Eduvation Blog

Rushing the Science & Rolling the Dice

Good morning!

I hope you enjoyed a relaxing weekend, however long it was!

As the pandemic drags into month six, people are getting restless and longing for the return of summer festivals and beach excursions. Business owners and politicians are anxious to stop the economic damage and reopen society. (More on the economy later this week.)

But political urgency and public impatience means that immunologists and epidemiologists are being rushed, the science barely has time for peer review, and we’re still uncovering more about the SARS-CoV-2 virus every day. 

With just a few weeks left before the start of a new academic year, we owe it to ourselves to review the latest developments about the novel Coronavirus…

Accelerating Pandemic

Cabin fever, quarantine fatigue, and anti-mask protests are ironically occurring just as the global pandemic is accelerating: the world just surpassed 18 million cases, of which 8 million were added in July alone. The WHO reports that worldwide cases of COVID19 are now doubling every 6 weeks. In an interconnected world, it is far too early to claim success at flattening the curve – anywhere! 

“State of Disaster” in Australia

The state of Victoria declared a “state of disaster” on Sunday, introducing a nightly curfew, stricter lockdown measures, and banning virtually all trips outdoors. “Where you slept last night is where you’ll need to stay for the next six weeks.” Only 1 person per household can leave home once per day for essential trips, within 5 km. Schools have been closed again, along with bars and restaurants. Police patrols are enforcing the precautions. CTV

Cruise Ship Back in Quarantine

One of the first cruise ships to resume service, the MS Roald Amundsen, is now back in quarantine in Norway. A guest from a previous cruise tested positive for COVID19 after returning home, then 4 crew members tested positive after a second cruise, and now 160 crew members are quarantined aboard the ship, while 177 passengers (who had already disembarked) have been told to self-isolate at home. Even operating at reduced capacity, cruise ships remain the perfect environment to cultivate a viral infection. (And their challenges foreshadow the challenges campus residence halls will face next month.) CTV

Gambling in Quebec

In Canada, 51% of the COVID19 cases this year occurred in the province of Quebec, as did 64% of the fatalities: 59,722 Quebecers fell ill, and 5,683 died. Studies suggest that this public health disaster was driven by March Break travellers returning to Quebec just as travel advisories were starting to be issued. Now, as the province reopens, 3 compounding risks may spark a second wave by September…

1) Quebec Quintuples Group Limit

The province of Quebec reported 123 new COVID19 cases and 2 new deaths yesterday, but at the same time raised the limit on indoor and outdoor gatherings to 250 people, from 50, specifically for theatres, cinemas, concert halls, houses of worship and amateur sporting events. Masks are still required across the province, and distancing of 1.5 metres is to be maintained “whenever possible.” A group of Quebec doctors is “horrified” and protesting the decision. Global

I think Quebec is alone among North American jurisdictions in defining the acceptable distance as LESS than 2 metres. Raising the threshold to 250 will please Cineplex and other businesses who have been lobbying to reopen, but will have an impact on infection rates in about 14 days. Add to that…

2) Collective Summer Vacation

It may seem a little alien outside La Belle Province, but since 1970, Quebec has observed 2-week “construction holidays” in late July and late December, which have become the de facto most popular time for everyone to take vacations in the province. This year, the summer holidays ran Jul 19 – Aug 1.  Montréal Gazette

This means that tens of thousands of construction workers, and potentially hundreds of thousands of others, returned from cottages, vacations and family visits just a day or two ago. Again, 2 weeks from now this could well have a significant impact on the COVID19 spread, just as March Break did this spring. And if that weren’t enough…

3) Mandatory Elementary School

Quebec’s education ministry insists that students will return to K-9 classrooms in September, as announced in June, with the pre-pandemic student:teacher ratios. “The physical presence of students at school is compulsory for the start of the school year next September.” Unlike neighbouring Ontario, face masks will not be mandatory for students in any grade, although teachers and staff will be required to wear them in certain close contact situations. The teachers’ union hopes the plan will change. CBC

So put these 3 decisions together, and the government of Quebec is rolling the dice at the coronavirus craps table THREE times over the next 4 weeks. It seems to me that there is a VERY real risk of widespread COVID19 outbreaks in Quebec in late August or mid-September, even before the traditional flu season begins. This may disrupt any plans that Quebec PSEs have to return students to campus.

Viral Transmission

Now yes, I reported last week that studies suggest children under age 10 are less likely to spread COVID19. But this pandemic is unfolding in realtime, and scientific studies are barely able to keep pace. There are definite cases of COVID19 transmission by children in summer camp situations, and increasingly scientists believe the virus is being spread by aerosols, not just respiratory droplets. That could have significant implications for campus precautions this fall…

Outbreaks at Summer Camps

After spending a week together at an overnight camp in Georgia, 260 campers and staff came down with COVID19. Last month, similar outbreaks shut down camps in Missouri, Texas and Arkansas. These outbreaks seem to contradict claims that children do not play a significant role in transmission, since a higher proportion of the youngest campers tested positive. “Daily vigorous singing and cheering” is suspected as driving aerosol spread of the virus, before anyone was showing symptoms. Buzzfeed

Middle-Aged Risk

COVID19 poses a greater risk to healthy middle-aged adults than previously thought, according to a new global study. While those aged 80+ are most at risk, with a 24% fatality rate, and those in their 70s have a 4% fatality rate, healthy adults in their 60s face a 1% fatality rate, and in their 50s a 0.3% fatality rate. “A healthy 55-year-old person is 50 times more likely to die from a COVID19 infection than a car accident.” National Post

COVID is in the Air

A review of the latest research suggests that aerosol transmission of COVID19 may be much more significant than previously believed. Several scientific studies published since May, and hundreds of scientists, emphasize the risk of transmission simply by exhaling in an enclosed space. “Aerosols can float around for many hours,” and they can contain just as many viral particles as larger respiratory droplets. If true, this magnifies the importance of face masks, ventilation, airflow, and open windows – and the duration people spend in the same space, even with 2-metre distancing. HVAC systems should get upgraded filters, if not ultraviolet germicidal retrofits. NYT

Hygiene Theatre

On the other hand, a uToronto associate professor of infectious diseases recently summed up the research, and observed that aerosol transmission does not appear to be widespread. She also observes, however, that surface transmission “is not as critical as we initially thought.”

Hygiene Theatre is Overdone

Deep-cleaning of classrooms and high-touch surfaces with electrostatic disinfectant sprays may just be “hygiene theatre” and an immense waste of time and resources. “Surface transmission of COVID19 is not justified at all by the science.” Deep cleans are justified in hospitals, and we should all keep washing our hands, but ultimately wearing masks is more important. Too many venues are “boasting about their cleaning practices while inviting strangers into unventilated indoor spaces to share one another’s microbial exhalations.” The Atlantic

YorkU microbiology associate prof Dasantila Golemi-Kotra reiterated this perspective in a segment for Global News (at the 26 min mark). “The risk is low but it is not zero,” so disinfection is important, but it shouldn’t be overdone.

Sobering Words from WHO

Our understanding of the virus and the effectiveness of precautions is still developing, but there is a growing consensus that this is a transformative year for our society…

Effects for Decades to Come

Six months into the global pandemic, the World Health Organization’s emergency committee warned on Saturday that the pandemic will be “lengthy.” (Their next meeting won’t even take place until November.) “The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come.” CTV

There May Never Be a “Silver Bullet”

On Monday, as the WHO and China agreed on terms of reference for an investigation into the animal origins of COVID19 in Wuhan, chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged world governments to focus on physical distancing, masks, testing and contact tracing to contain the virus. “We all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection… However, there’s no silver bullet at the moment – and there might never be.” CTV

Political leaders are of course impatient for a resolution. The Trump Administration has already committed billions to pre-order vaccines that aren’t even developed yet: more than 300 million doses from AstraZeneca and 100 million from Pfizer. China is no different…

Gambling on a Vaccine

Although 3 Chinese pharmaceutical companies are currently conducting phase 3 clinical trials of COVID19 vaccines, the results will not be known for 3-6 months yet. But that didn’t stop SinoPharm executives from taking the vaccine themselves, or telling other state-owned companies that the vaccines are safe and ready for their employees to use now, on an “emergency basis.” Quartz


Tomorrow, we’ll turn to face mask policies, deep cleaning protocols, and campus reopening plans, and dozens of campus updates! Until then, stay safe and stay well!

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