“What will I do without you?”
wailed the distraught husband. The funeral of Osnat Ben Shitrit in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot Cemetery was unspeakably tragic. Just 32 years old, Osnat was in perfect health before becoming infected with Covid-19, causing her to go into organ failure and ultimately pass away on February 20, 2021, despite the valiant efforts of her doctors. Her unborn baby did not survive.
Osnat and her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Shitrit, lived in the Givat Zeev neighborhood of Jerusalem along with their four children, the youngest only a year old. In the course of only days the family was destroyed by the virus that has devastated so many of our communities.
“My daughter was plucked from us too soon,” said Osnat’s mother, Roni Siani. “She was a flower.” She explained that Osnat had wanted to be vaccinated to protect herself against Covid-19, but she was wary of what it might do to her baby. Her brother-in-law ran one of Israel’s most popular anti-vaccine social media sites, which he subsequently shut down in the wake of Osnat’s death. “After this incident, I suspended it,” he explained. “When it happens in your own backyard, you realize that you need to think differently. We now understand the price being exacted by the coronavirus. I am against forced vaccinations, and I am not saying that people should run out to do it. But we know that this disease is deadly and that the vaccine saves lives.” Osnat’s sisters urged people to get vaccinated after her death.
Osnat was admitted to the Hadassah Medical Center on Tuesday, February 16, with respiratory distress. On Motzaei Shabbos, she began to deteriorate rapidly and experienced organ damage before passing away.
“This raises a red flag with regard to the dangers of Covid-19 to pregnant women,” Prof. Galia Grisaru-Soen, director of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Department at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, told The Times of Israel. “The new variants, British and maybe South African, seem to be more dangerous to pregnant women, and we should encourage pregnant women, at least after the first trimester, to be vaccinated.”
“You were a woman of valor,” Rabbi Yehuda Ben Shitrit wept at his wife’s funeral. “A week ago you told me that you dreamed that you saw your funeral. I ask your forgiveness. I promise that I will take care of our children. What will I do without you?” He asked Osnat to daven for their family from heaven.
Osnat Ben Shitrit’s untimely death has focused new attention on one of the most pressing questions in medicine today: Should pregnant women receive the Covid-19 vaccines?
Pregnant women considering whether to take the COVID-19 vaccine are facing a lot of conflicting advice. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion—ranging from the well-meaning (if not necessarily the well-informed) to the utterly outlandish. Rumors are flying about COVID-19 vaccines—about their safety, their efficacy, and whether or not people should trust the companies that develop them and the governments that regulate them.
Even patients who are determined to listen to the experts and get all the facts have been hearing mixed messages. “Lately, this is the most common question I am getting from all pregnant women locally, and from husbands,” notes Dr. Clarel Antoine, associate professor at New York University’s medical school, echoing comments made by doctors around the world in recent weeks.
In January 2021 the Centers for Disease Control, a US government agency, began recommending that pregnant women who become eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine “may choose to be vaccinated” if they wish, and they advised them to discuss any concerns they might have with their doctors.
But it wasn’t until early February that another leading global health authority, the World Health Organization (WHO)—a special agency of the United Nations based in Geneva, Switzerland—changed the language on its website to indicate that pregnant women could choose to receive COVID-19 vaccines if they wished. Before that, the WHO discouraged all but those with the most high-risk pregnancies from getting the vaccine. Adding to the confusion, both these organizations relied on the same data to come to starkly different recommendations.