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How Israel Successfully Combated COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How do you counter false rumors about the COVID-19 vaccine? Israel has had some success on that front. It was the first to vaccinate a majority of its adult population. Getting there meant combating skepticism, especially among ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. NPR's Daniel Estrin has the story.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: On a recent night, I drove with a man who helped wage Israel's war for the vaccine.

AVI BLUMENTAL: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Avi Blumental is an ultra-Orthodox PR consultant hired by the health ministry. We pass through Sanhedria, one of the neighborhoods he considers his battleground.

Avi, you were just pointing out very cramped apartments, very crowded conditions.

The virus spread fast in these devout Jewish communities.

BLUMENTAL: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He says many ignored the coronavirus rules against congregating because that's the glue that keeps their communities together. They meet three times a day for prayer. They attend religious schools. Some rabbis worried they would lose followers if they couldn't congregate. Infections rose, driving nationwide lockdowns and angering other Israelis.

BLUMENTAL: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Despite many rabbis' reluctance to follow lockdown rules, Avi says he still kept a line of communication with them. He needed them on his side because he knew they would have the most influence on their followers, to convince them to get vaccinated. But when he first approached them about the vaccines, the rabbis said...

BLUMENTAL: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: "Let's not be first. Let's wait and see the vaccine's effects." Within a week or two, the rabbis changed their minds. I asked Avi, did he appeal to their religious responsibility to save lives? Did he cite Jewish law?

BLUMENTAL: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Avi says, no, the rabbis did not need a lesson in Jewish scripture. What they needed to know was the science, the effectiveness and the safety of the vaccines. So he brought in Israel's top public health official. Their meeting lasted two hours, and the rabbis came out in favor. The next battle was to try and confront rumors and conspiracies that spread in these neighborhoods. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews shun TVs and smartphones and get their news from street posters and telephone news hotlines.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For English, press nine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Anonymous hotlines like this one warned against the vaccine, sharing stories of people who got their shots and died, without proving it was because of the vaccine. Avi convinced an influential council of rabbis to put anti-vaccine hotlines on a telephone blacklist. Then he went after anti-vaccine posters in the streets.

BLUMENTAL: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Avi shows me the walls where new anti-vaccine posters would appear all the time. He hired neighborhood locals to cover them up with pro-vaccine posters that said things like, the leading rabbis of Israel have been vaccinated. He says the poster war lasted two weeks before his opponents gave up. Today you have to look hard to find anti-vaccine posters in the streets. Despite all this work, what really helped turn the tide with many remaining skeptics was something unplanned - a funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF MOURNERS CRYING)

ESTRIN: Thirty-one-year-old Osnat Ben Sheetrit was ultra-Orthodox and ran a wig and bridal salon. She was about to give birth to her fifth child. Osnat remained hesitant, even after doctors made up their minds and endorsed vaccines for pregnant women. Her husband Yehuda finally made her a vaccine appointment, but it was too late. She caught COVID and died. Her newborn died, too. Yehuda, speaking through an interpreter, told me that is when the lies started to spread.

YEHUDA: (Through interpreter) All the various conspiracy theorists, they decided to fight us, and it was like an organized army. They were claiming that my wife, she was vaccinated and therefore she died. It was like they were twisting a knife in our stomach.

ESTRIN: And so the family set the record straight in interviews to ultra-Orthodox and mainstream media in Israel. They said she hadn't been vaccinated, and if she had been, she would have survived. Avi from the health ministry saw an opportunity to get people to listen. He organized a public campaign - get vaccinated to honor Osnat's memory. It sparked a wave of vaccinations. That was apparent from my visit to one Hasidic neighborhood. This is Ruth Tabib, with a new baby in a stroller.

RUTH TABIB: (Through interpreter) She hesitated because there was a lot of rumors. But what convinced her was this ultra-Orthodox girl that died during her pregnancy and left four children without a mother.

ESTRIN: Today more than 80% of ultra-Orthodox Israelis above the age of 30 are vaccinated or have recovered from the virus.

YEHUDA: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Yehuda, the widower, shows me around his new home, where he just moved with his four small children. They couldn't bear being in their old home without mom.

YEHUDA: (Through interpreter) The memories, they were very difficult.

ESTRIN: Their mattresses are on the floor. Their holy books are still packed in boxes. Yehuda says strangers have called him, hesitant about taking the vaccine, and he's invited them over.

YEHUDA: (Through interpreter) And they saw the situation with the kids at home. It didn't take them much time to realize the vaccine is the answer.

ESTRIN: It wasn't the official campaign or even the pleas by rabbis that convinced many on the fence. It took the story of a young woman who didn't get vaccinated and who ended up in the same grave with her baby.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.