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NYC tracing program has few speakers for Orthodox Jews amid COVID-19 outbreak

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The city’s Test and Trace program has fewer than half a dozen Yiddish speakers on staff as city officials struggle to contain the growing coronavirus outbreak in several neighborhoods with large Orthodox populations in Brooklyn and Queens.

The program’s head, Dr. Ted Long, confirmed the readout from agency documents under questioning from Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) during an oversight hearing Wednesday.

“It’s a handful right now,” said Long, attempting to spin the astonishingly low number, “so we’re aggressively hiring more.”

Levine pressed again, pointing out that the Test and Trace program’s own data marked the number of Yiddish speakers with an asterisk — common bureaucratic code for fewer than six employees — a reading that Long admitted was correct.

Under questioning, Long refused to disclose how many are actually on staff, citing privacy reasons. “When we surpass five,” Long told Levine, “we’ll be happy to share that right away.”

The lawmaker replied: “It’s really a problem. It reflects a failure to adapt to the cultural needs, the linguistic needs of this community.”

After the hearing, officials told The Post they are seeking to hire 21 people who speak Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian.

Levine’s questions came as City Hall battles its first significant COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic erupted in the spring and devastated the Big Apple, killing more than 23,000 people in a matter of weeks.

City Councilman Chaim Deutsch (D-Brooklyn)
City Councilman Chaim Deutsch (D-Brooklyn)Taidgh Barron/NY Post

The crisis is centered in nine neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that are home to large and insular Orthodox Jewish communities, where officials acknowledge they have struggled to enforce social-distancing and mask guidelines.

The de Blasio administration built the sprawling 3,600-person-strong contact tracing operation — and controversially put the city’s public hospital system in charge — to quickly checkmate future COVID-19 outbreaks, like those now reported in Borough Park, Midwood and Far Rockaway.

But the Yiddish-speaking shortage wasn’t the only red flag raised Wednesday about City Hall’s response to the southern Brooklyn and eastern Queens hotspots.

One local councilman, Chaim Deutsch (D-Brooklyn) told The Post that officials struggled to get him timely updates in recent days and that his request for masks to distribute would take a week to fulfill.

“It’s crazy, I shouldn’t even be calling them, they should be calling me!” Deutsch said.

City Hall spokeswoman Avery Cohen said the administration has repeatedly reached out to Deutsch and his Borough Park community, including meetings with local newspapers, community leaders and city-led mask distributions.

“From the moment we began seeing signals, we’ve worked in lockstep with the elected officials representing these areas to engage them in community outreach and prevention,” she said. “These efforts are ongoing, and we’ll continue this collaboration to drive transmission down even further.”

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