New Hampshire looks at segregating elderly population as they reopen

New Hampshire may be reopening for business in the near future, but possibly not for everyone, depending on what decisions Governor Chris Sununu makes. At Inside Sources, Micahel Graham discusses one possible strategy that the Governor is looking at and it’s one that I’ve brought up here before. It may be possible to turn the Granite State’s economy back on in the coming weeks while keeping those most vulnerable to the disease on lockdown. This would primarily apply to those sixty years of age and older, particularly seniors with additional risk factors making them more likely to die from COVID-19. But not everyone is wild about the idea.

The data from New Hampshire show 70 percent of the 206 Granite Staters who’ve been hospitalized due to COVID-19 are 60 years old or older. More than 90 percent of the state’s fatalities are in that age bracket as well.

Given those facts, wouldn’t it make sense to keep those vulnerable, older residents under lockdown while letting the rest of the Granite State get back to work? “Absolutely,” says Gov. Chris Sununu.

“The question really is, as we go forward, is there an opportunity to segregate that part of the population with stay-at-home orders and create a different dynamic that might work for the younger or healthier population, versus the older population and those with other health issues that might exacerbate the COVID problem and ultimately the mortality rate? The answer is, ‘absolutely,’” Sununu said.

At least on the surface, the data seems to support an approach like this. As Graham points out, Americans age 60 and older represent just 15 percent of the population, but thus far they account for 90 percent of the fatalities from the virus. Keeping the older folks away from contact with random citizens who may be contagious but asymptomatic while the younger uninfected who are most likely to survive it (many without even requiring hospitalization) go back to work could be effective. It might also expand herd immunity dramatically in a short period of time without overwhelming the state’s medical care system.

Another advantage of such an approach might be found in the total burden placed on the taxpayers by this pandemic. Right now a huge portion of the population, including a large majority who are younger and healthier, are out of work and getting some form of government financial assistance, either through direct government aid or federally enhanced unemployment benefits. If everyone under 60 is allowed to return to work, those payments and benefits could be targeted to the seniors who would still be locked down, greatly reducing the cost burden on taxpayers and extending the amount of time such aid could be provided before governments start bankrupting themselves.

But there are two issues to raise with this approach, both of which are rather sticky subjects. First of all, we’re talking about literal “segregation” here. The Governor is even using the word himself. And while we usually think about segregation in racial terms, it’s not much different if you’re talking about age groups. Can you simply restrict the freedom of movement of the elderly while allowing younger citizens to go about their business as usual? It would clearly be a well-intentioned form of discrimination, but still discrimination nonetheless.

The second argument being raised in Graham’s analysis is the one put forward by the WaPo’s Megan McArdle. She argues that quarantining the elderly wouldn’t work even if you could legally attempt it. The reason is that more than 20 percent of people age 55 and up live in multigenerational households. They would immediately be exposed to the younger people in their homes who were suddenly back out and about in public, very possibly bringing the disease home. Even those who don’t live with younger family members could experience further negative effects from remaining trapped in their homes alone while seeing everyone else getting back to some sort of societal norms.

So nothing is ever as easy as it appears at first glance. But we shouldn’t toss this idea out entirely without careful study and allowing it due consideration. It’s clearly an imperfect solution, but we may not have a lot of other viable options.

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