Top doctor says Charedi community presents ‘ideal conditions’ for virus spread

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Top doctor says Charedi community presents ‘ideal conditions’ for virus spread

Harley Street paediatrician Dr Andrew Sawczenko says strictly-Orthodox are vulnerable due to over-crowding and having large families, as he urges observance of social distancing

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Dr Andrew Sawczenko
Dr Andrew Sawczenko

A Jewish consultant paediatrician on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19 has advised the Orthodox Jewish community to obey social distancing rules fully.

Dr Andrew Sawczenko, who works at Homerton Hospital in north London, said living conditions in the Charedi community presented “ideal conditions” for the virus to spread.

“There’s a lot of overcrowding in the community, which typically has large families, and we see health problems because of this,” he told Jewish News on Friday. “Such conditions are ideal for spreading infection.”

Sawczenko, an honorary senior Lecturer at University College London who  also works at Moorfields Eye Hospital and has contributed to national and international research, said Homerton treats many Charedi Jews owing to its proximity to a large community, and voiced concern that Charedim might not have full access to public health information.

“Whilst everyone got a text from the UK government, because the situation is evolving fast, all of us need to keep updated, using information from radio, TV and the web.”

Although children are less susceptible to Covid-19 than adults, in part it is thought owing to their reduced number of ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) receptors, which is what the virus uses to take over a cell, Sawczenko is nevertheless part of the front-line battle.

“We undertook a drill at Homerton this morning, on what to do when an ambulance comes in and a child is acutely unwell with Covid symptoms. No doubt it’ll all become clearer when we repeatedly face this scenario.”

Very young children need specialised ventilators, but older ones can be cared for using adult ventilators, and he said they had rehearsed how to use these. This is one of numerous potential issues, not least the expectation that the department’s junior doctors will be redirected to help deal with adult Covid patients in other parts of the hospital.

“It feels very much like the calm before the storm,” Dr Sawczenko said.

“We are still running telephone clinics but people are electing to stay away from A&E, and the children’s ward is less full, as we are discharging children as soon as we can.

“We have a Covid bay for children with proven infection, or awaiting confirmation, alongside a lot of worried parents.

“We’re expecting our junior staff to be taken away to help the adults, which will present its own challenges. Just taking blood from a child is a highly skilled task [typically carried out by junior staff] and not something I’ve practised for two decades now.

“We’re talking about lengthening shifts, putting a blow-up camp bed so we can sleep in the outpatients area to provide extra support at night, working out where we can shower in the morning and such.

“It reminds me of the old days. When I was training we’d regularly work 80-100 hour weeks. Today’s doctors are used to a 48-hour week.”

Asked if he had made special provisions personally, Sawczenko, who has a private practice in Harley Street, said he had “made sure my will and life insurance are up to date”. Although he has not been tested he was “suspicious that I may have had it”.

On the subject of personal protective equipment in hospitals, he said: “It is still sub-optimal. We’ve had a lot of stealing from members of the public. If you leave masks and gloves around they go.”

Morale was “generally high”, with most staff “highly motivated,” but said: “I’ve never known anything like this. Some colleagues in their seventies recall polio outbreaks and the 1968 Flu, but this is the most major health event that any of us has seen.

“If the projections are correct we are expecting a real tsunami to hit our adult colleagues in the next couple of weeks.”

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