NYC works to contain COVID-19’s ‘Ocean Parkway cluster’ in southern Brooklyn

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The New York City Department of Health has identified part of South Brooklyn as having a high number of coronavirus cases, raising concerns about the potential for another COVID-19 outbreak at a critical time of the pandemic .In one of the highest test positivity rates seen in recent months, 4.71% of tests in Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst have come back positive in recent weeks.

The city’s overall positivity rate has hovered around 1% for more than two months.

Health officials now classify the rise in South Brooklyn as “the Ocean Parkway cluster.” The city does not break down cases by religion, but the area has a large Orthodox Jewish population and officials have previously cited the community for social distancing violations associated with funerals and religious events. Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio attributed 16 new cases in Borough Park to a big wedding. But the mayor refrained from explicitly mentioning the Jewish community, after being criticized for singling them out at a large funeral gathering in Williamsburg.

During his press briefing on Wednesday morning, de Blasio said the city would take “immediate action”.

Dr Mitchell Katz, the head of the public hospital system who grew up in Ocean Parkway, warned of the dire consequences of not taking the proper precautions. He noted that his father died of covid two nights ago in Israel, which recently issued a second lockdown order as infection rates deteriorated.

“If we don’t do the right thing, we will have to be in a lockdown situation,” he said. “We don’t want that. We want people to wear masks, we want them to stay separate, not to have large gatherings. ”

“There are easier ways for us to continue with our lives,” he added.

When asked about the cause of the rise, Patrick Gallahue, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, said he could not provide more information and an investigation is still ongoing.

Several members of the Hasidic community have told Gothamist that they are worried about the upcoming Yom Kippur holiday. “There are services packed into every Shul every day,” said a source. “Covid is hardly an afterthought in these regions. ”

Hatzalah, the Jewish ambulance service, warned earlier this month of an increase in cases. And according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, some Brooklyn Orthodox leaders have urged members of their community not to invite outside visitors for the upcoming major holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The ultra-Orthodox community has been hit hard by the virus, with Hasidic media reporting that some 700 members died in the virus’s first weeks.

Three other neighborhoods have also been identified by the city as having large increases in cases from the end of July: Williamsburg and two neighborhoods in Queens, Kew Gardens and Far Rockway.

Kew Gardens is home to St. John’s University. Between September 12 and September 25, the university reported 7 cases at its Queens campus.

Cases in the Ocean Parkway, Far Rockaway and Williamsburg area have tripled in the past eight weeks or so.

In total, the four neighborhoods account for 20% of all new cases citywide. The number of new infections rose significantly in the first half of the month, reaching 303 on September 14. It has since started to decline.

“At this point, these increases could potentially evolve into more widespread community transmission and spread to other neighborhoods unless action is taken,” the Department of Health wrote in an email Tuesday evening. “We are monitoring the situation for the need to take further action in these areas. ”

City alert comes as city braces for what some experts say could be a resurgence or ‘second wave’ of the virus as schools reopen, more employees return to work, restaurants prepare to grow with meals inside months. On top of that, the change of seasons and colder weather are expected to bring more people indoors, adding to the risk of aerosol transmission.

On Tuesday, de Blasio spoke about the rise in the aforementioned neighborhoods and said the city would launch a targeted outreach effort in those neighborhoods.

Dr Dave Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, said city officials were covering neighborhoods with robocolls, WhatsApp messages, communicating with places of worship and placing ads in local newspapers. It also distributes masks and disinfectants in these neighborhoods.

“Covid is spreading in some neighborhoods faster and more widely than the rest of the city,” Chokshi said.

Jake Offenhartz contributed reporting for this story.

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