CAMBRIDGE, England — As the days pass, the world is growing more and more impatient. Lockdowns, quarantines, and business closures as a result of the coronavirus pandemic are making life stressful for just about everyone, but it’s impossible to say when it will be completely safe to return to normalcy. Numerous potential solutions have already been proposed, and now researchers from Cambridge University have a novel suggestion of their own.
According to their calculations, an alternating cycle of 50 days spent in strict lockdown followed by 30 days of loosened restrictions would be an effective and efficient way to slowly transition life back to normal. The authors say this solution would simultaneously save lives and ensure hospitals and ICUs don’t become overwhelmed.
Available data thus far overwhelmingly indicates that social distancing and lockdown measures are working, but the economic cost of these restrictions are too harsh for any one country to bear for much longer. So, therein lies the conundrum. While the team at Cambridge aren’t the first to suggest an alternating lockdown schedule, no one has been able to agree upon an optimal schedule for such a plan.
So, a group of international researchers modeled and analyzed three different lockdown schedules across 16 countries. They were sure to pick a wide variety of countries; a schedule that works in Belgium may have to be adjusted considerably for India.
The first scenario projected what would happen if all restrictions were lifted completely. Predictably, this would lead to jam-packed ICUs very quickly, and an estimated 7.8 million deaths across the examined countries. In most of those countries, researchers predict that this approach would prolong the epidemic for another 200 days.
The second plan entailed somewhat loosened mitigation measures (general social distancing, isolating confirmed cases, etc) for 50 days followed by 30 days of no restrictions. While this approach would definitely better than the first, it would still eventually lead to packed ICUs and unnecessary loss of life. This plan would lead to an estimated 3.5 million deaths. Moreover, under this course of action, the epidemic would last for another 12 months in high income nations and 18 months in lower income countries.
Finally, a third scenario was examined. This plan would mandate 50 days of strict restrictions (full on lockdowns, stringent social distancing) followed by 30 days of little-to-no restrictions. This approach promises to be the most successful of the three; hospitals would never become overcrowded and far fewer (130,000) people would die. However, this strategy would lead to a longer epidemic (roughly 18 months).
If economies could handle it, the best approach by far would be to just stick to strict restrictions for three months straight. The study’s authors say a strategy like that would largely neutralize the coronavirus in all examined countries. Again, though, prolonged lockdowns just aren’t economically feasible.
“Our models predict that dynamic cycles of 50-day suppression followed by a 30-day relaxation are effective at lowering the number of deaths significantly for all countries throughout the 18-month period,” says Dr Rajiv Chowdhury, a global health epidemiologist the University of Cambridge, and lead author on the paper, in a release. “This intermittent combination of strict social distancing, and a relatively relaxed period, with efficient testing, case isolation, contact tracing and shielding the vulnerable, may allow populations and their national economies to ‘breathe’ at intervals – a potential that might make this solution more sustainable, especially in resource-poor regions.”
The actual number of days (30/50) on and off may fluctuate a bit between individual countries. What really matters, according to the research team, is that each nation figures out what works best for their economy and citizens.
“Our study provides a strategic option that countries can use to help control COVID-19 and delay the peak rate of infections. This should allow them to buy valuable time to shore up their health systems and increase efforts to develop new treatments or vaccines,” concludes Professor Oscar Franco from the University of Bern, Switzerland. “There’s no simple answer to the question of which strategy to choose. Countries – particularly low-income countries – will have to weigh up the dilemma of preventing COVID-19 related deaths and public health system failure with the long-term economic collapse and hardship.”
The study is published in the European Journal of Epidemiology.