Tuesday, January 18, 2022 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and a (belated) happy new year!
Apologies if you missed the Insider in your inbox last week – and thank you to those of you who kindly inquired after my health. Rest assured, I’m fine. I just needed a “sabbatical,” to focus on finishing a major report I’ve been writing for months. (Insert PhD thesis flashbacks here.) Besides, most of the country didn’t get back to school until yesterday, anyhow!
Believe it or not, it’s been exactly a month since my final “extra” issue of 2021, which went out on Saturday December 18. (After that, there were 4 “holiday” issues, but they studiously ignored the news.)
I thought I would EASE myself into January – after all, it’s apparently “Get a Balanced Life Month!” (You might want to tell your boss.)
For my own benefit as much as yours, let’s start with a recap of where we were last month to get us back up to speed (because in many ways, that’s where we still are)…
Way back on Nov 29, my optimism was shattered by the arrival of what I called “a Pandemic Punch in the Gut,” the Omicron variant, in South Africa. (I chided myself at the time for forgetting “the relentless pessimism and excess caution that had served me so well in tracking the trajectory of this pandemic.” But then, just a week earlier I had titled my pandemic précis “the Calm before the Storm.”) Borders were closing but viruses ignore borders: clearly “the cat was already out of the bag.” On Dec 7, I told you to “assume it’s already here.” By Dec 13, the surge was starting for a “bleak midwinter.” (Although good old Jason Kenney and François Legault were loosening restrictions for the sake of Christmas parties. Gah.) By Dec 16, Canada’s case count had increased by 33% in just a week. (Ah, simpler times!)
On Nov 29 I warned that Omicron looked to be “the worst variant yet.” By Dec 7, when there were just a handful of confirmed cases of Omicron in Canada, it was already clear that COVID Threw us a Spiky Curve Balland “the game had changed.” All the early evidence suggested Omicron was far more contagious than Delta, capable of immune breakthrough, and poised to outcompete Delta. (Late in November, 16 months after I started saying it, Canada’s chief PHO Theresa Tam finally acknowledged that COVID19 was airborne.) By Dec 13, Anthony Fauci was telling us Omicron’s “doubling time” was just 3 days, compared to 11-14 for Delta, and that 60% of infections were coming from asymptomatic carriers. By Dec 16, a Hong Kong study found Omicron infects 70x faster than Delta, and Ontario data showed it had an R(t) value of 4.55 (almost 5x higher than Delta’s 0.97).
“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
With 30+ spike protein mutations, Omicron “slices through a mere 2-doses of vaccine like butter” (as I put it on Dec 10). In early Dec, outbreaks were occurring on highly vaxxed campuses that had been safe all term, and also among vaxxed athletes and hospital workers. On Dec 10, when I thought I could stop reporting on COVID19 and shift to a holiday mode, I had to tell you about a massive outbreak prompted by StFX’s X-Ring ceremony (ultimately tied to 240+ cases), and another at Queen’s U (ultimately reaching about 500 cases). StFX and its student union were each fined $11,000+ for violating health orders. By Dec 13, two off-campus events at uVic were tied to 30 cases (later 124 cases), and Dalhousie had 8 cases (which shortly became 53).
All these massive outbreaks, in fully-vaxxed campus populations who had been healthy for more than 3 months, clearly signalled that COVID19 was back with a vengeance.
Inching Toward Endemic
What we didn’t know with absolute certainty back on Dec 7, and still don’t really have firmly established, is just how much less virulent or deadly Omicron is. Some preliminary data suggested Omicron was no less severe than Delta, although of course many patients had at least one dose of vaccine. We were hopeful then, as we are now, that Omicron is COVID19’s first step from pandemic to endemic disease, a “watering down” to becoming a seasonal virus we can live with.
“The pandemic is the unwelcome guest who won’t leave.” – Washington Post Editorial Board, Nov 26 2021
Back on Dec 7, I shared the epidemiological math: even if Omicron were 50% as lethal, if it were also 50% more transmissible, then deaths would still rise exponentially. Hospitals would be overwhelmed. It was time to cancel our Christmas plans. On Dec 10, I pointed out that uToronto epidemiologist Colin Furness was warning of a potential lockdown due to Omicron – which none of us wanted to contemplate yet. (Of course, it came to pass as he foretold.)
“Even if the severity is equal or potentially even lower… hospitalizations will increase if more people become infected, and there will be a time lag between an increase in the incidence of cases and an increase in the incidence of deaths.” – WHO weekly epidemiological report, Dec 8 2021
Back on Dec 7, vaccine manufacturers were arguing (a little defensively) about whether Omicron was a real problem or not, and warning that it would take 3 months to deploy a new formulation for Omicron. By Dec 10, preliminary studies were already warning of “much more extensive” immunity escape, with a “very large drop” in the way vaccines neutralized Omicron. By Dec 16, we (sorta) knew that 2 doses of Pfizer provided only 33% protection against infection by Omicron – although 70% protection against hospitalization. In my Insider Extra, Dec 18, we heard Omicron was at least 5x more likely to reinfect, and that it might completely evade the J&J, SinoPharm and Sputnik vaccines. (And oh, don’t forget this: Omicron could also infect some triple-vaxxed people, to boot.)
Still, since mid-December, we’ve all been acting like a 3rd dose will finally bring the pandemic to a close. The problem was, we were way behind. As of Dec 16, just 9% of Canadians had 3 doses, and in some provinces like Nova Scotia it was as low as 4%. On Dec 7, I pointed out that it would take time to get booster shots to the entire campus population, but that it was pretty much the only way we could responsibly reopen at full capacity again.
About that Barn Door…
Although the federal government started closing borders selectively in early Dec, it wasn’t until Dec 16 that Canadians were finally advised to cancel non-essential international travel. (That seemed obvious back on Nov 29, but of course airlines needed to make their holiday cash flow.) I’ve spent the last month watching in some dismay as many of my Facebook friends jet off to sunnier climes. (Trying. Not. To. Get. Judgy.)
“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, Dec 14 2021
A LONG Winter
In my Dec 7 “pandemic prognosis,” I warned that we were looking at a “multi-year horizon” before new COVID19 variants would stop arising, since half the planet’s population was still unvaxxed. Omicron won’t be the last variant (there have been a couple of developments since December, even) and the next one that outcompetes it for dominance might be even more virulent. Until we overcome vaccine nationalism and get all of humanity some protection, COVID19 will have plenty of green fields to flourish and mutate.
Waiting for the Wise Men
On Nov 29 I emphasized that we would not have concrete peer-reviewed data on Omicron’s transmissibility, infectiousness, virulence, or immune escape capabilities for at least a month. More likely, we would need to wait until Epiphany for “the wise men to bring us some answers on this new variant from the East.”
Epiphany was Jan 6. We’re still waiting…
Again, summing up “where we were at” last month…
On Dec 13, Queen’s U students were agitating for online exams. By Dec 15, several Nova Scotia universities had shut down in-person exams (CBU, Dalhousie and MtA), as had uVic, Queen’s, Western, and St Lawrence College. On Dec 16, I noted they were joined by uToronto, Acadia, and MSVU. Even though Laurentian had a confirmed COVID19 exposure in one of its exam halls on Dec 10, they waited stubbornly until Dec 17 to suspend in-person exams.
On Dec 10, uSaskatchewan was first CdnPSE out of the gate to announce that proof of a 3rd dose would be required, as soon as students are eligible, “to continue to be considered fully vaccinated.” (I didn’t spot any others last month.)
I Lost My Temper
When I ranted “Wasn’t this Obvious?” on Dec 13, many readers wrote in to calm me down. I probably was losing my patience with the upswing of bad pandemic news, just as I had hoped to stop covering it entirely for the year, and focus on that report I mentioned. I still don’t think I was wrong, mind you:
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.
January was Shot
On Nov 29, I warned that although Omicron could just “blow over,” we had to start considering “the very real possibility that we may have just witnessed the start of a major new wave of the pandemic – in which case, plans for in-person conferences, convocations, or the return to campus in January could at best be frustrated and complicated by border closures and new PHO restrictions, and at worst could have to be completed reversed.” As CdnPSE hurtled toward the Winter holidays with ambitious plans for a “near-normal” January, I sounded the alarm on Dec 7. It was already too late to save January: if we waited for lab evidence and a new vaccine, it would take until summer to vaccinate our students. If we focused on boosters of existing vaccines, we might be able to get our students protected by March Break. But January?
“The experts have been very clear: nothing will stop the spread of Omicron. It’s just too transmissible. What we can do, and what we’re doing, is slowing it as much as possible to allow more time for shots to get into arms.” – Doug Ford, Ontario premier, Dec 17 2021
Way back on Dec 1, Carleton president Benoit-Antoine Bacon warned that the Winter 2022 term would likely be blended, with perhaps a full return to campus by Fall 2022. (TBH, that’s still my own most optimistic forecast.) Across town on Dec 8, Algonquin president Claude Brulé spoke of a “transitional” and “gradual” return to campus in the Winter 2022 term. Although still hoping for a full return to campus in January, Western U started moving employees back to WFH as of Dec 13, as did McMaster and uWaterloo as of Dec 14. McGill followed the province’s lead on WFH on Dec 16. It looked like this was so inevitable that I stopped reporting on it.
Early Late Starts
On Dec 15, I told you that McMaster had announced classes would be held virtually for the first week in January. On Dec 16, they were joined by 7 other Ontario institutions, one way or another: Laurentian delayed the start of term by a week; uGuelph, York U and Seneca College would start with 2 weeks online; Mohawk College announced a reduction of in-person learning for the whole month of January; Ontario Tech would start the term a week late, and keep it online for the month, as would uToronto.
Though I had had “one foot out the door” for the holidays for 2 weeks at that point, the pandemic just wouldn’t give me a break…
On Dec 17, fully 14 more ONpses announced delayed starts or pivots online for January, most of them for the full month. uWaterloo would be virtual for at least 2 weeks. Brock, Carleton, Conestoga, Durham, Niagara,Ryerson, uOttawa and Laurier would stay largely online until at least Jan 30. (OCAD would delay the start of classes until Jan 28, so they could be in person – they hoped.) Algonquin, George Brown, Sault and Queen’swould stay online for 2 months, until Feb 28, as would uWinnipeg.
Even then, Omicron wouldn’t let me quit…
On Dec 18, I felt compelled to share a Saturday “Extra!” (because the following week was going to be devoted to the holidays). I shared 9 more ONpse announcements: Nipissing and Sheridan would move online until Jan 24. Algoma, Western, Windsor and Fleming would shift online for January. Centennial would put most classes online for January and February. St Clair was moving 24 programs online because they had high international enrolments.
In Manitoba, uWinnipeg was joined by RRC Polytech, who would “prioritize” online delivery for the whole Winter 2022 term.
Auld Lang Syne
So that’s where we were, heading into the Winter holiday break: “11th-hour announcements landing like lumps of coal in the stockings of college and university instructors, who will need to scramble over the holidays to prepare for unplanned alternate delivery.”
How much has changed since then?
Give me a day or two to sort that out… but it may be less than you think!
Since this whole issue is a flashback to December, really…
Holiday Special Redux
You may recall that I assembled a collection of about 50 of the best higher ed holiday greeting videos last month, and shared them in 4 issues of the Insider and my 2021 Holiday Special blog. But I also warned that I would keep collecting examples, and the full 2021 Holiday Videos playlist now includes 339 altogether. Most of the late-breaking vids were lengthy concerts or unremarkable, but this one deserves special mention…
On Dec 23, the University of Texas at Martin released an elaborate 10-min parody of Steve Carell’s The Office, starring chancellor Keith Carver (who also starred in holiday parodies of Carpool Karaoke in 2017, Christmas Vacation in 2018, and Elf in 2019). This time, in character as Michael Scott, he’s trying to single-handedly bake holiday cookies for all 6700 students, and of course getting distracted by selfies and tweets. From sarcastic voiceovers by Carver’s assistant, to dry reality checks from the provost, if you’re a fan of the humour of The Office, I’m sure you’ll find quite a few laughs in here. (And major kudos, as always, to Keith Carver, an annual highlight and one of the best sports in higher education today!) YouTube
Thanks for joining me for year 3 of 2020!
I’m always on the lookout for innovative ideas about the future of higher ed, so please do drop me a line if you spot something you find thought-provoking, at your institution or anywhere else.
Stay safe and be well!
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