Thursday, December 16, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Today is Day of Reconciliation in South Africa – a country that has grappled with several new plagues since apartheid, including the Beta and Omicron variants of COVID19. (On a lighter note, it’s also National Chocolate-Covered Anything Day, which certainly captures my attention, as I subconsciously prepare for winter hibernation.)
In many ways, it’s also a day of reckoning, as premiers and CdnPSE leaders seem to be accepting that the Omicron variant will demand immediate action, from suspending in-person exams to delaying the return to campus in January.
In yesterday’s “Flickers of Light in the Darkness,” I summarized all the COVID19 outbreaks ravaging CdnPSE right now, and the institutions suspending in-person exams as a result. (From StFX to Queen’s to uVic, there have been some impressive examples of just how adept the Omicron variant is at penetrating double-dose vaccines.)
But in the past 24 hours, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see so many positive moves being made, signalling that our political and campus leaders are finally capitulating to this force of nature, the imminent 5th wave of the pandemic…
Like some kind of viral wildcat that has slipped off its leash, the Omicron variant is spreading at an exponentially increasing rate worldwide, now in 77 countries, 36 US states, and every region of Canada…
Omicron in Canada
Cases of COVID19 have increased across Canada by 33% in just 7 days, to 276 as of yesterday. Modellers say the Omicron variant could push BC infection rates to their highest point in the entire pandemic by January. Alberta has recorded 2,061 deaths so far in 2021, potentially making it the #1 leading cause of death in the province (it’s a close race with dementia). Alberta also reports 60 cases of Omicron as of yesterday. Saskatchewan is still waiting for Omicron to hit, but is advising against travel to Ontario where it is widespread. Manitoba has requested emergency assistance from Ottawa to cope with ICU demands and “failing” critical care services. Ontario is on a trajectory to hit 10,000 new cases daily by Dec 31, and Public Health Ontario estimates that Omicron already accounts for 80% of new cases. (Ontario hospitalizations are up 13% in the past week, and test positivity is at 6.6%.) Quebec is already at 2,400 new cases daily, the highest level since Jan 8 – and more than half were fully-vaxxed. (So far, just 95 cases of Omicron have been detected in Montreal, including cases at 2 primary schools and 2 universities.) New Brunswick is reporting 100+ new cases of COVID19 daily, with a handful of confirmed Omicron cases it blames on the StFX outbreak. Nova Scotia and PEI cases of Omicron are likewise being linked to StFX. Newfoundland & Labrador says only that its first Omicron case is linked to a person who travelled from another province.
“While this advice undoubtedly disrupts many holiday plans, a fast-changing and unpredictable situation demands we act with caution and prudence.” – John Horgan, premier of British Columbia
“I’m fairly certain that people who, for whatever reason, are not being vaccinated will get COVID19. The question that we have now is: are they all going to get it at once because of Omicron, and will that be accelerated by parties? Or will it be slower so our health care system won’t totally get walloped?” – Andrew Morris, medical director, Sinai Health System – University Health Network Antimicrobial Stewardship program
Omicron Spreads 70x Faster
A preliminary U Hong Kong lab study calculates that Omicron infects 70x faster than Delta in just 24 hours, and replicates faster in bronchial tissue, but 10x less efficiently in lung tissue (so therefore it might cause less severe disease). Ontario’s CMOH reports that Omicron is infecting 4x-8x more people than Delta, vaxxed or not, and is showing an R(t) value of 4.55 (compared to Delta’s 0.97). Omicron’s spread is further accelerated by the fact that up to 46% of confirmed cases show no symptoms at all.
Vaccines Only 33% Effective
The early data from South Africa suggests that 2 doses of Pfizer vaccine provide only 33% protection against infection by the Omicron variant, although they are 70% effective at preventing hospitalization. (By comparison, 2 doses were 80% effective at preventing infection by Delta or previous strains of COVID19, and 93% effective at preventing hospitalization.) A new Boston study found likewise that the standard course of Pfizer, Moderna or J&J vaccines provided “low to absent” antibody neutralization of Omicron, but that a booster dose could change that.
Omicron Hits UK Hard
The UK raised its COVID alert level to 4 (out of 5) as new cases skyrocketed to 78,610 yesterday, the highest level of the entire pandemic. (Some experts believe that understates what could be 200,000 daily cases of Omicron.) Authorities expect hospitalizations to rise sharply in the next 2 weeks as a result. The country is administering 500,000+ booster doses of vaccine daily, and aims to get a 3rd dose into every adult by month-end. Case counts have risen sharply at many UK universities, though, and many fear the holiday migration will spread Omicron on public transport and to older family members at home. British hospitals are already struggling to maintain frontline staffing as many have been pushed into isolation. Says one Toronto infectious disease specialist, “there is no plausible situation where we will not have the same experience as Europe” here in Canada.
“I’m afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up.” – Chris Whitty, CMOH of England
Third Time’s the Charm
As data reveals that a 2-dose vaccine regimen provides about 70% protection against hospitalization from Omicron, studies are continuing to surface demonstrating the impact of a 3rd-dose booster shot. Pfizer/BioNTech reported last week that 3 doses neutralized an Omicron pseudovirus as effectively as 2 doses did the original COVID19. This week, Israeli researchers reported that a booster dose increases neutralization ability “about a hundred-fold” against actual Omicron, although it remains “about 4x lower” than against Delta.
Race to Booster Shots
While 3rd-dose booster shots can significantly improve immunity to Omicron infection, just 9% of Canada’s population has had 3 doses – mostly elderly, immunocompromised, or at-risk individuals. (Regionally, boosters range from 4% of the population in Nova Scotia to 29% in Nunavut.) Canada’s reluctance to authorize 3rd doses was well-intended, since vaccine inequity allowed the Omicron variant to arise in South Africa in the first place. But now, even as traditional-aged PSE students become eligible for booster shots, it will take time to administer them all.
Since just yesterday…
500 cases at Queen’s
The COVID19 outbreak at Queen’s U this month added another 193 new cases, bringing the December total to almost 500 – about 55% of the region’s total. Kingstonist
PHOs across the country, from Victoria to Halifax, are blaming campus Omicron outbreaks on two rugby tournaments hosted in Kingston last month by Queen’s U – who emphasizes that the connection is unproven. “The university employed very stringent COVID19 protocols and safety measures while the athletes and supporting staff were on campus. Students and staff had to meet all vaccination requirements and were rapid tested upon arrival and twice more during the tournaments. Everyone was required to mask while not on the field, physically distance from fans, teams used separate exits/entrance, and gatherings on the field were not permitted.” (Omicron keeps demonstrating that the precautions we thought were adequate simply aren’t, whether or not the tournament was the spark that ignited CdnPSE outbreaks.) Contact tracers are also investigating the possibility that the women’s rugby team brought Omicron back to StFX. Kingstonist | Global
More Campus Cases
Naturally, with the pace of Omicron driving new infections, CdnPSE reported more cases in the past 24 hours, including 1 at uWaterloo, and 3 at McMaster. On Wednesday, McGill U reported an outbreak of at least 3 cases in athletics, and 12 cases on campus last week. These institutions are in good company: Oxford has been a COVID19 hotspot for weeks, with 170 active cases. Despite a 97% vax rate, Cornell U (NY) identified 930 new cases this week (a “significant” number Omicron), and has therefore cancelled graduation, moved final exams online, and shut down many parts of its Ithaca campus. Princeton U (NJ) saw cases spike this week and likewise is cancelling in-person exams and indoor gatherings, advising students to leave campus “at their earliest convenience,” because “we certainly don’t want you remaining on campus in required isolation through the holidays.”
Although Omicron has clearly been a game-changer for the past 3 weeks, governments in Canada have finally started taking it seriously in the past few days…
Cancel Travel Plans
The federal government issued a travel advisory yesterday urging Canadians to cancel any non-essential international travel. “Now is not the time to travel.” (Personally, I’ve assumed that travel was ill-advised for the past 20 months!) Ottawa also plans to make on-arrival COVID19 testing mandatory for all air travellers from outside North America. (It reportedly also considered a ban on all foreign nationals, and a mandatory 2-week quarantine requirement.) Globe & Mail
“Now is not the time to travel. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale makes us fear the worst.” – Jean-Yves Duclos, Canadian health minister
Return to Remote Work
Many local PHOs in Ontario have been urging employers return to WFH whenever possible. On Tuesday, Quebec’s health minister recommended remote work be prioritized effective immediately until further notice, and the province suspended its mid-November “return to work” order. McGill U announced yesterday a return to its summer telework posture: staff and admin who can WFH should spend 30% of their time in the office.
ON Accelerates Boosters
Ontario will extend eligibility for 3rd doses to all adults aged 18+, effective Monday, and hopes to deliver 300,000 boosters per day through a combination of pop-up clinics, workplace clinics, physicians offices, and pharmacies. Most notably, 3rd doses will be available as little as 3 months after the 2nd. (Australia has reduced the dose 3 interval to 5 months, and the UK to 3 months.) Ontario is also cutting capacity in half for large indoor venues as of Saturday, and making home rapid tests available at LCBO liquor stores. Globe & Mail
K-12 Schools Hold their Breath
The Nova Scotia government has already announced that K-12 schools will start their winter break early, today. Several of Ontario’s largest school boards are asking students to take their belongings home for the holidays, in the face of a potential pivot back to remote learning in January.
“Even if you are fully vaccinated, it is critical that we limit contacts as much as possible. This cannot be a holiday season like others.” – Alex Summers, MOH for London-Middlesex
Of course, not all provincial leaders are demonstrating caution right now. Alberta premier Jason Kenney is persisting in his plans to loosen restrictions on gatherings for Christmas, and Quebec premier François Legaultplans to raise the limit to 20 as of Dec 23. Alberta opposition politicians say Kenney’s rationale is not epidemiological modelling but his own pending leadership review.
“Albertans may be feeling some whiplash. The premier says unvaccinated Albertans can host at-home gatherings with multiple households while at the same time the chief medical officer says there is a significant risk of a fifth wave that would once again collapse the health care system.” – Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP leader
In the past 24 hours, CdnPSEs have also made announcements that demonstrate they are regarding the Omicron variant with more concern…
F2F Exams Suspended
Since most CdnPSE campuses have been in the midst of exams for the past week, many of the first institutional reactions were to cancel in-person exams, moving them either online, to take-home or other formats, or postponing them until January. (Some eagle-eyed readers noted that 2 of my headlines yesterday were misleading, in suggesting exams were “cancelled.” Mea culpa!) So far, in-person exams have been shut down at
uVictoria, Queen’s U, St Lawrence College, Western U, uToronto, Mount Allison U, and particularly in Nova Scotia: Acadia, Dalhousie, and Cape Breton U have now been joined by Mount St Vincent U (effective today). Of course, the rest of CdnPSE is proceeding with in-person exams as planned, with students facing heightened anxiety – either because they haven’t experienced the pressure of an exam hall before, or they believe it is unsafe amid another wave of the pandemic.
Delayed Starts in January
Yesterday I sampled CdnPSE announcements that were starting to sound cautious about the return to campus in January, and detailed McMaster U’s plan to postpone the start of in-person classes to Jan 17. (Classes will be online only the week of Jan 10.) In the past 24 hours, others have joined them, hoping to implement a “third dose strategy”…
uGuelph announced yesterday that Winter 2022 courses will begin with 2 weeks of remote delivery, from Jan 10-23, with “limited exceptions.” Students moving back to residence are encouraged to delay their return until Jan 24. uGuelph
Laurentian U’s senate voted Tuesday to delay the beginning of winter term by one week, from Jan 10 to Jan 17 (as it did last year). The rationale included that it would give students 14 days for infections contracted on New Year’s Eve to incubate. If the pandemic situation requires a virtual start to classes in January, the later date will allow more lead time for planning. Sudbury.com
Mohawk College plans a “temporary reduction” of in-person learning from Jan 6-30. “All required in-person learning will continue,” but other learning will be delivered virtually or remotely for January. Global
Ontario Tech U announced yesterday that the Winter term will begin a week late on Jan 17 – and in online formats only: “classes will remain online until at least Monday Jan 31.” (All employees are to WFH starting Monday.) OntarioTech
Seneca College announced this morning that the Winter term will start as planned on Jan 10, but in-person classes and labs will be delayed until Jan 24. Employees are to continue working remotely if possible. Seneca
uToronto announced yesterday that the Winter term will start virtually on Jan 10, with in-person learning delayed until Jan 31. Toronto Star
“Ontarians are being asked to assist with limiting spread by reducing the number of social gatherings, obtaining their third dose when eligible, and allowing employees to WFH where possible. We all have a role to play as individuals and as a university community to support public health in our communities.” – Trevor Young, acting provost, and Kelly Hannah-Moffat, VP people strategy, equity & culture, uToronto
York U has announced that the winter term will begin on Jan 10, but in-person courses and activities will not start until Jan 24. National Post
Other institutions, like Brock U, Mohawk College, and Niagara College, told CBC they are “having discussions” about January now. CBC
It would seem that an increasing number of CdnPSEs are recognizing that when it comes to the winter term and a return to campus, “better late than never” also applies.
The real challenge is logistical: it will take time for provinces to provide 3rd shots to younger adults. Even though sufficient vaccine doses may be on hand, appointments at vax clinics are in high demand. (That’s why I am scheduled for mine just in time for Christmas Eve, when evidently nobody else wanted it.) And then, of course, we need to wait 2 weeks more for the full immune response to develop.
I would say that institutions planning on a return to campus by the end of January are being as optimistic as is reasonable, given what we know right now…
OK – once again, sorry to spend the whole issue on the Omicron who stole Christmas.
As you know by now, I am collecting higher ed holiday videos, and am now up to 177 on my 2021 Holiday Videos playlist. I hope to share some of the best with you very soon, but in the meantime here are a few more…
uAlabama always produces heart-warming, slick holiday videos featuring their elephantine mascot, “Big Al.” This year, Al scurries around to decorate the campus, with a few mishaps, and of course the requisite “Christmas Vacation” electrocution scene. (“Roll Tidings” is of course a play on the school cheer, “Roll Tide!”) YouTube
Snow Place like UNB
In this 1-min video, UNB wordlessly conveys an amusing story of students trying their best to enjoy seasonal activities without snow – making lawn angels, building a leaf snowman, skiing to nowhere. But when they put their minds to it, the students create a snowy landscape indoors, with paper snowflakes, a forest screensaver, and quite a bit of cotton batten. It nicely captures the way we all need to make do this holiday season, setting aside our disappointments to find joy in the little things. YouTube
Algonquin College released a 1-min animated video yesterday that invokes winter hibernation, holiday celebrations, and the end of an immensely challenging year. A cartoon version of president Claude Brulé wishes us all “more opportunities to connect with each other” next year, and “renewed hope in all aspects of our lives.” YouTube
I hope to be back tomorrow with a focus on holiday greeting videos. (Wish me luck!)
Meanwhile, stay safe and be well,
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