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Unvaccinated patients flood Florida hospitals

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Doctors in the United States (US) are expressing their frustration as they battle to keep COVID-19 patients alive in Florida hospitals who chose not to be vaccinated or take the necessary precautions.

“The biggest tragedy we see is the preventable loss of life,” says ex-South African, Dr Ari Sareli, who is chief of critical-care medicine and oversees all of Memorial Healthcare System’s intensive-care units (ICUs).

Sareli, a King David High School Linksfield alumnus who grew up in Glenhazel, lives in Boca Raton. He told the SA Jewish Report, “It’s when people pay the ultimate price, and as healthcare workers, we understand the tragedy is that loss of life could have been prevented with vaccination.”

Certain states like Florida are buckling under a crippling summer surge in COVID-19 cases led by the contagious Delta variant.

In Florida, where thousands of Jewish ex-South Africans have settled, hospitals are groaning with severely ill patients – the majority of whom are unvaccinated. Mask wearing isn’t mandated, and restaurants, beaches, bars, and businesses remain open.

Florida is one of the worst hit US states in terms of new COVID-19 cases and death attributed to the disease. A few days ago, the state which comprises a little more than 6% of the US population, accounted for about one in five of the country’s new cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has urged people to vaccinate, but hasn’t instituted a mask mandate and intends to keep the tourist state open in spite of the Delta spike. He is opposed to imposing lockdowns and new restrictions. Some are saying these factors have contributed to the surge in the sunshine state, and it’s not expected to reach a peak anytime soon.

Sareli said healthcare workers “get to see the suffering, we get to see the broken lives, and we see patients dying in what could have been a preventable tragedy”.

“It’s absolutely true that, with vaccination, a very small minority of people may get critically ill and may even die, but that proportion is so small and the overwhelming majority of people could be saved. They could be at a point in their lives where they aren’t devastated, where the lives of their families aren’t shattered,” he said.

Governor DeSantis has reportedly tried to block local communities and schools from mandating the use of face masks, as well as opposing attempts by private businesses to require vaccination as a condition of providing services, drawing criticism from many local leaders.

As Florida continues to set records for new cases and hospitalisations, the mayor of Miami Beach, Dan Gelber, called DeSantis the “Pied Piper of COVID-19, leading everybody off a cliff”.

While many residents have been fully vaccinated, there are many who refuse to get the life-saving jab.

Hospital beds in the state are filling up rapidly with people who have serious cases of COVID-19. Some hospitals have reportedly reached capacity in their ICUs.

This week, Palm Beach County is to declare a state of emergency to deal with the pandemic. With more than 1 000 new COVID-19 cases per day, the community spread is high and the numbers are expected to rise, experts said.

The vaccination rate among the elderly is quite high, but lower among younger people, and healthcare workers are witnessing more hospitalisations in that population.

Sareli said that his hospital group had 133 ICU beds. At the time of going to print, there were 145 ICU patients, with the overwhelming majority of them ill with COVID-19, mostly on ventilators.

“The ICUs are operating above capacity. Cafeterias and conference rooms have been converted to provide additional patient spaces,” he said.

“There are problems with oxygen delivery, and the entire healthcare system in the state is under huge pressure.”

Justine Goldberg, originally from Johannesburg who lives in Miami, is a medical physician at Memorial Healthcare System, in Hollywood, Florida. She posted on Facebook on 15 August, “This war isn’t even halfway over.

“We are already running out of steam, and can’t afford to give up the fight now. Today is my 12th day in a row working. For most healthcare workers, exhaustion is an understatement. The hardest part is to keep going, saving lives when people aren’t vaccinated and are presenting more critically ill than ever. The majority of patients affected right now are unvaccinated!”

She explained how after trying everything possible to help a 50-year-old unvaccinated female patient, she was forced to intubate her.

“Eventually I had to call it and intubate her. This doesn’t seem so bad while you’re reading this, but when you’re seeing someone fight for their life to take that breath and survive, it’s heartbreaking.”

An ex-South African mom in Boca Raton who preferred to remain anonymous, told the SA Jewish Report that though she and her family had taken every precaution to remain healthy, many did what they liked.

“We wear masks anywhere in public, but not everyone thinks like this. People are selfish, stupid, and ignorant,” she said.

“COVID-19 has gone crazy in Florida. While some of us are extra cautious, there are many refusing to wear masks or get the vaccination, and they are the ones getting gravely ill. It makes no sense to defy the evidence and the science – vaccination and masks work.”

She’s disappointed because like many of her friends, she wants life to return to a new normal as soon as possible. “My child hasn’t been to school for more than a year and a half. Our family hasn’t eaten at a restaurant since this pandemic started. Thankfully, when my son goes back to school later this month, masks will have been mandated at his private Jewish school, but other schools are different.

“Every conversation is about COVID-19. Everyone has their own thoughts and ideas. While our hospitals are full, people are going away on holiday, eating in restaurants, and travelling. The schools should do full COVID-19 testing on every staff member and kid before they go back to school. Kids have all been away on various summer camps, and bring the virus home with them. It’s going to get interesting.”

Annette Polovin, who also lives in Boca Raton, has been extra careful since the start of the pandemic to the point of insisting that her grandchildren are tested before visiting on weekends. In spite of this, three out of four family members contracted COVID-19 about a month ago.

“Fortunately, we were all fully vaccinated, so we had it mildly, but my sister in Durban got it and landed up in hospital. She hadn’t received the vaccination yet,” Polovin said.

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Going to Rage like ‘playing Russian Roulette’

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Expert in mass gathering medicine, Professor Efraim Kramer, told the SA Jewish Report this week that “Rage is nothing short of teenage Russian Roulette that may take the lives of its participants and cause large national collateral damage in disease and death, as it did last year.”

Kramer said this following a letter written by the Gauteng General Practitioners Collaboration (GGPC) was sent to local principals, begging them to tell students not to go to end-of-year Rage festivals because of the pandemic.

Matric Rage is a group of festivals held at South African coastal towns like Plettenberg Bay and Ballito to celebrate the end of school. Matric Rage 2020 is widely considered to be the super-spreader event that fuelled South Africa’s deadly second wave of COVID-19.

This year’s Matric Rage organisers say they have put safety measures and protocols in place, including that no one can attend without being fully vaccinated. But in their letter, the general practitioners (GPs) say, “However good their intentions, we don’t believe that the COVID-19 safety measures suggested by the organisers can prevent the spread of the virus. A large gathering like this, run over a few days, and consisting of excited teens is the ideal environment for a super-spreader event – as last year’s event demonstrated. Even a ‘vax passport’ [now that 18 year olds are eligible] and daily rapid antigen tests are unlikely to be able to contain an inevitable presence and spread of COVID-19 amongst the revellers and beyond them to more vulnerable people.

“Given the low vaccination rate in South Africa, a festival event of this size poses a considerable risk of a significant and unnecessary contribution to a fourth spike [wave],” they said.

Kramer, head of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, and professor of Sports Medicine at Pretoria University, said, “No parent has the right to put their children, other children, and society at health risk because of irresponsible personal excuses that the youngsters need to chill out. These mass gathering, high-risk events can cause death – it’s no different to drinking and driving. Or will the same parents agree to drinking and driving because their kids had a difficult year?” he asked rhetorically.

“I agree that the young generation have sustained COVID-19 collateral damage psychologically, emotionally, and even mentally, all requiring adequate and appropriate countermeasures and social counselling activities,” said Kramer. “However, it’s what’s done, how it’s done, when and where it’s done, and the attention to health-precaution detail that’s primary and paramount.

“Regarding vaccination, these close-contact, mass gathering, crowded events remain a super-spreader, and have resulted in the unvaccinated and partially vaccinated occupying the majority of hospital ICU [intensive-care unit] beds, mechanical ventilators, and sadly, coffins,” he said.

“If Rage continues unabated against sound medical advice, no participant should be allowed back home without full COVID-19 testing. In addition, no participant should be allowed into any communal event including shuls or related activities without evidence of full COVID-19 testing. Finally, no participant should be allowed back to school or education institutions without evidence of full COVID-19 testing.

“Let us not redress COVID-19 collateral damage by bring out the worst in us,” he pleaded. “Let it rather bring out the best, the most innovative, the most exciting, energetic, low risk, safety-assured events that allow us all – young and old – to socialise with each other again. It can be done with discipline, attention to detail, direction, and supervision with effective command and control. All for one, and one for all.”

But one Cape Town parent, Mike Abel, said he will allow his son to go to Rage. “The fine balancing act as a parent is always to consider your children’s physical health and their mental health. These two don’t always go hand in hand when your kids run onto a rugby or hockey pitch with gum guards, head guards, knee guards, and silent words to the gods,” he said.

“Lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions have played havoc with mental and physical health. As social creatures, our children have become more sedentary and disconnected. Rage is an opportunity for excitement, fun, and reconnection.

“Our son is 18 and vaccinated. Is Rage ideal? No. Is it 100% safe? No. Do we think it’s the right decision for him to go? Yes. It will be better for him than not going. He’ll have fun. He’ll let off steam. He’ll connect, laugh, play, swim, and enjoy his new-found freedom and transition from school to this new chapter and adventure. Will we sleep easy while he’s there? No. But we hope his maturity, sense of responsibility, and values will guide him well-ish. Our kids need a degree of risk and freedom for both their physical and mental well-being.”

The GGPC letter was drafted by a group of GPs including three local Jewish doctors. One of them, Dr Sheri Fanaroff, said, “Even with COVID-19 protocols in place, in reality they don’t happen. It’s the same as saying there should be no drugs allowed, but we know there are. I have a matric child, and I’m happy for her to go away and have fun, but not to a massive organised event. Yes, they’ve had a lousy two years, but there are safer ways to have fun. Parents don’t want to make their child be the only one that’s excluded, and we would rather the events be cancelled altogether than force parents and children to make a choice.

“The other issue is that many kids born later in the year won’t be fully vaccinated and two weeks post vaccination by the time Rage comes. Many don’t want to get vaccinated during exams,” she said. “And while young people don’t always get extremely ill from COVID-19, we are seeing a fair amount of long-term consequences. A good percent of this age group are battling six months later with chronic fatigue, arthritis, joint pain, brain fog, and the emotional consequences of all of that.”

Another GP involved in the drafting of the letter, Dr Daniel Israel, said, “One has to differentiate between normal social events and super-spreader events. I’m pretty pro people getting out socially at the moment with safe protocols, but super-spreader events are a no-go. These are teenagers who have just finished matric, and everything about their partying has to do with consumption of alcohol, physical closeness, and small spaces, which all lends itself to COVID-19 spreading. So, by the nature of the people who come to it, you can’t have a safe event.

“A question could be, ‘well these are young, healthy kids – what’s the difference?’ But we know even from last year that when they get home, they don’t isolate properly, they go home on planes, and they do spread it,” he said. “So, the same way that we haven’t been able to do certain things in a pandemic – like Broadway is closed – we think Rage should be closed too. We may be able to have holidays, but not Rage. We’re hoping that next year, we’ll be in a different place.”

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Jewish activists take on alleged Hermanus rapist

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Two Johannesburg Jewish gender-abuse activists are at the centre of a battle to try stop an alleged rapist from preying on more young women travellers in the seaside town of Hermanus in the Western Cape.

Wendy Hendler and Rozanne Sack run a non-profit organisation called Koleinu, which offers a helpline to victims of abuse in the community.

Earlier this year, it was brought to their attention that a man accused of sexual harassment and rape was working as a surf instructor and owner of a guesthouse and surf school in the popular coastal town renowned for whale watching. The man, whose name is known to the SA Jewish Report, hasn’t appeared in court or been formally charged, and for this reason, he cannot be named. He has vehemently denied all allegations against him.

Said Hendler, “Koleinu received information from a caller to our helpline informing us about victims she knew of. She was advised to put them in touch with us as soon as possible.”

So began a mammoth task of gathering information and supporting victims to expose him.

In the course of their investigation, Hendler and Sack have taken statements from two international female tourists to South Africa who claim they were raped by him. One was allegedly raped in February last year during her stay at his guesthouse and surf school, the other seven years ago in Cape Town while she was a foreign student.

With the help of abuse activist Luke Lamprecht and attorneys specialising in the field, Hendler and Sack have compiled information on the man’s alleged inappropriate sexual behaviour and harassment, which they say spans several years.

Following a recent article in Daily Maverick highlighting the women’s horrific ordeals, news of the man’s behaviour has shocked the Hermanus townsfolk. The local surfing community held an anti-gender-based violence demonstration last week near the Hermanus Magistrates Court, where all concerned citizens of the town were invited.

Although the man’s hostel and surf school has an excellent 9.1 rating on Booking.com with some glowing reviews, Tripadvisor last week posted a message saying that it had been made aware of recent media reports or events concerning the property “which may not be reflected in reviews found on this listing”.

“Accordingly, you may wish to perform additional research for information about this property when making your travel plans,” the site said.

The two victims, whose names are being withheld to protect their identity, are grateful to Koleinu.

“When I left South Africa, I was traumatised and in denial,” said Melanie (not her real name), “Koleinu has given me hope that other women won’t become victims of his abuse. Its comfort and guidance has been wonderful. I feel that in some way, I have played a small part in stopping him.”

Melanie, who lives in the United States, and Julia (also not her real name) from the United Kingdom, connected for the first time on social media after Melanie reached out to fellow travellers a year ago online in a bid to find people who may have experienced a similar ordeal.

“I had never looked him up before, and as soon as I saw his Instagram page and all the pictures of him with young women, it was like being hit by a lightning bolt,” she said.

She direct-messaged women from the surf school’s Instagram page, posting how she had met the owner of the surf school when she was 20 years old studying abroad in South Africa six years ago. After he befriended her and showed her around Cape Town, she wrote, “On our third meeting, he drugged and aggressively raped me in his truck outside of a bar. It took me years to process this, to actually realise what happened and get over it, but I was in denial at the time and didn’t press charges. I’m reaching out to anyone who has ever associated with him and inquiring if this behaviour is a pattern. Has he done anything to you? Or anyone you know?”

To her astonishment, she was flooded with responses by women from all over the world, including countries like Israel and Mexico, alleging inappropriate sexual behaviour and harassment.

One of the women was Julia, who said he had raped her in a bedroom at his Hermanus guest accommodation in February last year.

The man has denied any involvement, telling the SA Jewish Report, “Those allegations are completely twisted, false, and damaging. I would never drug anyone. It’s an extremely hurtful allegation.”

He said he was talking to attorneys in Cape Town with a view to suing for defamation.

“I would like to add that these allegations were started by a girl seven years ago with no connection to my business who messaged thousands of my Instagram followers telling them I date drugged her.”

In relation to the other victims’ allegations, he said, “Some allegations are from a rival business owner in my road who wants me out of the picture. Proper scandal.”

Hendler and Sack are hoping that the publicity will encourage other victims to come forward and alert tourists and locals about the possible danger he presents.

“We need a local victim to come forward and be willing to lay criminal charges against him,” said Sack, “In this way, a legal case can be instituted. It’s difficult – if not impossible – for the two women to lay charges against him while they don’t live in this country.”

Although the two tourists’ ordeals differ, Hendler said the alleged perpetrator had preyed on their vulnerabilities.

“These types of abusers often have a radar for people’s vulnerabilities, and they zone in and demolish their victims’ defences,” she said.

From dozens of posts online, the man openly body shames women, and has been described as a sex pest and pervert.

One Johannesburg teenager who met him during her brief stay at his surf school told the SA Jewish Report that he was “weird and creepy”.

“From the minute I met him, I felt uncomfortable. He was dodgy from the start,” she said.

One local 22-year-old resident said that on two separate occasions, once in Cape Town the other in Hermanus, he had made her feel very uncomfortable.

“I told him more than three times to stop touching me, but after expressing that he would, he still continued being inappropriate towards me and I felt I was being sexually harassed. I believe he needs to be stopped as soon as possible.”

Said Hendler, “Violent crime against women in this country generally isn’t reported. It’s only by empowering victims to find their voice and join in support of one another that we can hope to make any kind of change. We implore any other victims of this man to follow the example of these two courageous young ladies.”

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Stories from hell: SA Jews remember 9/11

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September 11 2001 was 20 years ago and seemingly a million miles away, but for some South African Jews who were eye witness to the events, it remains close to home.

“I still have nightmares,” says Jonathan “Jonty” Kantor, who was meant to meet a friend at the World Trade Center (WTC) that day. He slept late, and woke to news of the attack, which profoundly changed his life.

“We didn’t know what was going on, and we honestly thought the world was coming to an end,” he says, a sentiment echoed by other South African Jews who were there. With all communication cut off, those who witnessed the chaos and horror had reason to believe it.

Kantor now lives in Johannesburg, but he was a student at Yeshiva Somayach Monsey at the time. He remembers that when he woke up, “everything was so quiet. Then I saw other students in a panic. They believed we were all about to die. They told me that planes had hit the WTC. I had always wanted to go there, and had arranged to meet a friend there that morning, but we both thankfully survived.”

He was also teaching a class whose students all had parents working at the WTC. By some miracle, all the parents survived. He also remembers that there were two brisses that day, which delayed people from going to work.

In the weeks that followed, “it was the same heaviness in the whole city that you see in a dead body. The only light was seeing Hatzolah rushing in to help. And you couldn’t walk more than a block without people hugging you.” This was in complete contrast to the city he had arrived in at the end of 2000, where he found people to be incredibly unfriendly.

Soon afterwards, he decided to return to South Africa. “I realised that nothing was more important than being with the people I love. 9/11 taught me that we shouldn’t take for granted the life we have. We complain about the small things, but they’re actually not important. Here in South Africa, we have a really good life, even with the difficulties. If we focused more on the positives, we could be happier.”

Port Elizabeth-born Grant Gochin, who now lives in Los Angeles, was supposed to be on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into Tower Two. “Our friends Dan, Ron, and their three-year-old son David had been on vacation in Rhode Island. We were in Manhattan. We were supposed to meet up and fly home together. My son, Bryce, was only about five months old. He was as cranky as hell. I was so frustrated that I said to [my husband], Russell, ‘Let’s just go home.’”

“We came home on the Monday. On the Tuesday morning we had the television on. The first plane hit, and I thought it had been an accident. Then United 175 hit, and I asked Russell, ‘Wasn’t that the flight we were supposed to be on?’ We realised that Dan, Ron, and David were dead.”

American born and bred Stacie Hasson now lives in Cape Town, and has some unsettling links to 9/11. Her close friend lived next door to lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, who lived and trained in South Florida in the months before the attack. “We would spend so much time at my friend’s house, and Atta would be around. He was always wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses,” she says.

Not only that, but she also lost a friend in the attack. “I remember exactly where I was at just 21 years old, learning that my childhood neighbour, Michelle Goldstein, lost her life in Tower Two shortly after calling her mother to say she was okay after Tower One was hit. She got married six months to the day before it happened. Finding Michelle’s name at the memorial was unlike anything I could have prepared myself for.”

“I saw people jumping out of the towers,” says Elise Barron Jankelowitz, who was visiting New York with her brother after attending her other brother’s wedding in Chicago. They were going to stay at a friend, but landed up staying at the Marriott Hotel that linked the Twin Towers.

“We arrived the night before, and woke up to a blast. The hotel’s alarm was going off. Our windows were starting to crack, and we saw smoke and debris.” At first they were told to stay in their rooms. If they had, they wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

“Eventually, they told us to get out. We got dressed, grabbed passports and travellers cheques, and started walking down the stairs from the 15th floor,” she says. “The lifts weren’t working. We heard people shout, ‘A body hit my [hotel] window!’ Lots of people were in pyjamas. As we were ushered out, policemen said, ‘Cover your head and run.’ As we were crossing the road, we heard this insane noise of a jet engine, and then the second plane hit.”

That was when they saw people jump. It was also when her brother told her “these buildings are coming down – we need to get away”. He also said they should stay near water in case they needed to jump in.

That was when the first building fell. “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. A man appeared and it looked like his eyes were bleeding. He was covered in ash. I gave him a bottle of water, and as he washed his face, he said, ‘I’ve just come from hell.’”

They were waiting by the Staten Island Ferry when the second tower fell. “We hid under a truck. Everyone thought bombs might fall, or another plane might hit.” Eventually, they made their way to Staten Island where they bought essentials and got hold of family. They lost everything they left in the hotel, but were grateful to be alive. “As we flew out of New York six days later, there were fighter jets on either side of us. I’m so grateful my brother thought so smartly. We went back a year later to retrace our steps.”

Rabbi Levi Avtzon, now rabbi of Linksfield Shul, was a 17-year-old yeshiva student when he saw the second plane hit. “In the corner of the large study hall, which was on the fourth floor of a large building in Brooklyn, there was a fire escape. If you stood there, you had a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline.” He heard that smoke was coming out of the towers, so he and others went to look. Some drifted away, but he stayed. “A plane suddenly showed up. I was sure it was from the fire department coming to spray water. A split second later, the top half of the south tower blew up. It looked like a 50-story fire – like a bubble of fire.”

Later, visiting Ground Zero, “I remember the stench. It was all-encompassing. The whole experience made me feel unsafe. I would stand at the same fire escape and check that the Empire State Building was still there. Twenty years later, I still struggle to make sense of the events of the day.”

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