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'Shielding' elderly, ill does little to lower COVID-19 in absence of other strategies

Shielding seniors and others at high risk for COVID-19 does little to limit the dangers if other measures aren't in place, according to a new study. File photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
"Shielding" seniors and others at high risk for COVID-19 does little to limit the dangers if other measures aren't in place, according to a new study. File photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

July 27 (UPI) -- Older adults and those with chronic health conditions who self-isolate to reduce their risk for COVID-19 are still eight times more likely to get infected and five times more likely to die from the virus than those less susceptible to its effects, a study published Tuesday by Scientific Reports found.

The findings are based on an analysis of infection rates and deaths among adults in Scotland between March and May last year, when seniors and those with at-risk health conditions were advised to isolate to avoid exposure to the virus, the researchers said.

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The approach was designed to "shield" them from infection and thus reduce the numbers of sickened individuals requiring treatment at area hospitals, so that the facilities would not become overwhelmed with patients.

However, it did little to reduce hospitalizations linked to COVID-19, as hundreds of those considered at "moderate risk" for severe illness needed significant care.

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"Our study ... showed that shielding may be of limited value in reducing burden on health services because, in spite of the shielding strategy, high risk individuals were at increased risk of death," study co-author Jill Pell said in a press release.

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"We believe that, to be effective as a population strategy, shielding criteria would have needed to be widely expanded to include other criteria, such as the elderly," said Pell, director of the University of Glasgow's Institute of Health and Well-Being in Scotland.

In the early stages of the pandemic in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised older adults and those with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, to avoid contact with others as much as possible to limit their exposure to COVID-19.

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In addition, many nursing homes nationally restricted visitors to their facilities since they house many of these same potentially vulnerable populations.

These recommendations were based on research that showed older adults and those with chronic health conditions to be at increased risk for severe illness and death after coronavirus infection.

Still, dozens of nursing homes across the country saw large-scale outbreaks and significant fatalities.

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For this study, Pell and her colleagues analyzed data on more than 1.3 million adults in the Glasgow area, of whom 27,747 had been advised to shield or isolate to avoid COVID-19 exposure because they were deemed "high-risk."

Of those advised to shield, 56% had severe respiratory disease, while 16% were on immunosuppressive drugs and 8% had some form of cancer.

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More than 350,000 of the adults were classified as "moderate risk" for severe COVID-19 because of health conditions such chronic lung disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.

The rest, more than 950,000, were considered at low risk for severe infection.

Just over 1%, or 299, of the people in the shielded group developed confirmed COVID-19, and about 0.5%, or 140, died, the data showed.

Meanwhile, about 0.5%, or nearly 1,900, of those in the moderate-risk group were infected and 0.2%, or 803, died.

In the low-risk group, the infection rate was just over 0.1% and the death rate was about one-tenth of that.

Based on these numbers, those at moderate risk were four times more likely to test positive for the virus than the low-risk group and five times more likely to die following confirmed infection, the data showed.

Nearly half of those included in the study who died from COVID-19 were age 70 and older, according to the researchers.

"Our study highlights that to effectively protect high-risk individuals, shielding should be used alongside other population-wide measures such as physical distancing, face coverings and hand hygiene," Pell said.

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