Dec 02, 2021
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Israel is in the middle of a second, strict and very painful government-mandated lockdown that began at Rosh Hashana more than two weeks ago and may continue for two more weeks or longer. Due to the high number of COVID-19 infections around the country and the resulting sanctions, the economy has ground to a near-halt, with a million people out of work and many people –young and old – suffering from loneliness and anxiety. 

But is such a closure really necessary? 

Researchers at Tel Aviv University compared mobility data collected from the cellphones of iPhone users (Apple Mobility Data) to COVID-19 mortality data and found that the date on which social distancing began in different OECD countries is the best predictor of the death rate relative to the size of the population – with a delay of 7.49 days doubling the number of fatalities. 

“The rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 and its threat to health systems worldwide have led governments to take acute actions to enforce social distancing. Previous studies used complex epidemiological models to quantify the effect of lockdown policies on infection rates. However, these rely on prior assumptions or on official regulations,” they wrote. 

 

Prof. Tal Pupko, head of the School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research, assisted by Prof. Itay Mayrose and research students Gil Loewenthal, Shiran Abadi, Oren Avram, Keren Halabi, Noa Ecker and Nathan Nagar of TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences, found that there was no statistical correlation between the severity of a lockdown and the number of COVID-19 fatalities. 

Lockdown: response time is more important than its strictness

Their research was accepted for publication in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine under the title “COVID-19 pandemic-related lockdown: response time is more important than its strictness.” 

By contrast, no statistical connection was found between the number of deaths and the duration, severity or even total lack of a lockdown in each country.

Extreme restrictions are uncalled for

“Mobility data indicate that a hermetic lockdown, in which everyone must stay at home, is unnecessary. Instead, social distancing measures should be introduced as early as possible,” advised Pupko and Mayrose. “We have shown that the countries with the lowest mortality rates in the first outbreak of COVID-19 were not those that imposed the most hermetic lockdowns, but rather those in which mobility decreased (even slightly) at an early stage. Today, as Israel is in its second lockdown and the government considers tightening it even further, the [lesson] of our research is clear – extreme restrictions are uncalled for. What we need is fast implementation of social distancing.” 

In their study, the researchers collected cellular data that reflected the extent of mobility on a specific day in each OECD country, then normalized the data to the size of the population and typical mobility patterns in that country. 

When the data is ironic

For example, in wintertime people in cold countries like Sweden don’t go out as much as Israelis. In this way. the researchers obtained a mobility indicator for every country in regular times – the average number of citizens that travel by vehicle every day. Starting in March 2020, they found a decrease in mobility in all countries. However, this reduction varies from one country to another in accordance with the steps taken – from social distancing in Sweden to hermetic lockdowns in countries like Italy, Spain and Israel.

“We would have expected to see fewer COVID-19 fatalities in countries with a tighter lockdown, but the data reveal that this is not the case,” the TAU team continued. This means that Israel could have reached the same mortality rate with a lockdown that was less economically and socially lethal in the first round and probably in the present outbreak as well.”

Death rates in France, Spain about the same

Thus, for example, the mobility data indicate that both the time it took to respond to the pandemic and the severity of the lockdown were similar in Israel and the Czech Republic. And even though Israel’s lockdown was longer – manifested in lower mobility for a longer period of time –the ultimate mortality rates remained similar. 

Another example was the Spanish closure, which was longer and tighter than the French one, but when it ended, death rates in both countries were about the same. 

“We found that an early implementation of social distancing is the most significant factor, with a very high correlation to the mortality rate,” explained the researchers. “Countries that responded quickly with social distancing measures – not necessarily with a tight lockdown – ultimately emerged from the first outbreak with better results. In contrast, no correlation was found between mortality data and the severity and/or length of the lockdown. 

The spread of the pandemic can be prevented by quickly implementing basic measures

Even in Sweden, a country that never imposed a lockdown, one could see that the early decrease in mobility that began in March showed up in the mortality rate.” Our study is based purely on observations and does not relate to the premises of any existing epidemiological model. We show that the spread of the pandemic can be prevented by quickly implementing basic measures of social distancing – without a rigorous lockdown,” they concluded. 

Perhaps the Israeli government will take note, many Israelis would hope.