Montreal researchers are studying the high COVID rates among haredim

Poster advertising COVID vaccination clinic in Montreal Hasidic community.

A study supported by the federal government will investigate the incidence of COVID among the haredi Jewish community in Montreal, which is said to have been “disproportionately affected” by the coronavirus.

The multidisciplinary study is being conducted by the government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), in collaboration with a research team from McGill University and Refuah v’Chesed, a medical clinic founded by the Hasidic community and mainly serving that population.

Concerned by the high rate of infection, Refuah v’Chesed reached out to McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences to help it look into the causes. Refuah v’Chesed, a nonprofit organization located in the Mile End district, has been disseminating information on COVID from the start of the pandemic and organizing pop-up vaccination clinics in association with public health authorities.

“Our first aim is to determine how prevalent immunity to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID) is in the Orthodox Jewish community, whether through infection or vaccination or both, acknowledging members’ shared genetics and health issues, beliefs and behaviours,” said the study’s principal investigator Peter Nugus, an associate professor in the family medicine department and the Institute of Health Sciences Education at McGill.

He is a sociologist whose field is studying how the way a group of people act and think impacts their health, in this case, the spread of COVID.

The CITF hopes the findings will be useful in the formulation of government policy concerning other tight-knit or marginalized communities in the country considered at risk during a health crisis.

Blood samples will be taken from 1,250 participants before and after vaccination to gauge immune responses to the coronavirus, including Delta and other variants.

 The team will conduct a survey of the participants, as well as do in-depth interviews with individuals and observe the daily life of the community in general.

Nugus added, “Compliance with public health directives is greater when policies resonate with people and how they live their everyday lives. Better understanding of local beliefs and practices can aid in the adoption of policies within such close-knit groups.”

“Refuah v’Chesed has played a crucial role in managing COVID-19 among our Orthodox Jewish communities, which were greatly affected by the pandemic and are still at risk of more infections,” stated Aron Friedlander, senior medical liaison for Refuah v’Chesed. “We are happy to partner with researchers at McGill for this study that will help us to better understand immunity to SARS-CoV-2 in our communities and plan to protect families during future COVID-19 outbreaks.”

The Hasidic community’s large, multi-generational families and high density, as well as strict devotion to communal prayer, observance and education, made it difficult to obey public health directives on social distancing and large gatherings. There were some instances of resistance.

However, the Quebec Council of Hasidic Jews has from the outset of the pandemic strongly urged the community to adhere to the guidelines and to get vaccinated. The council launched two court challenges to the rules on places of worship, but at the same time called for those rules to be observed until a judgment was rendered.

Refuah v’Chesed medical director Dr. Peter Steinmetz, a lecturer in family medicine at McGill, is also on the team, which includes immunologists, an epidemiologist, a biostatistician and an anthropologist.

CITF executive director Dr. Tim Evans said that, beyond understanding the extent of infection and vaccine efficacy in this particular community, the study is expected to shed light on how variants emerge and the nature of immune responses following vaccination against them.

Established by the federal government in April 2020, the CITF is overseen by  scientists and other experts from universities and healthcare facilities across Canada. It supports numerous studies to determine the extent of COVID infection in the general population, as well as in specific communities, to understand the nature of immunity following infection, and to help monitor the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.