Monday, December 13, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and happy Acadian Day of Remembrance to those of you who commemorate the 1758 Great Upheaval.
The rest of the world’s attention, of course, remains fixed on the great upheaval of COVID19, and the fifth wave now apparently becoming a tsunami thanks to the Omicron variant. In the past few days, we’ve seen a startling rise in CdnPSE campus outbreaks, literally from coast to coast, and PHOs have started advising against international travel or holiday gatherings. Outbreaks at StFX and Queen’s alone appear responsible for 200+ new cases, and in-person exams are being cancelled at several universities as campus outbreaks have doubled since Friday…
Even as campus activity dwindles in CdnPSE, and most students shift into the stress of final exams before heading home for the winter break, COVID19 developments have shifted into overdrive and I can’t ignore breaking news (though I am trying)…
Pandemic News Accelerates
A week ago there was so much pandemic news to report that my Monday précis (“Airports, Aerosols and Anime”) overflowed to Tuesday (“COVID Throws a Spiky Curve Ball”). I tried to spell out the risks of the Omicron variant in a balanced way, outlining what we could see about its increased transmissibility and immune escape, and the unknowns about its severity and global spread. I thought that summary would probably stand for a week or two, but so much evidence emerged mid-week that Omicron was in fact accelerating, I was compelled to share more updates Friday (“Sugar-Plum Stress Balls!”). Now, though I was hoping to wait a few more days, things have accelerated yet again…
Omicron Dominates Delta
Some COVID19 variants of concern, like Beta and Gamma, never rose to dominance in much of the world because they simply couldn’t outcompete the Delta strain. The Alpha variant took months to became dominant in the UK, as did Delta everywhere else. When Omicron emerged last month in South Africa, it became the dominant strain within a month. Elsewhere, though, it is poised to displace Delta in mere days: later this week in Britain, Denmark, and likely the rest of Europe, and by month-end in Ontario. (Omicron is already 10% of new cases in Ontario.) The UK has raised its COVID19 threat level to 4 (on a 5-point scale), and London Heathrow reports a high level of business travel cancellations over concerns they could be trapped overseas. (The most pessimistic UK projection is for 500,000 people to be hospitalized and 75,000 more dead by April.)
The US is currently experiencing a resurgence of the Delta variant (thanks to Thanksgiving, of course), and several governors have called out the National Guard, but experts worry that Omicron could cause “a surge upon a surge during a holiday period. (Some calculate that Omicron will become the dominant strain in the US in 6-8 weeks.)
“What we are seeing in the data just now is perhaps the fastest exponential growth that we have seen in this pandemic so far.” – Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland
“What we’re looking at is a surge upon a surge during a holiday period where there’s going to be a lot of gathering, and now with what is likely a more transmissible virus and a virus that… has significant degrees of immune escape.” – Jacob Lemieux, Harvard Medical School
Last Tuesday, I summarized the early epidemiological data and examples from a variety of regions to suggest that Omicron certainly appears to be more transmissible and contagious than the Delta variant. In a lecture to Harvard’s medical school on Friday, US chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci described this as a “perilous moment” and outlined some key stats: breakthrough infections are 3x more likely with Omicron than Delta, and Omicron’s “doubling time” is just 3 days (compared to 11-14 days for Delta). COVID19 has been a challenge because 60% of infections come from asymptomatic carriers. On the upside, though, there is still no evidence that Omicron is more virulent, and in fact still reason to hope it may cause less severe disease than Delta. Harvard News
“At what level of control are we going to be able to get back to some degree of normality? One thing for sure is that 115,000 cases a day and over 1,000 deaths is not an acceptable level of control.” – Anthony Fauci, speaking to Harvard Chan Medical School on Friday
Fifth Wave is Here
Even without Omicron, Canada is facing a fifth wave of the pandemic just in time for Christmas, despite a year of vaccination efforts. The surge is starting in Central Canada, in Quebec and Ontario. Quebec is reporting ~2,000 new cases daily, the highest point since 2021 began. (Hospitalizations are thankfully stable for now.) Quebec’s Eastern Townships and Laval region are seeing ever-worsening infection rates, though the province has confirmed only a handful of Omicron cases so far. Ontario is reporting 1,600+ new cases daily – a 34% spike from just one week ago – and test positivity rates are at a 6-month high. Ontario CMOH Kieran Moore is urging employers to allow WFH “whenever possible,” and accelerating eligibility for booster shots. (Of course, that won’t come in time to add protection for people over the holidays.) The province is even reconsidering the definition of “fully vaxxed.” Alberta premier Jason Kenney, on the other hand, plans to loosen gathering restrictions tomorrow, because his own Christmas plans wouldn’t be allowed under current rules. “I don’t want to create a situation where we have millions of Albertans violating the rules.” (Sigh. What leadership!)
January Looks Bleak
PHAC warns that its modelling shows Canada could reach 7,000+ daily cases next month – even without factoring in the Omicron variant. If Omicron comes to dominate, they forecast up to 10,000 daily cases this month, and 26,600 daily cases by mid-January. Quantity doesn’t equal severity, of course, but the healthcare system could be overwhelmed by a rapid increase in cases, even if only a small fraction require hospitalization. (The UK is already seeing hospitalizations from Omicron, “and these are likely to increase rapidly.”) While Chief PHO Theresa Tam urges caution over the holidays, she also observes that daily case counts and cases in hospitals were at more than double their current levels a year ago. Globe & Mail | CTV
“I’ve been saying that the winter period is going to be a bumpy road towards a brighter spring, if you like. So this is another bump on the road.” – Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief PHO
Remember back in June, when I said I could probably stop tracking or reporting campus cases of COVID19? With widespread vaccination and the summertime lull in respiratory diseases, it looked as though infections and outbreaks would cease to be the same logistical and PR nightmare for CdnPSE. (Ah, simpler times!)
Some Isolated Cases
As you might expect, since Friday some additional COVID19 cases have been announced on CdnPSE campuses, including a campus exposure at St Mary’s U in Halifax, another at Cape Breton U, 2 cases at uGuelph, and 3 more campus cases at McMaster U on Dec 10, Dec 11 and Dec 12 – two of them involving residence exposures.
2 Weeks of Outbreaks
I didn’t run my “Covid on Campus” heading at all between mid-July and the beginning of November. And while I’ve been sharing a handful of case announcements since then, what is really alarming is the abrupt rise of campus “outbreaks” in the past 2 weeks…
Wilfrid Laurier U had what the CBC called an “outbreak” of just 2 cases on Nov 12. (Many PHOs wouldn’t even declare an outbreak until there were 5 linked cases in one setting. It hardly counts, but was a harbinger of things to come.)
Western U (which had been hard-hit in 2020-21 with at least 377 cases on campus) was among the first CdnPSEs to mandate vaccination for all students in residence – but nonetheless an outbreak of 5 cases in Saugeen-Maitland Hall was announced Nov 27. (All 5 students were reportedly fully-vaxxed, although Western has caught 1 person with a fake vax passport this Fall.) The SMH outbreak grew to 8 cases within days, and 17 cases by Friday.
Fanshawe College reported an outbreak of at least 3 cases in its Merlin House residence on Nov 29, and that rose to 5 cases by Friday.
uWindsor reported an outbreak of 4 cases in its Alumni Hall residence back on Dec 6.
Queen’s U suspended all varsity athletics training Dec 9 after an outbreak of 10 cases was declared Dec 7.
COVID19 Explosion at StFX
I’m sure nobody wants to see headlines that their institution was single-handedly responsible for half the new COVID19 in the province. After 20 months successfully managing the pandemic (with only 2 cases that I saw reported), it doubtless came as a shock to administrators at St Francis Xavier U when a Dec 3 event turned into a superspreader. Within days, 59 confirmed cases were linked to the X-Ring ceremony, which also drove 37 exposure notifications at local bars and restaurants, cancelled a day of classes and ultimately forced a last-minute pivot of exams to online, take-home, or deferral. By Friday, there were 114 cases linked directly to the StFX outbreak (although many students and parents had dispersed across the province and may have been showing up in stats for other regions). On Friday night, StFX announced it was discontinuing all in-person exams effective immediately, because new PHO isolation requirements would prevent too many students from writing them. (President Andy Hakin was also paraphrased as saying “there are no regrets, but they’ll learn from this.” By Saturday, Hakin posted an apology for the “heartbreaking” consequences of a ceremony intended to be a “celebratory occasion.”) Restaurants in Antigonish already report losing half their monthly sales in cancelled reservations and parties. Yesterday, Nova Scotia reported 111 more COVID19 cases, “most” tied to the StFX outbreak (bringing the total to 240 cases). Then last night, news broke that StFX president Andy Hakin and 2 other members of the leadership team have contracted COVID19 “over the past few days,” despite being fully-vaxxed.
“We’re seeing the protective impact of the vaccine… we’re not seeing people in emergency rooms, we’re not seeing them hospitalized. That’s (because) this is a younger age group, by and large, but also the majority of these people are vaccinated.” – Robert Strang, Nova Scotia CMOH
“It was like a fairytale weekend where you kind of forget because we’ve had so few cases for so long, it’s really easy to forget that the virus is very real and very present.” – Sydney Chambers, 4th year student, StFX
Over the weekend, those 6 CdnPSE outbreaks have more than doubled…
Second Outbreak at Western
On Saturday, an outbreak of 7 cases was declared in Western’s Delaware Hall residence, and an 8th confirmed case was added on Sunday. Close contacts in the residence are self-isolating, and all 450 residents are asked to self-monitor for symptoms, “regardless of vaccination status.” Global | Western | London Free Press | CTV | CBC
30+ Cases at uVic
Two off-campus events held Dec 4-5 have sparked at least 30 cases of COVID19 among uVictoria business students and varsity athletes. (Island Health cases have risen faster than other regions in the past week – see graph above). uVic announced Thursday it would move selected exams online for those students, although other exams would continue in-person as usual. Academic concessions would also be granted without medical documentation. (Since April, it has been clear that uVic will not share COVID19 case information “in the name of privacy.”) Island Health reportedly considers these cases “a cluster but not an outbreak.” In view of rising case numbers on campus, uVic announced last night that it was cancelling all in-person exams effective today, “asking instructors to offer their assessments online or in another format.” All holiday parties must be cancelled. The Martlet | Daily Hive | Nanaimo News Bulletin | CTV | CBC
Distress at Queen’s
The outbreak among 10 Queen’s athletes reported Dec 7 was apparently just the tip of the iceberg. By Friday, Queen’s was confirming 135 new cases of COVID19 in a single week, and small outbreaks had been declared in 5 campus residences: Brant House, Chown Hall, Victoria Hall, Harkness Hall, and McNeil House. (The Omicron variant has been confirmed in the Kingston area, although it is still only “suspected” at Queen’s. Almost 200 samples have been sent out for genetic testing, which could take a week. The local PHO has capped gatherings at 10 persons, although not for exams.) On Thursday, the university promised that in-person exams would go forward as planned, “with enhanced precautions” – sparking 6,000+ students to sign a petitioncalling for exams to move online. Instead, Queen’s announced “timely” academic consideration for students “due to symptoms, COVID19 illness, or a self-isolation requirement,” and on Saturday 2 faculties extended that to include those “feeling distressed about COVID in the community.” On Sunday night, however, Queen’s announced that all in-person exams will be changed to an “alternative delivery format” if possible, effective immediately, or postponed until January. Students are “strongly encouraged” to test for COVID19 before heading home for the holidays; Queen’s plans to make rapid testing kits available to students this week. Ottawa Citizen | Kingston Whig-Standard | The Kingstonist | Global | CTV | Globe & Mail | Queen’s Gazette
“Having exams in person put thousands of students at risk and likely means that many students won’t be able to see family who are particularly vulnerable to COVID over the holidays.” – Petition signed by 6,500 Queen’s U students
Outbreak at Dalhousie
On Saturday, Dalhousie U reported 8 “presumptive” cases of COVID19, including 2 off-campus students, 1 in Risley Hall residence, and 5 in Howe Hall residence. The campus cases were identified using rapid tests, and pending confirmation from PCR tests, close contacts will be identified. None of these 8 students attended any in-person exams. All students in Dal residences were asked to complete rapid tests on the weekend. (And of course, in-person exams, which are continuing.) Dalhousie | Global | CBC
The abrupt rise of significant outbreaks on CdnPSE campuses signals Omicron’s ability to spread among fully-vaxxed students (and doubtless many cases have gone undetected). Many of the outbreaks seem to be in older, perhaps less well-ventilated residence buildings – and considering how readily the Omicron variant spread in a Hong Kong quarantine hotel, that will pose a real challenge for CdnPSEs. Unfortunately, this surge comes just in time for those students to carry the virus to hometowns across the country over the winter break – potentially inflaming town/gown tensions for the new year…
I’m decidedly NOT a medical or epidemiological expert, and I have been very reluctant to sound pandemic alarm bells when PHOs and CMOHs are not. (I don’t want to develop a reputation as a COVID Cassandra, or Chicken Little…)
Yet repeatedly over the past 20 months, I’ve been astounded that trends that look SO obvious to me are ignored for so long by politicians, public health professionals, and postsecondary leaders. Perhaps it’s because I am not responsible for student enrolments, alumni donations, or Christmas retail sales volumes with an impact on my institution’s or government’s bottom line. I’m not worrying about voter approval ratings. Nor do I have to worry about legal liability if I exceed the level of caution required by PHO guidance.
But as a communications professional, I do think many of the challenges facing CdnPSE leaders and PHOs are being caused because of continually shifting messages, when a cautious, conservative position from the beginning could have avoided it. (It amounts to respecting the pandemic as a force of nature.) Western U did so when it was first to announce a vax mandate in residence, 7 months ago. Seneca College president David Agnew also led the way when he extended the vax mandate campuswide. Throughout the pandemic, I have also been impressed by Conestoga College president John Tibbits, who has addressed his campus community frankly about the challenges ahead, and continues to lead the way on flexible work policies.
I’m not sure whether ultimately the fault lies with PHOs, campus leadership, or their political masters, but once again it’s truly frustrating to watch everyone pretend that in-person exams and holiday gatherings can continue, that we’ll be back to normal classrooms in January, that we can jump on a jet and travel internationally again, or that Omicron hasn’t upended things yet – until they will finally concede to the obvious, at the last moment, throwing faculty, student and traveller lives into chaos. (And closing the barn door long after the virus has escaped.)
What we need is more humility and respect for the unprecedented force of nature that is this pandemic. As Canadians, accustomed to humility in the face of our country’s vast wilderness and frigid winters, I would think it would come easier than it appears to do.
Worldwide, higher ed institutions are releasing their holiday greeting videos, and already I’ve collected 108 on my 2021 Holiday Videos playlist. (Do let me know if I’ve missed yours!) I still hope to curate my annual roundup of the best of those videos, but in the meantime here are a couple more CdnPSE examples to whet your appetite…
Vancouver Island U president Deborah Saucier livened up the usual presidential fireside “season’s greetings” video (of which there are many examples on the playlist), instead quizzing students, staff and faculty on holiday trivia. Jingling bells, fast-paced editing, good sports and bloopers make for a fun 4-min video. (Deb clearly has a future as game show host if she wants it.) From “8 fried chickens” and “eggnog is gross” to mashed potatoes and mistletoe, check it out! YouTube
BCIT president Kathy Kinloch provides a 1-min intro to this touching and fun 3-min “shoutout video” featuring hundreds of students, staff and faculty (often simultaneously) talking about “what they are grateful for this year” (from friends and family and the COVID vaccine to “getting my drivers’ license!”) and “what they are looking forward to in 2022” (from F2F connections and travel to “summer!”). As so often, the video ends with a series of multilingual holiday greetings, too – all shot professionally and edited into a slick package! YouTube
As always, thanks for reading! (And sorry to start off your week with more bleak pandemic news.) I will continue to try NOT to write about the pandemic this month. (But don’t hold your breath…)
Meanwhile, stay safe and be well!
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