Thursday, January 20, 2022 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Happy International Day of Acceptance, apparently. If you’re getting impatient with my week-long project of catching up with COVID19, please “accept” my apology…
On Tuesday, I started by reminding you (and myself) where we left off in December. On Wednesday, we looked at “What’s New for 2022,” and specifically the new variants, treatments and vaccines that made the news over the past month.
Today, I thought I would distill the rest of the past month’s pandemic news into 17 key lessons that the Omicron variant has taught everybody since December. (Not you, my loyal readers, of course – we all knew this stuff was happening a month ago!)
But now we have a much clearer sense of the specifics…
The Omicron variant emerged in late November as a major threat, driving an unexpected 5th wave of the pandemic and reinforcing a bunch of lessons we all should have learned before. Most of what’s happened in the past month was already pretty clear to you and me in early December, but here’s what the rest of the world seems to have learned anew:
What Exponential Means
When epidemiologists warned that Omicron would drive exponential growth, as always, many politicians, cinema chains, and anti-maskers failed to understand: this is the “fastest-spreading virus in history.” The curves we’re seeing in pandemic indicators this month is exactly what was forecast, quickly breaking all-time records. France and the UK were each confirming 100,000 cases daily, just in time for Christmas, and projecting 1M new cases a week. (In fact, between Christmas and New Years’ gatherings and travel, Omicron’s progress has been even faster than expected.) Europe saw a “tidal wave” of 7M cases in a single week. The US set a new global record of 1M daily cases, and the forecast is that half of all Americans will contract Omicron in the next 3 months. Case counts have been approaching 12,000 a day in Ontario, 4,000 in Saskatchewan, 5,000 in Alberta, and 25,000 nationally. In fact, Canada saw more cases in 40 days of Omicron than in all of 2020. Still more sobering, the country saw more than 100 COVID19 deaths a day this week, the highest since Feb 2021.
“We’re still in the storm.” – Christian Dubé, Quebec health minister, Jan 19 2022
We’re Flying Blind
But things are doubtless far worse than those numbers suggest. The shortage of PCR and rapid tests for COVID19 has been growing worse. PHOs are rationing tests only for those at risk with symptoms, or working on the front lines. (Saskatchewan suggests people with “mild” symptoms simply skip the test.) Some people who test positive at home never report it, of course. Plus, we can only trust the positive results from rapid tests – there are plenty of false negatives, and perhaps even more for the Omicron variant. Genome sequencing can’t possibly keep up with the volume, and labs have massive testing backlogs. What’s worse, we’re willfully flying blind too: in Ontario, schools and daycares will no longer report cases to the province at all, and won’t notify families until >30% of students and teachers have tested positive. Mathematicians are warning us that COVID19 case counts are no longer comparable – because the definition of case counts has changed. Without a doubt, the stats significantly understate the actual circulation of the virus out there: one US expert estimates the actual count is about 5x higher, while Alberta’s CMOH says it’s more like 10x. That’s why some projections are that the world is actually adding 40M cases a day.
“It shouldn’t be easier to find out if there’s a lice outbreak in your kid’s school than a COVID outbreak.” – Marit Stiles, Ontario NDP education critic
Truth in the Toilet
Since we can’t count on COVID19 case counts as early warnings anymore, wastewater monitoring has become pretty much the best early-warning indicator we have left of what the impacts on hospitals will be in the weeks ahead. uGuelph has been using it on-campus for some time. Last week, Alberta wastewater samples showed COVID19 levels 10x higher than in any wave of the pandemic. This week, Saskatchewan saw a 107% increase in wastewater viral load in Saskatoon, 810% in Prince Albert, and 3,521% in North Battleford. If these are early warnings, better circle the wagons folks!
Kiss Hamsters Goodbye
An ever-expanding list of animal species are being proven able to catch, incubate and/or spread COVID19, and now hamsters can spread the Delta variant to people. Hong Kong dispatched animal control stormtroopers to cull 2,000 of the little furballs from 34 pet stores, because “it was impossible to quarantine and observe each one.” (Owners are strongly advised not to kiss their beloved little rodents, btw.) It looks like COVID19 will have plenty of zoonotic reservoirs to hide in, even after humans have all been vaccinated.
We Can’t Blame China
Although the scientific jury is still out on whether COVID19 emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Dalhousie researchers announced last week that Omicron was in Nova Scotia’s wastewater in mid-November, before it was even identified in South Africa. (Oh, and now China wants to blame a parcel from Canada for bringing Omicron to its shores.) All the more reason to think of these variants as global problems, not national ones.
“[Hospitalizations are a] much more useful indicator as we pivot to a virus that overall has been milder than previous strains that we’ve seen.” – David Rubin, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Less Deadly is Still Deadly
Thankfully, as predicted, more studies are surfacing to encourage us with news that the Omicron variant is less virulent than Delta, causes shorter illness, is only one-third or half as likely to cause hospitalization, and is less likely to cause death. Omicron may be less severe for many people, but it’s still not “mild,” insists the WHO. Hospitals are overwhelmed, non-emergency surgeries suspended, and organ transplants delayed. As the quality of patient care suffers, more will die – although many of those deaths aren’t included in pandemic counts. Ontario reached an all-time record 4,000 COVID19 hospitalizations last week, Quebec 3,417, and Alberta 1,000. Half of Quebec’s health regions exceeded the worst-case scenario. Saskatoon hospitals were overflowing this week, “and we haven’t even seen hospitalization effects of the fifth wave yet.” Nationally, hospitalizations across Canada jumped 67% at year-end, and then passed 6,000 in a week. Federal modelling is anticipating the peak in the next week or two. (The US could see 1 million more hospitalizations before the Omicron wave subsides, rising to 370% of the Delta peak last November. Already they’re seeing more than 1,000 daily deaths.) It’s also alarming to see unvaxxed infants and children being hospitalized with COVID19, and even dying (although of course, kids help bring down the fatality rates and length of hospital stay).
“The next few weeks are going to be the most challenging yet on our health care system.” – Bonnie Henry, BC PHO, Jan 14 2022
Lies, Damned Lies…
So how do we get out of this mess? Well, in Ontario, by changing the way we report COVID19 statistics, of course: reporting those hospitalized for COVID, not those hospitalized with it, and only reporting school cases when 30% of students are sent home with it. Thinking likewise, the airlines would like to simply stop testing passengers for COVID19. (Ah, what was it Mark Twain said about statistics?)
The Disease IS Worse
Despite the antivax protesters, most of us already understood that the side effects and long-term consequences of catching COVID19 were far worse than the rare negative effects of the vaccines. One of the most worrying for young males in particular was myocarditis, apparently associated with the Moderna vaccine, but new research confirms the risk is about 70x greater from the disease (146 per 100,000) than the cure (2.13 per 100,000 vaxxed).
Front Line Labour Shortages
Hospitals, airlines, trucking companies, retailers and school boards are wrestling with shortages of front line staff, thanks to the “Great Resignation,” burnout from 14-hour days, emotional exhaustion from coping with violent and abusive patients or customers, and widespread self-isolation due to positive COVID19 test results or exposure. BC saw ~18,000 healthcare workers call in sick last week. (Oh, and thousands are being fired or laid off for refusing to get vaccinated.) A shortage of paramedics has taken up to 50% of ambulances off the roads, and those that remain are tied up in “offloading delays” at emergency wards. Some of those emergency departments are closing overnight for a lack of physicians. With thousands of healthcare staff off the job, Quebec is among those bringing infected staff back to work and asking other public sector workers to fill in for healthcare aides. Ontario is using non-certified teachers.
“These nurses are seeing several deaths and several deaths of patients who are their age [every few days]… You know, our nurses are humans as well.” – Aman Grewal, president, BC Nurses Union
Assume Everyone is Infected
Sure enough, the Omicron variant is far more contagious than Delta, and is spreading like wildfire even among supposedly “fully-vaccinated” populations. (In Ontario, 2 doses only makes you 21% less likely to catch Omicron than someone with none.) Even worse, 60% of contagious cases don’t show any symptoms, so those people aren’t even trying to get tested. Some studies suggest that 1 in 10 people remain contagious with Omicron more than 5 days, which is when many are now ending their isolation. At the rate Omicron is spreading, pretty much the only safe assumption is that everyone you meet is a carrier right now.
“We need to assume, just like the common cold, it is everywhere, and it’s not common to us to have this kind of mindset with COVID19.” – Dorothy Shephard, New Brunswick health minister
Boosters are Critical
Omicron is also really effective at cutting through the protection we thought 2 doses of vaccine were giving us. Now you pretty much need a booster to feel safe out there: some studies are saying you have no immunity without it. The ACHA is recommending that US colleges mandate booster shots. Naturally, Moderna says you’ll need a 4th shot this Fall, the UK is considering it, and Israel says it boosts antibodies fivefold. Other studies suggest we’ll need 3 booster shots every year. (Sheesh!) Just make sure you schedule your shot in the afternoon, for maximum effect.
Your Mask Sucks
Oh, and those cloth masks CdnPSEs branded and distributed last year? They’re so… last year! Studies have found they filter anywhere from 2% to 98% of aerosols, depending on the weave and how well they fit. The CDC updated its mask guidance earlier this month. Unless you’re wearing a tight-fitting mask (and preferably an N95 one), the air escaping past your cheeks or fogging your glasses is carrying aerosols, both in and out. (As I reiterated yesterday, PHO Theresa Tam finally admitted last month that COVID19 is airborne. But at least we now have some uBristol research that suggests the aerosols drop off 90% within 20 minutes, particularly in lower humidity.) CdnPSEs have been increasingly mandating 3-ply or N95 masks, as Cambrian College did this week. If you can’t get an N95, uWindsor research suggests a 2-ply cotton mask strapped tightly over a procedural mask can come close. Otherwise, rather like 2 doses of vaccine, or the “hygiene theatre” of fogging surfaces, that piece of flapping cloth on your face is just giving you a false sense of security in the face of Omicron. (Although research out of Cardiff U suggests that, after a year of pandemic, a mask at least makes you look more attractive and healthy to the opposite sex!)
“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron.” – Leana Wen, prof of Health Policy, George Washington U
Australia and New Zealand gave up on “COVID-zero” goals last year, after months spent locking their own citizens out of the country to try to eliminate all traces of the virus. Border closures worldwide have consistently come too late to stop the spread of new variants. China is one of the few countries still attempting a “containment” strategy, often through draconian means (like locking down an entire office building – with workers still inside! – or a city of 14M because of 40 cases). With the Winter Olympics starting Feb 4, this will be a mess for sure.
Speaking of which…
Travelling is Still Nuts
Back in mid-December, federal travel advisories told Canadians not to leave the country – but nonetheless,plenty did. Although thousands of flights were cancelled at Christmas. Some of those Canadians who managed to get abroad are now paying for it, stranded by flight cancellations, crew shortages, border restrictions or positive test results. (Not to mention concerns about the launch of 5G networks near airports, yesterday.) I was disappointed to see the Consumer Electronics Show proceeding in Las Vegas this month, despite many major players backing out. Scholarly associations that made conference plans for early 2022 are now scrambling, many switching to hybrid or virtual formats – but some are stubbornly trudging onward because the costs of cancelling would be “catastrophic.” Even the CDC has issued a level 4 advisory warning Americans not to travel to Canada, because this place is just too drenched in Omicron. (The airlines and airports helpfully suggest that the solution is to stop mandatory testing.)
“The fact that the AHA is openly admitting to basically gambling its economic well-being on thousands of people traveling from around the world to attend a conference in the middle of a pandemic… is something else!” – Julia López, Historian
What did I say on Tuesday? Oh yeah: Trying. Not. To. Get. Judgy.
Blame the Unvaxxed
Over the past month, politicians have openly stated they are trying to make life difficult for the unvaccinated. Ottawa has banned unvaxxed truckers from entering the country. Quebec is following Austria and Greece by proposing a “significant” new tax, and banning the unvaxxed from liquor stores. (Mon Dieu!) A Quebec judge suspended visitation rights for an unvaxxed father. Surveys have found that 60% of Canadians favour a “punitive tax on the unvaccinated,” and 70% are glad to see the unvaxxed lose their jobs. It’s important that we distinguish between the unvaxxed, and anti-vax: as one uToronto bioethicist put it, “the ethical approach we have to healthcare may never fully recover from this.”
“You could practically propose going after the unvaccinated with pitchforks and torches and you’d get support for that.” – Kerry Bowman, bioethicist, uToronto
Forget Teaching Old Dogs
Despite all the hard lessons we’ve learned in the past month, it seems you simply can’t teach an old political dog new tricks. The Republican-dominated US Supreme Court has blocked president Biden’s vaccine mandateon major employers. Despite 1.2M new infections a week, the UK refused to impose holiday restrictions. After protests against his curfew restrictions earlier this month, Quebec premier François Legault responded by lifting them. Now Ontario premier Doug Ford is reportedly going to ease restrictions again. Yikes…
Karma’s a Bitch
(As in female dog, of course: see the previous headline.) Numerous public figures have gotten themselves into hot water in the past month. UK prime minister Boris Johnson is in trouble for yet another Christmas party. Premier Jason Kenney held a holiday reception just hours after telling Albertans to cut their close contacts 50% – and of course, health minister Jason Copping tested positive last weekend. New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs and Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe also tested positive for COVID19 this month.
OK, I’ve run out of time (and room) again today, so tomorrow we can finally turn to the future: what’s the prognosis for the Omicron wave look like, and what has all this done to the likely future course of the pandemic?
Hopefully that will end the week on a more upbeat note… we’ll see!
Yesterday I shared some 5-min YouTube videos about Linguistics by Tom Scott, as a good example of “popularizing ideas in digestible form.” That prompted reader Gillian Batten to suggest some even briefer Psychology vids on Instagram…
Mount St Vincent U psychology profs Will Shead and Derek Fisher take their Abbott-and-Costello camaraderie to Instagram in a series of educational 1-min “Psychology Quip” vids intended for their undergraduate students. The “theme song” is deliberately awful (I hope it’s deliberate) but the idea is sound: try to convey a single psych concept in less than 60 seconds, and even demonstrate it, in a memorable way. The one above, “Confirmation Bias,” resonates with (confirms, even?) my comments about travel, above. The series is up to 46 episodes now, and carried on through the pandemic: “Research Grants” takes place via Zoom, and masks are worn in the most recent episode, “Electroencephalogram.” Pre-pandemic, a MSVU student profiled the 2 profs and the IG series in a story for campus news, “From Academia to Instagram.” Instagram Channel | MSVU News
OK, so, to unleash the flood: Who else has a prof producing watchable, cool (and brief) videos like these? Let me know!
As always, thanks for reading!
Stay safe and be well everybody,
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