Emerging from Virus:

Academics Step Up

By Shlomo Maital

   Public health officials, who are in control in most countries, have their hands full, dealing with the medical crisis. So it is up to us, academics and others, to begin weighing options for emerging from the lockdown.

 An interuniversity team led by Tel Aviv U. President Ariel Porat and Weizmann Institute President Alon Chen, have prepared an excellent 27-page plan. Details are reported by Haaretz journalist Meirav Arlosoroff.

  (Suggestion to other countries:   why not set up a similar team? Include epidemiologists, virologists, economics, psychology, law, computer science, even quantitative physics, and of course public health).

   Here are the options the experts present. Option One: Maintain the strick lockdown. Option Two: the opposite, speed up the rate of infection among Israel’s non-vulnerable population (is there such a thing?) to achieve ‘herd immunity’ (VERY bad term – we are NOT a herd…   why not population immunity? Or mass immunity?). Under the second option, the elderly would remain in isolation for their protection.

   Neither are very attractive, are they? There is a missing link – widespread testing, to provide detailed data. The required number of tests is not available.

    So the committee suggests a third option — a “gradual lifting of the lockdown while officials carefully monitor numbers related to the pandemic. Divide Israel into equally sized ‘risk zones’ based on how far and wide the coronavirus has spread. Red zones would maintain total lockdown. Yellow zones would be where people are allowed to leave their homes for work, provide they stay inside the yellow zone!  In Green Zones residents are free to go to their jobs, including jobs outside their zone. Those showing symptoms remain in quarantine in all three zones. Those shown to be immune are free to go wherever they please. (A key here is a serological antibody test, not yet widely available) Places of work would reopen, subject to strict rules on hygiene and social distancing. Workplaces would be graded, according to how risky they are for a ‘second wave’ outbreak. Workplaces barred from opening would be exempt from rent.

The committee also recommended tax incentives to encourage work from home.

Division into red, orange, green zones is based on sophisticated mathematical models that predict the epidemic’s spread – along with high levels of testing. Sampling tests that show less the 2-3% infection rates would enable ease of the lockdown. Green zones are where the number of serious cases doesn’t exceed 100 and the infection rate is less than 8 %. Technologies like location technology and artificial intelligence will be used to predict the possible rate of contagion.

Since test kits are in short supply, a model for sampling should be used, for each cone, including children, so schools can reopen.

The Committee says that a measured exit from the lockdown can and should already begin. It calls for allowing between 900,000 and 1.5 million workers to return to their jobs. This is between one quarter and a third of Israel’s work force.

“Data from the math models shows that the virus’ high infection rate does not allow for complete release from lockdown, even for Green zones”, they note. Social distancing still is the main tool, to reduce infection parameters by a factor of 2 to 3. Areas of especially high infection must receive special treatment, such as the ultra-Orthodox areas.

I believe that each country needs its own inter-University committee of this sort, because each country has its own culture and unique circumstances. It needs to be a non-governmental civilian effort, because governments are simply focused on the day-to-day.