Tuesday, February 16, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
I hope you had a relaxing weekend, celebrating Valentine’s Day or Lunar New Year or anything else. Welcome back to a normal week for many of you, while others are enjoying the relative peace of Reading Week. Personally, I’m looking forward to spending this afternoon (virtually) with the board and leadership at Sault College!
It’s time for my weekly roundup on the position and trajectory of the pandemic. Many of the underlying trends are the same as last week – ebbing infections, spreading variants, and governments “playing chicken” with an imminent third wave by reopening from lockdowns. But the pace of vaccine approvals, shipments and doses administered is picking up, and now more people on earth have been vaccinated than infected (at least, recorded infections).
So, while Canada ranks poorly among world nations for our handling of the pandemic – never mind the vaccine debacle – there is some potential good news in the offing…
Not a great deal has changed in the world since last Monday’s “Pandemic Précis”…
Infection Ebb Tides
COVID19’s post-holiday infection peak is subsiding in most parts of the world, down 17% globally in the past week. China is down to 2 new cases per day (both imported from overseas). The US is reporting <100,000 daily cases for the first time since Nov 4, after reporting >200,000 throughout Dec and >250,000 throughout Jan. Overall, Canada’s infection curve has been dropping steadily since the new year. Saskatchewan has the highest rate of active cases per capita in Canada, and estimates it has 18,700 more cases that are simply asymptomatic. But then there’s NL…
“We are still at about 100,000 cases a day. We are still at around 1,500 to 3,500 deaths per day. The cases are more than two-and-a-half-fold times what we saw over the summer. It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place.” – Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director
Storm Surge in NL
Newfoundland & Labrador has been fortunate over the fall, like much of Atlantic Canada, but cases surged abruptly last week in Metro St John’s. The PHO locked down the region, shifting schools to online learning Feb 10. Just hours before election polls were to have opened Saturday, the CMO put the whole province under “Alert Level 5” (the strictest lockdown provisions), and Elections NL cancelled in-person voting. Opposition politicians are rightly critical of premier Andrew Furey for calling an unnecessary election in the midst of a pandemic. (The irresistible temptation was to secure a majority mandate: so far, minority premiers have won majority governments in snap elections called in NB in Sept, BC and SK in Oct.)
Lockdowns continue around the world. The Czech Republic is in lockdown with COVID19 infections exceeding 1% of the population. Germany is in lockdown until at least Mar 7, and Portugal until Mar 1, in the face of its worst surge yet. Athens Greece is in lockdown until the end of Feb. In Australia, the city of Melbourne is in a “short, sharp circuit-breaker” lockdown for 5 days, after an outbreak of 13 cases associated with a quarantine hotel. Fans are barred from the Australian Open, and international flights have been suspended until further notice. And likewise in Auckland New Zealand, 2M residents are under a “level 3” lockdown for 3 days, after 3 new cases of the UK variant were detected in the city.
The UK or Kent variant (B.1.1.7) is reportedly 30-70% more deadly, and new mutations are helping it evade immune protection just like the South African (B.1.351) variant. (This is the E484K mutation, nicknamed “Eeek,” which also fuels the Brazil P.1 variant.) Cases have now been identified in >30 US states, and in all 10 provinces of Canada. (ON reports 236 cases, BC 29, SK 3 and MB 1.) 2 new variants found in Bristol and Liverpool are currently being investigated as potential concerns.
The more contagious and vaccine-resistant South African variant has now been identified in 105 cases in the UK, as well as cases in Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and the US. Travel-related cases quickly lead to cases of community transmission, as in Belgium, Austria, Israel, Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Tanzania. So far, BC reports 17 cases of the SA variant, and Ontario 3.
Of course, the COVID19 variants emerging worldwide pose a risk not merely because they may be more contagious or more deadly, but because they can evade both immunization and natural immunity. Reinfection is becoming a real threat, although so far just 50 cases have been substantiated through genetic sequencing – thousands more cases are under investigation. All the more reason to expect COVID19 to become endemic, like the common cold – which is caused by 4 other coronaviruses circulating annually. Kaiser Health News
Reopenings “Play Chicken”
Although many experts believe it is premature, or even “playing chicken” with the virus, some governments are starting to reopen from the post-holiday lockdown. New York state plans to reopen stadiums and arenas at 10% capacity starting Feb 23. In Alberta, restaurants reopened to indoor dining Feb 8, and hospitality groups hope to push for more eased restrictions in March. Manitoba lifted some restrictions on Friday, reopening restaurants, museums, gyms, and libraries to 25% capacity. Quebec reopened non-essential retail and salons last week, and has started reopening gyms and restaurants in some regions – although it is proposing road checkpoints and border roadblocks to limit travel over Spring Break. Ontario has been gradually reopening K-12 schools, and announced last week that it will postpone March Break until Apr 12. (Teachers’ unions say the decision “does not take into consideration the mental health and well-being of those involved.”) The province is lifting restrictions gradually, putting many regions of southern Ontario into “red zones” this week.
“It’s kind of like we’re playing chicken with COVID, which never struck me as being a great idea.” – Lynora Saxinger, infectious diseases physician, uAlberta Faculty of Medicine
“It’s a bit of a gamble but everything in life is a gamble… At this stage we can certainly try to give people some air to reduce the economic, societal, health and mental-health impact.” – Karl Weiss, Head of Infectious Diseases Unit, Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital
“I think throughout the epidemic, there is this repeated failure to appreciate these rapid spikes and how they can materialize. So I think decision makers are thinking, well, right now everything looks great and so let’s reopen. They’re not thinking, three weeks, six weeks ahead.” – Chris Bauch, University Research Chair, Department of Applied Mathematics, uWaterloo
“Brutal” Third Wave in April
In most regions of North America, epidemiologists are forecasting a third wave of the pandemic, thanks to the spreading COVID19 variants, by April. A reopening Ontario could see an exponential surge to a projected 9,800 daily cases. uToronto epidemiologist Colin Furness warns that an “ugly” third wave is “inevitable,” and will be “the big one for us.” Ontario’s CMO counters, “we may be stopping the stay-at-home order, but we still want people to stay at home.”
“It’s clear that Ontario is on the brink. We are at a crossroads. We can save ourselves by continuing public-health measures for a little while longer, or we can reopen too soon and allow the variant to take hold and run rampant.” Andrea Horwath, NDP Leader, Ontario
Of course, with any luck vaccines will mean fewer fatalities in COVID19’s 3rd wave. The world has passed a crucial milestone already, with more people vaccinated (171.4M) than reported infected (109.2M). That’s just counting first doses, though, so while they may have limited short-term protection, the full process will still take months. (Oxford reports the AstraZeneca vaccine is 76% effective for 3 months after a single shot.) Already, the UK has administered 15M vaccine doses, giving first shots to 22% of the population. (Israel has vaccinated 71%, the Seychelles 53%, and the UAE 50%.) By comparison, the US is at 15%, and Canada a paltry 3%. Maclean’s calculates that Canada is in a “vaccine hole” of >940,000 doses, or 27.5% of the 3.4M doses expected by the end of February, thanks in particular to a series of 6 shipment reductions by Pfizer.
Canada Ranks Poorly
In fact, a new ranking from Australian thinktank the Lowy Institute puts Canada at 61 out of 98 nations for our handling of the COVID19 pandemic, considering infection rates, deaths, the extent of testing and test positivity. Not surprisingly, New Zealand tops the rankings, followed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand and Cyprus. The report finds “authoritarian models had no prolonged advantage in suppressing the virus,” but generally democracies fared better – with the notable exceptions of the UK (#66) and US (#94). Brazil came in dead-last at #98. “Most countries outcompeted each other only by degrees of underperformance.” The Tyee
Still, some new developments in the pandemic have arisen in the past week, too…
Yesterday, the WHO approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for emergency use, as produced in South Korea and India. (The AZ vaccine is the bulk of doses in the COVAX sharing scheme for poorer countries.) Health Canada is in the “final stages” of reviewing it, in collaboration with the European Medicines Agency. The process began Oct 1, but has been complicated by methodological confusion and variable effectiveness against the South African and Brazilian strains. Health Canada is also evaluating the J&J and Novovax vaccines; so far only the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been approved here. CTV
Sputnik V in Orbit
The Lancet reports that Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has been found 91.6% effective in peer-reviewed phase III clinical trials with almost 20,000 volunteers, supporting Moscow’s decision to deploy the vaccine last August. (There are now 4 vaccines with peer-reviewed efficacy, including Sputnik, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.) Already 15 countries have approved the Sputnik V vaccine, and 10 more are poised to approve it shortly. A small-scale single-dose trial has begun.
Novovax in Montreal
Canada is almost entirely dependent upon European vaccine shipments, but has signed a deal with Novovax to manufacture its COVID19 vaccine at a new NRC facility in Montreal, should it get regulatory approval. (Back in 1973, Canada produced 80% of its pharmaceutical requirements domestically.) The vaccine is still in clinical trials, the facility still under construction, so it won’t be shipping vaccine until “the end of the year,” but it may offer hope of domestic vaccine production for future pandemics. (In Phase III clinical trials, the Novovax vaccine has been found 89% effective.)
Other Vaccines in Canada
The only other Canadian vaccine Ottawa has pre-purchased, from Medicago, would be produced in North Carolina. uSaskatchewan’s VIDO facility, also under construction, will be completed by the end of 2021, and Precision NanoSystems’ Vancouver plant will be ready in 2023. Winnipeg Free Press
The Origins in Wuhan
The WHO investigation of the origins of COVID19 in Wuhan says bats remain a likely source, although the bats may have taken “a very long and convoluted path” before winding up at the Huanan Market. They have ruled out the possibility that the virus leaked from a lab, but are considering transmission via frozen animals a possibility for further study. Reuters
Patient Zero in Kent
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID19 is a “genetic slowpoke,” typically picking up 1 or 2 mutations per month. But in Kent, UK last September, a new, more contagious variant (B.1.1.7) sprang up abruptly with 17 simultaneous mutations, leading scientists to suspect a single COVID19 patient might be to blame. If a single immunocompromised patient were sick for long enough, the virus could have had an extended period of time in this “human pressure cooker” to evolve as the immune system attempted to fight it off. One such patient with lymphoma had undergone chemotherapy, and was chronically infected with COVID19 for 102 days before dying – during which time the virus was continually mutating. The use of convalescent plasma may in fact accelerate the evolutionary process. Wired
Masks & Psychology
While the hearing impaired appreciate clear masks that allow lip-reading, and the CDC has found that doubling masks increases protection from 40 to up to 95%, new research from U South Florida suggests people around you would instinctively prefer you wear a black or white mask. A study of 4,500 subjects across the US found that people considered black or white masks to make the wearer appear slightly safer and more attractive, compared to blue surgical masks, colourful patterns, or clear masks. Black scored highest for “trust,” and may appear less permeable or more solid. Clear or invisible masks in particular looked “unsafe.” Fast Company
Autism & Masks
Just as anecdotal evidence suggests that autistic students are thriving under remote learning, it would appear that some also “hope I can wear a mask for the rest of my life.” Neurodiversity advocate Christine Condo describes the strain of forcing a smile, faking vocal inflections, and responding to small talk in the pre-COVID19 “normal.” Under social distancing, small talk has been minimized, and face masks conceal “my naturally flat facial expression.” The pandemic has forced “neurotypicals” to cope with “the same near-constant anxiety that has plagued us autistics for as long as we can remember.” Zoom fatigue, the exhaustion caused by trying to “read” people’s intention, is similar to the mental exhaustion autistic people feel every day. She recognizes that “the suffering we are all enduring is far too steep a price to pay,” but hopes that post-pandemic, neurotypicals will have more appreciation of the strains and challenges autistic people face. Washington Post
Since Friday, I have added 2 more COVID19 cases associated with CdnPSE. (Many cases go unreported, but see my master spreadsheet for a running tally.)
Meanwhile in the US…
The UK variant has now been detected at Davidson College (NC) and uVirginia, in addition to former reportsat Tulane U (LA), UC Berkeley, uMichigan, uMiami, UT Austin, and uWashington. The New York Times has not updated its count since Dec 11, when it had tracked >379,000 cases at >1,800 campuses.
Almost a year ago, when CdnPSE pivoted to online delivery, many commercials featured soft, slow piano music and slow fades between scenes of quiet campuses or students in lockdown at home. (A particularly good example is this spot from BCIT last May, “Still here for you.”) But in the last few months, as applications ramp up for fall 2021, I’ve noticed a huge increase in the use of aggressive, thumping music beds in higher ed videos…
St Clair College
Granted, 30-sec “apply now” videos are usually pretty direct about the call-to-action, and try to capture attention with staccato cuts, action scenes and rocking beats. But this month, 2 new spots from St Clair College caught my eye for the way they mark a return to confident, upbeat music and blend visuals that reflect social distancing (solos, outside, facemasks) and those that don’t (probably about 40% of the footage here). The visuals are effective and aspirational for students, and the wordless video reflects current trends in recruitment videos. Spot A | Spot B
As always, thanks for reading! Please let me know if you’ve spotted something interesting or significant, at your campus or elsewhere.
Be safe and stay well!
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