybody on alert. We worked non-stop overnight and set up 46 outside prayer areas. After we did that, the Ministry of Interior put out an order a couple of days before Yom Kippur and allocated NIS 25 million, NIS 1,000 for each synagogue to fund awnings (shade sails)."

What will happen after the holidays?

"We have set up a municipal system that is looking at the situation after the lockdown. We've set up an education command center. My working assumption is that the children from fourth grade and above will stay at home with remote learning until June 2021. We have understood that the educational role of the municipality has no relevance in coping with the situation and it is impossible to put the responsibility for now on the schools."

Ohana says trhat she has raised targeted philanthropic donations from the Mandel Foundation, Elbit Systems, and other donors and bought 300 computers for children in homes that don't even have a single computer. Some of them have already been distributed and others will be handed out after the holidays. The municipality's education command center has opened a center for dealing with questions and difficulties that residents have in connecting to Zoom. Technical developers are sitting there and answering questions and even visiting each home that is not succeeding in using the system. The municipal education department receives a daily report on the quality of studies in each class, the amount studied and who had been involved in Zoom meetings and who hadn't."

"We are developing a full network of services with emotional support for parents, and for students. For example, in kindergartens the instructions are to conduct daily Zoom meetings with the educational staff. I understood that being on Zoom everyday for 20 minutes wasn't enough. We began to produce a Zoom meeting for the kindergarten children at the fire station, at the police station, at the ambulance station. To tell the children who drives the ambulance. I am developing a program that will be relevant for children of all ages."

I hear mayors calling for a halt in movement between residents in red cities to green cities.

"I would stop the movement between cities. In fact that is what I did in the first lockdown. I heard that people from outside of the city were coming for the holiday and I didn't wait for the government to announce a lockdown but simply put huge concrete blocks at checkpoints at the entrances to the city and I closed down the city by myself. They told me that I would have a problem with the government. Rabbi Ravitz, the mayor of Telz-Stone did the same thing and in Kafr Kasem and many other places they understood that we must take 100% responsibility for the situation."

And what do you have to say about Ramat Gan mayor Carmel Shama Hacohen closing movement between his city and Bnei Brak?

"They criticized him because he made it a matter of the ultra-Orthodox versus the secular. There was no substance in his decision. But to close down cities until they become green is the right thing to do. But it shouldn't be done in a populist way."

Yeshiva students got off the buses and went straight for testing

Last week yeshiva students returned to their parents' homes. How are you coping with that?

"There are about 50 young people who are returning to their parents in Yeruham. First of all you have to take care of transport for them back home. They got off the buses here and wait straight for coronavirus testing, which the municipality is funding. Until the results were received they went into isolation at home. I spoke with every family to ensure that there were conditions at home for isolation. All the parents signed a document committing that their children would remain in isolation and anybody testing positive was taken out of their home and moved to a coronavirus hostel."

We understand that in Yeruham you set up and urban epidemiological system without waiting for the Ministry of Health

We already did that back in the first wave and it continues to be active. I have two senior doctors here in the city - Dr. Eli Rosenberg, Soroka Hospital's head of Covid-19 and Dr. Nadav Eisner, an expert in the laboratories sector. The two doctors are orthodox and observe the Sabbath like me. In consultation with the two of them we carried out epidemiological investigations without waiting for the Ministry of Health."

"In the first wave, I did it by myself. There were very few people ill and I investigated where they were and I called everybody that they were in contact with. On Saturdays, I walked to the homes of people to inform them. If the place was far away then I sent a Bedouin who is employed by the municipality to tell them. The aim was to locate as quickly as possible those they had been in contact with and met and get everybody into isolation, even if it was a Saturday or a holiday, and also to provide social support for those who had nowhere to isolate."

"I am an Orthodox woman but coronavirus is a 24/7 story. I think that out of the chaos we have taken overall control and can take some satisfaction, because our results in December were okay. And we have to stress that we have a community that pays attention to instructions. They didn't have to and the achievement is of the city's rabbi who decided not to listen to the national rabbinical leadership and heed what his heart was telling him."

Ohana's rules for controlling the virus

* Closing the city to outside visitors

* Closing an entire school after the diagnosis of just one Covid-19 case

* Halting informal education

* Closing synagogues and setting up outside prayer areas

* Setting up a municipal system for stopping the spread of the virus

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on October 4, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Tal Ohana  / Photo: Shlomi Yosef , Globes
Tal Ohana / Photo: Shlomi Yosef , Globes
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