Monday, October 25, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and happy Monday!
Today you can celebrate artists, punks, pasta or greasy food – though I admit I regret missing out on Friday, when the world recognized stuttering, nuts, caps lock and “smart is cool” day. (The world needs to hear more from people who believe in smarts, instead of the outspoken anti-intellectual voices we hear altogether too much.)
This week, students on many CdnPSE campuses are taking a week off classes for “mid-term break” (as at Algonquin or Niagara College, for example), “reading week,” or “student success week” (at Bishop’s, say). Perhaps some of you are also taking a few vacation days to catch the fall foliage before it’s gone.
But for those of you counting on me, it’s time for another weekly…
Since last week’s COVID19 update, “Time Stands Still,” here’s what you should know…
Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has mishandled the COVID19 pandemic more than any other world leader, allowing the virus to ravage his country’s population and kill 605,000 people, all in order to achieve natural herd immunity. (He remains one of the few world leaders who is personally unvaxxed.) Now, an official congressional investigation has concluded Bolsonaro is responsible for half of the pandemic’s death toll in Brazil, and genocide against the Indigenous populations of the Amazon rainforest. The draft 1,200-page Senate report argues that Bolsonaro and 69 other officials (including his son, who sits on the committee authoring the report) should go to prison for crimes against humanity, charlatanism, online disinformation campaigns, corruption, forgery, vaccine kickback schemes, and mass murder “by omission.” (His negligence also permitted the rise of dangerous new variants of COVID19, like P.1, which impacted plenty of other countries too.) Bolsonaro is unlikely to ever face charges, and will be vying for re-election next year. New York Times | UK Guardian
Chills across Europe
The WHO warns that COVID19 infections are rising in the northern hemisphere, particularly Europe, as winter sets in. Case counts are currently highest in the UK (like 49,156 in a single day), as doctors urge the government to reimpose public health restrictions that were eliminated in July. Record daily case counts have been reported in Ukraine and Romania, and case counts are rising significantly in the Netherlands, Latvia,Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic, and France. Russia has been experiencing record case counts, hospitalizations and deaths, particularly among the elderly, and surpassed 1,000 COVID19 deaths a day last week. (Most observers are sure the death toll, now officially 225,325, is understated, although it is already the highest in Europe.) Russians have been hesitant to take the Sputnik V vaccine, which was rushed through “clinical trials” early in the pandemic. (The EU and WHO still have not authorized its use.) The Kremlin has resisted imposing another lockdown, for fear of its economic and political fallout, but Moscow has announced4 months of stay-at-home restrictions for unvaxxed seniors.
It’s not just Europe, of course, battling new surges in the pandemic. In the Asia-Pacific region, Singapore also reported its highest daily case count since the beginning of the pandemic. New Zealand saw record daily case counts at least twice last week, and has determined that 90% vaccination is the threshold at which its COVID19 restrictions can be eased.
It’s ironic (and tragic) that the birthplace of universal healthcare in North America has become the epicentre of the pandemic right now. COVID19 hospitalizations are overwhelming Saskatchewan hospitals, patients are being transferred to other provinces, there are more ICU cases per capita than any province at any time in the pandemic (pushing ICUs to 157% of normal capacity), and the SK Health Authority is preparing for the next stage of its triage plan (which involves ethics panels making life-and-death decisions). Current models predict hospitalizations will continue to increase until December. Surgeries and organ donations might not resume until March. COVID19 testing has declined 46.5% in the past month (thus obscuring actual case counts), but uSask wastewater studies show viral loads doubled over the Thanksgiving weekend in some SK cities (by 109% in Saskatoon and 124% in North Battleford). The province’s CMOH has apparently been urging new restrictions for weeks, and broke down in tears during a teleconference last week, but the SK Party government is refusing to consider additional precautions for political reasons. Premier Scott Moe requested emergency assistance from Ottawa last week, admitting that “we could have moved a week sooner” with a mask mandate, or vaccination policy.
Vaccines in Canada
Although new apps have been unveiled in Ontario and the federal vax passport announced, COVID19 vaccinations have barely budged in Canada. Two weeks ago we were at 72% of Canadians fully vaxxed, one week ago 72.4%, and now we’re at 73.189%. (What can we expect, really, when the official opposition in Ottawais officially opposing parliament’s vax mandate?) The country’s vaccination coverage won’t really improve until younger children become eligible for vaccination. Quebec premier François Legault said Thursday the province would not lift its COVID19 state of emergency until children aged 5-11 are vaccinated, likely not until early 2022. Pfizer has applied to HC for approval of its vaccine for children. At least one Ontario PHO is preparing to vaccinate children in December and January, likely at mass clinics rather than in K-12 schools themselves. Of course, how quickly Canadian kids get vaccinated may depend on the hesitancy of their parents – and a recent Angus Reid poll found that 38% of parents say they would hold off (18% indefinitely).
Vaccines on Campus
Last week and this, many CdnPSEs are starting to enforce their new vax mandates on campus, and many are proudly sharing their high rates of vaccine coverage. JIBC reports that 95% of staff, 93% of faculty, and 87% of students are vaccinated – at least, based on the 32% who completed a survey. uSask says 95.3% of on-campus staff and students were fully vaxxed by Oct 18 (97% of staff and faculty, and 93% of students). McMasterreported 99% of faculty, 96% of staff, and 96% of students had uploaded proof (as of Oct 18). Western reports 98.7% of employees and 99.5% of students have uploaded proof. uGuelph reports ~92% of students, 98% of staff, and 99% of faculty, while uWaterloo reports coverage “in the mid-90s.” Brock U reports 95% and Niagara College 99%. uToronto reports ~95% of students and employees who uploaded their status were fully vaxxed. York reports 99% of faculty, 96% of staff, and 95% of students. uOttawa reports that 98% of students are vaxxed. (Meanwhile at McGill, students and faculty are still urging the administration to defy the province and impose a vaccine mandate.)
We’ve known all along that no vaccine is 100% effective at preventing COVID19 infection, but lately we’ve had some stark reminders. Former US secretary of state Colin Powell died of COVID19 last week despite being fully vaxxed. In Ottawa, senator Josee Forest-Niesing has been hospitalized with COVID19, despite being fully vaxxed. (It’s unclear whether singer Ed Sheeran was ever vaccinated, but he tested positive this weekend too.) In all, about 7,000 Americans and 450 Canadians who were fully-vaxxed nonetheless died of COVID19 – perhaps due to weaker immune systems, waning immunity, or treatments that render them immune-compromised. (85% of the US breakthrough fatalities were among those aged 65+.) Despite the risk of breakthrough infection, PHAC emphasizes that fully-vaxxed people are 79% less likely to be hospitalized, and 62% less likely to die, from COVID19. (The CDC breaks down deaths by vaccine brand, giving a slight edge to J&J and Pfizer over Moderna.) Global
As the months go by, at-risk groups who received their first doses of COVID19 vaccine earliest are experiencing waning immunity first as well – that includes many elderly people in communal living settings, immunocompromised adults and youth, and residents in rural and remote communities. Naturally, clinical trials are showing that third booster shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are highly safe and effective (like 95.6%), even against the Delta variant. The FDA and CDC have already authorized booster shots for at-risk Americans (especially the small minority who received the single-dose J&J vaccine), and as of last week are recognizing “mix and match” doses as well. Naturally, the CDC’s priority remains getting first doses to the vaccine hesitant. A recent Toronto study found that fully-vaxxed adults were highly protected against infection and severe disease, 8 months after their second shot. National Post | Global
Delta Plus Plus
The Delta Plus variant (Delta-AY.1) first hit my radar back in late June, when 40 cases had been identified in India. By mid-August, Delta Plus (B.1.617.2.1 or AY.1/2/3) was identified as a “variant of concern” by the WHO. Now, UK scientists report they have identified another “Delta Plus” variant, AY.4.2, which makes up 6% of all sequenced cases there and is “on an increasing trajectory.” (Cases and deaths are again rising in the UK, which lifted its health restrictions back in the summer, and is seeing waning immunity from its early vaccination program. Mutations and new variants have been the inevitable result.) Some experts estimate AY.4.2 might be up to 10% more transmissible than the Delta variant itself, which is twice as transmissible as the original COVID19. Few cases have been identified outside the UK, although PHAC has identified at least 6 in Canada since July. On Sunday, the UK Health Security Agency designated the strain a “variant under investigation,” and renamed it “VUI-21OCT-01.” AP | Global | CTV
The WHO is currently monitoring 20 sublineages of the Delta variant of COVID19, and although some like “Delta Plus” have a slight edge, none appear to have developed into significantly more dangerous strains. Still, says one Harvard epidemiologist, “we’d have to be idiots to think the virus is done with us, and it will continue to evolve.” And the scientific consensus is that the next variant of global concern is likely to descend from Delta. Not only has SARS-CoV-2 proven quick to evolve, but it can readily jump into many different mammals (bats, mink, lions, tigers, gorillas and more) and potentially evolve zoonotically before jumping back to humans. It could still evolve to become more transmissible in a variety of ways, or could improve its ability to evade human immunity. (After all, influenza “has never run out of ways to evade immunity.”) Pfizer and Moderna have already developed new vax formulae specific to Delta – although none are in human trials yet, since a third booster shot seems adequate defense. (In June, CEO Albert Bourla assured the media that Pfizer could prepare a new vaccine to counter a new variant within 100 days, if it were ever necessary. The reformulation takes mere days; it is the human trials that slow things down. Pharma companies have been practicing on recent variants of concern, particularly Beta, to be ready for a true escape variant.) At least we can rest assured that natural selection doesn’t generally favour viral strains that merely prove more deadly. Washington Post | Nature
“The possibility of further significant mutations in the virus looms like a giant asterisk over any discussion of the trajectory of the pandemic.” – The Washington Post
Merck & Co has applied for FDA emergency use authorization for a promising new pill, molnupiravir, that can apparently halve the risk of hospitalization and death for patients, even after COVID19 symptoms appear. (Other treatments, such as remdesivir or monoclonal antibodies, have to be delivered intravenously.) The drug incorporates itself into the viral RNA as it’s being synthesized, causing “too many mutations for the virus to function.” (As a result, there is theoretical risk for pregnant women, but that has not been tested yet.) The trial was halted early because its results were overwhelmingly clear. Adults receive 40 pills over 5 days. Molnupiravir should also be effective against all the COVID19 variants of concern. The US government has contracted to buy 1.7M courses of the drug for $1.2B. Yale Medicine | Washington Post
Of course, the earlier you start the Merck pill, the better – so we’ll want to…
Epidemiological modeling published in JAMA Health Forum calculates that, even with 100% of a campus community fully vaccinated, asymptomatic “surveillance” testing for COVID19 will be critical to manage outbreaks if vaccines are less than 80% effective. At 50-75% vax efficacy, surveillance testing could reduce campus infections by as much as 94%. The study was completed before the Delta variant rose to dominance, when mRNA vaccines still boasted 90% effectiveness. Now, with the prospect of more infectious variants and waning immunity, routine testing of asymptomatic staff and students – whether vaccinated or not – may be even more important. Inside Higher Ed
We’re growing accustomed to holding our collective breaths after major holidays, when increased travel and extended family gatherings have the potential to boost COVID19 transmission and spark another pandemic wave. So far, though, it looks like Canadians are starting to breathe a little easier, 2 weeks post-Thanksgiving…
Wastewater testing is already showing worrying signs in Saskatchewan, but most provinces are still playing a waiting game, to see what impact Thanksgiving gatherings may have on COVID19 infections in the next week or so. Alberta still has more COVID19 patients in hospital “than during the peak of any other wave” of the pandemic, but case counts and hospitalizations were easing last week, and premier Jason Kenney says early indications are that infections did not spike after Thanksgiving.
Clearly Ontario premier Doug Ford feels pretty good about his cautious approach to reopening the province this Fall. (Masks remained mandatory in public indoor spaces, vaccine mandates and testing have been spreading, and many venues are required to social distance even with proof-of-vaccination requirements. Although Ford continues to resist pressure from Ontario hospitals to mandate vaccination for healthcare workers.) Last Friday, Ford announced that capacity restrictions would lift tonight at midnight for many indoor settings that require proof of vaccination, including restaurants, gyms, casinos and churches. He also unveiled a 5-month plan to lift all capacity restrictions, vaccination requirements and even the mask mandate, by Mar 28 (provided that hospitalizations remain manageable). Restauranteurs are, predictably, elated. (They were invited to a private briefing, before the press conference.) Critics (including the Nurses’ Association, epidemiologists and political opponents) say it’s misguided to ease restrictions heading into winter, and worry that the prospect of an end to vaccine requirements might discourage further vaccine uptake – just as the province’s QR-code passport became available. Warned CMOH Keiran Moore: “the months ahead will require continued vigilance.” CBC | Globe & Mail | Globe & Mail
“Let me reinforce the word cautious. We have always been cautious. I am going to be supercautious.” – Doug Ford, Premier of Ontario
Canadians can Travel?
Apparently, the federal government also believes the pandemic is winding down. For the first time in 19 months, the government of Canada has finally (quietly) lifted its blanket advisory against non-essential international travel – although it does say those who are unvaccinated “should continue avoiding non-essential travel to all destinations.” The latest guidance warns that international cruises are still unsafe, and that some countries and regions may be unsafe due to outbreaks or the “culture for individual protection measures.” Many Canadian snowbirds may also be excited by the news that the CDC has finally announced that international travellers with mixed vaccine doses will be accepted beginning Nov 8.
The End is Nigh?
In another sign that a return to normalcy is expected, Canada’s Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS), and Recovery Benefit (CRB) wound down on Saturday. A new Tourism & Hospitality Recovery Program and Hardest Hit Business Recovery Program came into effect on Sunday, and the CRB (formerly the CERB) will be replaced by a more narrow Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit (CWLB). Since no part of Canada is currently under a full lockdown, that change could impact up to 1.5M people. 60% of small businesses in Canada continue to struggle with diminished revenues due to the pandemic. Global
So Doug Ford seems to hope, in a best-case scenario, that pandemic restrictions may be gone by Mar 28. International travel can start to resume (although at sky-high prices). If Canadian children are fully vaxxed by late January, things on campuses might just be a whole lot better by Spring Break.
But many CdnPSEs are announcing returns to campus for Jan 1, which might just be a little premature. More on that next time!
Speaking of light at the end of the tunnel…
I Want to See the Light
Ottawa’s Collège La Cité, the largest francophone college in Ontario, released an upbeat, wordless :40 sec video to promote its digital arts program last week. Set to ÉWN’s “The Light,” the spot includes plenty of rapid cuts between coders, musicians, designers, editors, and animators, all working in darkness. It’s a much jazzier spot than most I’ve seen from La Cité lately, and a jolt to wake you up this morning! YouTube
I hope your week gets off to a great start!
Stay safe and be well!
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