Uplifting Shavuot as Chev vaccinates residents and Holocaust survivors
Every single Chevrah Kadisha resident over 60, as well as most of Johannesburg’s Holocaust survivors, were vaccinated last week to their relief and that of their families.
“To say that there was overwhelming relief is an understatement,” says Benjy Porter, whose parents are residents at Sandringham Gardens.
The Chev’s chief executive, Saul Tomson, says, “The Department of Health visited us on International Nurses Day, and were impressed with our setup and ability to roll out mass vaccinations. We were told we would be given vaccines for our Sandringham Gardens residents, as many are the most frail and bedridden, and there is no way they can go to vaccination sites.
“We had no choice but to start on Shavuot with this life-saving mission,” Tomson says. “The reaction of the residents was heartwarming. Some of them were dancing and singing in celebration.”
According to Tomson, the Chev has ten qualified vaccinators and a pharmacy on site. As the first doses were given on Monday morning, he walked over from shul to witness them.
“It was really overwhelming. Later, dignitaries from the Department of Health, the premier’s office, and the MEC’s office arrived. We were one of 11 sites they initiated, but one of the only sites that used all our shots on the first day. So, they sent more the next day and so on for the rest of the week. This was how we were able to vaccinate all residents across all our facilities. They kept sending and we kept vaccinating, working late into the evenings at times.
“At the end of the week, we realised that we would have a few left over, and we sought permission to vaccinate Holocaust survivors in Johannesburg,” he says.
“We are mindful that Holocaust survivors don’t do well in queues, so we brought them to Sandringham Gardens. It was very emotional.” Sadly, some survivors have lost their lives to the pandemic, so the Chev was eager to help those that it could.
“We wanted to show them they haven’t been forgotten. Their story requires us to go above and beyond the call of duty, with extra care and compassion.”
Porter’s mother, Joan Porter, says she is grateful that the Chev prioritised her husband, knowing that he had to have five days between his vaccination and his chemotherapy.
“It was done magnificently. A nurse came to fetch us and our IDs were checked. We were asked if we had any fears [about the vaccine] as well as allergies and health issues. We were told it might be sore as it’s a long needle, and shown what to do if it hurts. It was very quick. Afterwards, we were taken for tea and coffee and given two Panados!”
“We are so thrilled and relieved that we got vaccinated,” she says, describing the atmosphere among residents as “positive” and the process as “very professional”.
Clara Taub, a resident of Our Parents Home, admits that she was both apprehensive and full of hope. “COVID-19 has been with us for almost a year and a half. We have all been in a state of limbo during that time, but now we have a vaccine, and maybe that will help to alleviate the stress and loneliness we feel,” she says.
Describing the chatter between the residents as they were told they would finally get their jabs, she recalls how some asked, “Will it hurt?”, “How will it feel?”, and “Do I really want to go into the unknown?”
“How is it going to work, we wonder? I sit and give the sister my arm. ‘Ready?’ I nod and breathe. ‘All over.’ Wow, that was quick, and I didn’t feel anything! I have to go and sit with the others who have had their injections. I’m given a red sticker with the time on it. ‘You must wait for 25 minutes,’ the matron says. Well, now it’s all over and I go to lunch. ‘Any reaction?’ is the question going round the dining room. ‘I feel very tired,’ says one resident. ‘Will we be able to go to the shops now?’ says another. The next day, we all have sore arms, but the soreness doesn’t last. Now we wait for the second shot!”
Tomson says the Chev has since spent a lot of time educating residents about vaccines and has explained that immunity begins only after two weeks. Returning to some sense of normality is still a long journey, but for him, it’s a miracle that this momentous step has been taken.
“As the numbers creep up towards a third wave, the risk profile hasn’t changed. In time, we will look at increasing residents’ movements responsibly while maintaining a cautious approach.”
Jack Shmukler, who is turning 85 next week, is one of the Holocaust survivors who was given the vaccine. From surviving the Shoah by hiding in holes in the forest at the age of three to a global pandemic, Shmukler really has seen and survived it all. Now, the vaccine is one step closer to him enjoying the full and blessed life he has built up in South Africa.
“COVID-19 has been very hard on him and the whole family,” says his wife, Denise. “We led a very active life before the pandemic hit.” Her husband has also battled health issues, and going to hospital during the pandemic hasn’t been easy. “So, we were thrilled to get the vaccine. There’s no way we could have gone to vaccination sites and stood in a queue.”
Says Porter, “I feel immense gratitude to the Chev and Hashem that my parents were lucky enough to get a vaccine. I think it’s an enormous privilege.”
COVID-19 denialists cause headache for doctors
Though the fourth wave of COVID-19 has been mild, those who deny they have the virus have caused a headache for doctors because invariably, they help it to spread.
Experts are aware that many didn’t test for COVID-19 as it might have ruined their holiday. It wouldn’t have been a problem if they had isolated themselves, they say, however, many chose to ignore their symptoms, spreading the virus further.
“Denialists are a big headache,” says Dr Solly Lison, a Cape Town-based family physician, “so ventilation and small groups are essential. Having a window open when you are driving is also crucial.”
Lison has seen statistics indicating that the number of new cases has been declining at a slower rate in the Western Cape than it did in Gauteng. “Maybe that’s because people from Gauteng were here in the Western Cape [for their holidays],” he says.
Hatzolah’s statistics show that the number of new cases has been progressively decreasing over the past four weeks in Gauteng. In the week of 10 December 2021, 714 new cases were recorded, while 63 have been registered this week.
Currently, Hatzolah has 174 active cases, six COVID-19 patients in hospital, and 16 COVID-19 patients on home oxygen. Most of its cases have been occurred in the 20 to 60 age group.
“From what we are seeing at the moment, the symptoms seem to be a lot milder than previous variants,” says Darren Kahn, the executive general manager of Hatzolah Medical Rescue. “We do notice that vaccinated patients [who land up on oxygen] are certainly coming off oxygen a lot quicker than those who haven’t been vaccinated. But in general, people are certainly not as ill as they were previously.”
Kahn believes many haven’t joined the Hatzolah programme during this wave because they aren’t so sick.
“Omicron, which dominates in South Africa, is highly transmissible but less virulent, causing far less morbidity and very low actual direct mortality,” says Professor Efraim Kramer, a leading international expert in emergency medicine with a specialty in mass gatherings. “It will, as expected, spread globally, which is good because it gives those infected a natural immunity without severe illness.
“Therefore, with Omicron, we are learning to live and cohabit with it, like every winter flu. Of those who do get infected, some are mildly symptomatic, others are asymptomatic, but both spread the virus,” he says.
“The only large factor is vaccination, and that’s a personal choice. So, should we all carry on as normally as we can with Omicron, with or without the virus, and get on with our lives? Yes. It’s not a case of denying it, it’s a case of living with this uninvited guest in our daily lives.”
Dr Daniel Israel, a family practitioner in Johannesburg, says, “The Omicron variant peaked in Gauteng over the holidays, and we saw larger numbers than we had in the third wave. That proves the contagiousness of it. From what we are seeing as GPs, serious patients and admissions have been few and far between. Our practice alone has had three admissions, two of which were unvaccinated.”
He and Lison agree that many didn’t test because they didn’t want it to ruin their holiday.
Lison puts this down to the cost of the tests and the many false negatives recorded. He says the latter is a result of “people immediately testing after being in contact with somebody who had COVID-19. That’s the wrong thing to do. You’re going to get reliable positive results only on day five or six.”
Doctors agree that the wave is dissipating.
“The epidemic curve should reach baseline within the next 10 days to two weeks in Gauteng, and perhaps slightly later in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal,” says Professor Barry Schoub.
Schoub, who chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines, says the fourth wave was almost entirely driven by the Omicron variant in South Africa and ranked as the most extensive in terms of numbers of individuals infected, but it was significantly milder than preceding waves.
He says more than 90% of severe cases of COVID-19 in the fourth wave were in unvaccinated individuals. He and other experts agree that though Omicron is a vastly milder variant, it’s not harmless, especially for the unvaccinated.
Says, Lison, “They aren’t getting the chest infections to the degree they did before, and they are feeling better quicker.”
“Hospitals were much busier in December 2020,” says Lison. “There were many more PUIS [persons under investigation] who were dropping oxygen levels at that time. [Now] we don’t have to ensure that they get oxygen. They are coping better.”
Lison agrees that “people aren’t testing” when they show symptoms, and are often just isolating. He’s concerned that “people aren’t covering their noses” and that neck gaiters are “useless”.
“It stops you spitting as you speak, but you will get infected through it, and you will pass the infection through it as well. You need to wear a minimum three-layer mask covering your nose.”
The outlook for 2022 with regard to new variants is unclear, Schoub says, but it’s reassuring that “the great majority of the South African population do have antibodies to the virus, and this partly contributed to the relative mildness of the fourth wave. Hopefully, this will also contribute to ameliorating the effects of subsequent variants which may arise in the course of the year.
“Unfortunately, more than 50% of individuals in South Africa still haven’t been vaccinated. It’s imperative that every effort needs to be made to increase vaccine coverage in the population if we hope to bring the pandemic under control.”
From pandemic to “twindemic” as global cases soar
As South Africans heave a sigh of relief at the improving COVID-19 situation, other nations are recording record infection levels, reporting new variants, and even worrying about the rise of a “twindemic”.
Although Israel has been mustering record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-driven wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force on the weekend with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in person.
The country had been adopting a “traffic light” plan, in which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students attended school in-person or remotely.
A bigger stir has been caused by a woman in Israel being diagnosed with “flurona” at the start of January. However, this condition has been around for at least two years. Flurona is just the term for having COVID-19 and flu at the same time.
Strict measures to control the spread of coronavirus were expected to prevent flu transmission, which appears to have largely held true for 2020. Efforts to track flu cases face challenges, as flu tests are scarce and the illness can be confused with others, including COVID-19.
Israel is noticing flu spikes this winter after historically low case levels last year. After hitting record lows as coronavirus surged, flu cases in the United States (US) are rising this year. Europe’s flu season, meanwhile, is just starting.
Although Australia successfully contained outbreaks of coronavirus, about 86 000 of the 1.1 million cases it has amassed since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the past two weeks. It’s now getting close to attaining record levels of COVID-19 infections following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Several countries in Europe have already achieved that feat. On Wednesday, 12 December, daily cases in Germany (80 000) and Bulgaria (7 062) hit record levels, while Turkey logged a record level of more than 74 000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.
In contrast, on 12 January, the United Kingdom (UK) reported that COVID-19 cases fell nearly 45% from the previous week in what was the biggest drop since the arrival of Omicron. Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.
The picture isn’t so rosy in the US, where COVID-19 hospitalisations reached a record high on Monday, as a surge in infections strained health systems in several states. On Tuesday, the Indiana health department reported that more people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in its state than at any other point in the pandemic, and Oklahoma reported record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases on the weekend.
Faring north, the Canadian province of Quebec, facing a new wave of infections, has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons.
In terms of new variants, a Cyprus researcher recently discovered Deltacron, a reported new variant of COVID-19. It apparently combines the Delta and Omicron variants.
And, according to scientists in France, the new B.1.640.2 variant, named IHU, could be stronger than the Omicron variant. IHU has been detected in a vaccinated man who travelled to Cameroon, the host of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Researchers say this doesn’t mean IHU originated in the central African country.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 310.5 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.49 million. More than 9.46 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.
‘It’s about respect,’ couple says on seven decades of marriage
Israel and Vera (nee Wilkov) Bulafkin were high-school sweethearts when they first fell in love, and it has remained a romance for the ages as they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last week.
“Israel is 92 [born in 1929] and Vera is 91 [born in 1930],” says their son-in-law, Stanley Pincus. “Israel is from Krugersdorp and Vera from Randfontein. They met at Krugersdorp High School in Standard 6 [Grade 8]. It was love at first sight, and they got married on 6 January 1952 at the Berea Shul in Johannesburg.”
Israel is a pharmacist who ran a pharmacy called Medicine Chest in Northcliff. Vera worked with him throughout the time that they ran that business until they retired some time ago. They lived in Krugersdorp all their lives until they moved to Johannesburg about two years ago to be with their children. They have three children, Helene Pincus, Alan Bulafkin, and Malcolm Bulafkin (all married), eight grandchildren (four of whom are married), and three great grandchildren.
The couple say the secret to a successful marriage is “essentially to respect each other. Try not to argue much, but if you have an argument, don’t go to bed until you resolve the issue. Always put your spouse first!”
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