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Vaccines in action: Over-70s now use no more ventilators than under-50s

In October the elderly outnumbered under-50s by 6 to 1; now, with vast majority of over-70s immunized, the age groups use the machines in broadly equal numbers

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

Medical professionals in full protective equipment tend to an elderly man on a ventilator in the critical care coronavirus unit at Sheba Medical center in Ramat Gan, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Medical professionals in full protective equipment tend to an elderly man on a ventilator in the critical care coronavirus unit at Sheba Medical center in Ramat Gan, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The impact of COVID-19 vaccines has been so dramatic that elderly Israelis are currently taking up approximately the same number of ventilators as those under 50, researchers said Sunday.

In October, Israelis over 70 who needed breathing support outnumbered the under-50s by almost six to one. But now, following intense vaccination among the elderly, the ratio is 1.07 to 1 respectively, according to a multi-institution research team.

Israel currently has 241 ventilated patients. Notably, this is a greater total number than the figures in October — but comes amid an unprecedented infection wave that has seen far higher morbidity and death rates than during previous surges.

The researchers believe the data reflects the vaccine reducing infection rates and softening the illness for those that do get infected, but didn’t analyze the extent of each effect.

The data was compiled by a research team from Ben Gurion University, the Shamir Medical Center and Maccabi Healthcare Services. Some of their research was published in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Friday.

“The bottom line is it seems that the vaccine has extensive protective effect against serious illness, and this is the most important outcome,” Ben Gurion University epidemiology researcher Ehud Rinott told The Times of Israel.

He added that while coronavirus spread remains a concern, the numbers indicate that the worry which motivated many of the pandemic-fighting measures — namely the concern of widespread serious illness among the elderly — seems to be dissipating.

“We should remember that the reason we’re worried about the coronavirus isn’t because of high infection rates or mild illness, but because it can lead [patients] to being unable to breathe by themselves,” Rinott commented.

A coronavirus ward at Galilee Medical Center (Ancho Gosh Jini Photo Agency via Galilee Medical Center)

The team’s paper details a sharp drop in the proportion of ventilated patients — mostly those on ventilator machines but also those given breathing support by other means — who are over 70 compared to under 50. The ratio was 5.8 to 1 in October, and when the paper was submitted in early February it stood at 1.9 to 1.

Since the paper was prepared for publication it has dropped to a ratio of 1.07 to 1. As the researchers wanted to contrast the oldest and youngest demographics, they didn’t analyze the 51 to 69 age group.

Currently, some 87 percent of 70 to 79-year-olds are fully vaccinated, as are 82% of citizens aged 80-plus.

A ventilator helps a COVID-19 patient breathe inside the Coronavirus Unit in a Houston hospital, July 6, 2020. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Rinott noted that the shift in ventilator needs happened at the height of Israel’s third wave as overall numbers of ventilated people rose, when more under-50s began being ventilated at precisely the time that vaccines were taking effect among the elderly.

Rinott acknowledged that other factors aside from vaccines, such as the rise of the UK variant and effects of lockdown, may have impacted results, but that the vaccination factor should be considered highly significant.

He expressed hope that the fall in ventilated cases among the overwhelmingly-vaccinated 70-plus group would inspire younger Israelis who are slower to vaccinate to do so. He said it illustrates that ending up on a ventilator due to the coronavirus was increasingly an “avoidable danger.”

The report comes on the heels of other studies indicating that vaccines cut infection rates and viral loads among those who do catch the virus.

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