Proposal is 'totally impractical', says epidemiologist

Until vaccine, make 55-plus live separately to save lives, Israeli research says

Haifa University study argues that segregating society according to age can prevent COVID deaths, avoid lockdown and get the elderly safely socializing

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: A grandmother passes chocolate to her grandson while keeping distance to reduce COVID-19 risk (kzenon via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: A grandmother passes chocolate to her grandson while keeping distance to reduce COVID-19 risk (kzenon via iStock by Getty Images)

A new age segregation strategy can prevent coronavirus deaths, avoid lockdown and get the elderly safely socializing even before vaccination, Israeli researchers claimed Thursday.

“We can significantly limit mortality without shutting things down, just by having people who are 55-plus only coming in to contact with people in this age bracket,” Haifa University neurobiologist Shani Stern told The Times of Israel. “This can reduce deaths without lockdowns.”

She said her team’s research has worldwide relevance and that in Israel, where some health officials are concerned that the staged reopening of stores is too fast while business owners are livid it’s too slow, it could offer an answer to both camps.

“This could allow Israel to open stores and more businesses, while limiting the risk to the most vulnerable in society, namely older people,” she commented, stating that she built 50,000-person “virtual model” using mortality patterns derived from peer-reviewed epidemiological research.

But some doctors have poured cold water on the proposal.

“Ideas like this are nice, but totally impractical,” said Ronit Calderon-Margalit, a Hebrew University epidemiologist, who is unconnected to the study. “People aged over 55 are an integral part of society, are still working and don’t separate out.”

File: Elderly women wear face masks in Jerusalem, on April 26, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Stern’s “bridge strategy” to keep mortality low until widespread vaccination would include older adults shopping, dining out, praying, accessing public services and going about other aspects of normal life only around others who are 55-plus. An exception would be made for young members of their households.

This single change alone in a society that is fully-operating, with only masks and social distancing in place to prevent infection, would drive down death rates by 62 percent, she estimated in her newly-published peer-reviewed research. However, she acknowledged that the actual figure may be lower, suggesting a 40% to 50% range, if the variables that feed into her “virtual model” are revised in view of the latest epidemiological research.

Shani Stern of the University of Haifa (courtesy of Shani Stern)

“We built a model that examines how social groups interact, and while numbers from coronavirus research that we feed into it are constantly changing, the broad point remains valid. And in avoiding lockdown, it would reduce the loneliness among older people.

“Lockdown aside, it suggests that older people can socialize with other older people with only limited risk, and such interactions could help some people who currently isolate to live less lonely lives.”

She said that while her strategy would stop older people from seeing young relatives, it would serve them well by reducing their COVID-19 risks and lowering the chance a lockdown would be needed, which would involve the loss of almost all social contact.

Stern’s research is based on neutralizing one of the most lethal characteristics of SARS-CoV-2, namely that it is often spread by so-called silent or asymptomatic carriers, who are transmitting the virus without realizing it.

“This tends to happen largely among the under-55s, whereas if you are over-55, it’s rare to be asymptomatic and you are likely to realize within a few days of becoming infected that you are infected, and then go into strict isolation,” she said.

“This means that if older adults only encounter each other, it’s rare they will meet someone who is infected but isn’t isolating, and they are unlikely to meet an asymptomatic carrier.”

Calderon-Margalit said that the benefits of segregation won’t be felt if over-55s continue to live with younger people. “If you don’t separate them from younger people in their household it’s not hermetic separation, so could have limited effectiveness,” she said.

But Stern said that her proposal would benefit society, even if there are mixed-age households. “It has benefits and governments should consider this strategy before lockdowns,” she argued. “This could help keep things open, and stop people losing their businesses, while still giving protection to the population that is most susceptible to the coronavirus.”

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