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Community

Chev vaccination site injects hope in Joburg’s bleakest month

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July will go down in history as one of the bleakest months ever experienced by the Johannesburg Jewish community, which recorded 113 deaths in one month.

In response to the severity of the impact of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic on the community, the Chevrah Kadisha has been on a mission to vaccinate as many members of the community as fast as possible.

According to Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the Chev, over the past 12 months, there has been a 35% increase in the number of deaths compared to the prior 12-month period.

“Sadly, the Johannesburg Jewish community has one of the highest excess death rates in the world,” he said.

Tomson was moved by the community’s pain as well as his family’s own grief following a personal loss to COVID-19 during this month of despair.

The growing sense of mourning propelled him and his organisation to push the Gauteng Health Department into granting the organisation a license to operate a public vaccination site.

“We have seen the tremendous effectiveness of the vaccine on our own elderly residents and staff, and the desperate need to accelerate the rollout of the vaccine for the community at large,” he said this week.

Because of the Chev’s aggressive, early push to vaccinate residents and staff, its residential facilities have virtually been fully protected during the third wave, Tomson said.

“There have been very few hospitalisations and almost no deaths. In the context of July, in which we recorded the highest number of deaths in the community’s recent history, our residential facilities have been largely spared.”

This was remarkable, he said, given the age and frailty of residents, which has been documented as the major determinant of the severity of disease and hospital admission.

“It shows the power of the vaccine in preventing spread and severe illness,” he said.

Tomson’s personal tragedy affected him acutely. His late father-in-law, Alec Levy, 70, passed away from COVID-19 in June. Levy was well known and respected in the community. He was a highly regarded financial advisor and a trustee of the Rambam Charitable Trust, with a strong communal leaning.

This, along with the rising COVID-19 death rate in the community and the resultant economic suffering experienced by those affected, was “very painful”, he said.

“There was too much suffering and sadness. Something needed to be done,” said Tomson.

Two of the Chev’s senior managers called an urgent meeting with key role players at the health department. “They were passionate, professional, and frankly, wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he said. A week later, their vaccination site was up and running.

“During July, we really saw the worst of this pandemic. It motivated us to become involved in getting the whole community and everyone associated with the community, including communal organisations, other nongovernmental organisations, domestic workers, staff at kosher restaurants, schools, and shuls vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said Tomson.

The Chevrah Kadisha vaccination site in Sandringham has been operating for nearly two weeks. It has already administered thousands of vaccines.

It has been responsible for creating about 20 much-needed jobs for members of the community including several retired pharmacists who help to prepare vaccines on site, as well as several other administrative personnel.

The site and its staff have been praised by all those who have visited for operating in a streamlined, professional, and speedy manner.

Tamar Dakes, who got vaccinated at the Chev, said, “Thank you to everyone at the Chev. I was vaccinated in eight minutes, checked in and out. Was a pleasure to be supported by so much care and love for our people, for all people.”

“Many thanks and much appreciation for what you do. I took my long time helper and friend in for her COVID-19 vax this morning at the Chev – Sandringham. Having made her an appointment, Diana was treated as a priority. All the info needed is given on the printed online questionnaire to save time, which it did! We arrived at 09:20, and she was able to leave at 09:40. A truly professional service to the community. I’m so proud to be Jewish,” said another grateful community member.

“Earlier this year, the health department was impressed by how we managed to vaccinate all our elderly residents on site with their first Pfizer jab. Our protocols and things like our onsite pharmacy, medical staff, and parking satisfied the department’s requirements. We were the first aged home in Gauteng to vaccinate our residents, and we continued to push relentlessly for the second jab,” said Lijahne Beetge, the group’s care manager.

All staff members received the Johnson & Johnson vaccination during the Sisonke trial at Helen Joseph Hospital.

In May, every single Chevrah Kadisha resident over 60, as well as most of Johannesburg’s Holocaust survivors, were vaccinated.

Residents were scheduled to get the second dose only in mid-July, “but our team phoned the health department every day, and were relentless. We got our entire allocation exactly 42 days after the first dose [the minimum time in terms of government policy], and our team immediately got to work. They went room to room, vaccinating virtually every resident.

“We see this as life-saving work and as an extension of our communal responsibility. It’s a way to give back to our wonderful community and the broader community,” Tomson said.

Members of the public need to book a date and time to visit the site. There are no walk-ins. It’s open Sunday to Friday for all who are EVDS (Electronic Vaccination Data System) registered. There is no charge or medical aid necessary, and everyone is welcome, Tomson said.

“In spite of these tragic fatalities, the vaccine is clearly having a positive effect. We are grateful to be a part of it,” Tomson said. “Our goal is to try as best as we can to prevent more unnecessary deaths.”

Hatzolah on mass vaccination drive

Hatzolah launched its COVID-19 vaccination site last Wednesday, 28 July, and has vaccinated close to 1 600 people to date.

“We are averaging about 300 vaccinations a day,” said Darren Kahn, Hatzolah’s executive general manager. “We have an energetic team of volunteers and nurses. For a smooth and quick experience, come to our site, situated above KosherWorld, 1 Long Avenue, Glenhazel.

“It fits in with Hatzolah’s motto of saving lives. The more people are vaccinated in our community and surrounding bubble, the safer our families. We want to see everyone vaccinated, so when we saw the Pikitup guys passing us, we jumped at the opportunity to assist them. It was a brief pause in their job. We took them upstairs, and within 20 minutes, they were back on route,” he said.

The site is open Sunday to Thursday, 08:00 to 16:00, and Friday 08:00 to 14:00. It’s closed on Shabbat and public holidays. Call 072 605 7511 or register on https://www.hatzolahvaccines.co.za/

The organisation has also launched Hatzolah Vaccinates on the Move for those who are unable to leave their homes to get a COVID-19 vaccine. If you are eligible, register on https://linktr.ee/vaccinationdrive.

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