Good morning, and happy Monday!
But it’s also been 4 weeks since my last Monday “Pandemic Précis” (see “Pandemic Twilight” from Feb 28), and I thought I should turn my attention back to COVID19, at least long enough to ensure that nothing new is going on…
The virus that causes COVID19 has been evolving at an incredible rate over the past 2 years, and we’ve known for some time that new variants would continue to arise…
Here Comes Stealth Omicron
The BA.2 subvariant of Omicron is even more contagious than BA.1, and is driving a “critical” new pandemic wave in Europe. Case counts, hospitalizations and deaths were startling this month in a dozen countries, including Germany, Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Many US experts are bracing for a similar pattern to follow there shortly; currently BA.2 accounts for up to 70% of new infections nationally. Here in Canada, BA.2 is driving the majority of cases in Quebec and Alberta.
Four countries (including France, Denmark, the Netherlands and the US) have reported a recombinant “Deltacron” variant that seems to combine Delta AY.4 and Omicron BA.1. (French researchers explain it combines “the near full-length spike gene of an Omicron BA.1 variant in a Delta AY.4 lineage backbone,” if that helps explain it.) So far there are few cases, and no evidence that Deltacron is more contagious or more virulent than previous strains. Newsweek
The northern hemisphere is joyfully welcoming springtime weather and an end to the traditional cold and flu season, but in some parts of the globe the forecast is less sunny…
Hong Kong Goes Critical
In early March, Hong Kong went from pandemic success story to COVID19’s global epicentre, with “the highest covid death rate in the developed world” – 2,300 deaths in mere weeks, including the elderly and the unvaxxed, but also toddlers and children too young to be vaccinated. Hospitals, morgues and funeral homes were overwhelmed, largely because Omicron BA.2 found a complacent population in which fewer than 20% of the elderly and at-risk were fully vaxxed, and almost none had acquired natural immunity through exposure. Hong Kong’s “COVID zero” approaches simply weren’t prepared for BA.2’s rapid airborne spread. With thousands of new cases daily, authorities had no other option than to quarantine patients at home – which were often crowded apartments shared with roommates. Washington Post | Vox
“In Hong Kong, people didn’t believe it would occur. People did not believe the health care system would collapse… No matter how good it is right now in terms of the pandemic, I can only say that COVID can just catch you by surprise.” – Kelvin To, microbiologist, U of Hong Kong
Lockdowns in China
By mid-March, China was reporting thousands of locally-transmitted cases in dozens of mainland cities – the country’s biggest outbreak in 2 years, fuelled by the BA.2 subvariant. China completely locked down 9.5M residents in Changchun and Yucheng, and 17.5M in Shenzhen. All residents were subjected to 3 rounds of mass testing, after which offices and factories were allowed to restart operations last week. CBC | CityNews | Reuters
“Winter Jabs” in Australia
As the southern hemisphere heads into cold and flu season, Australian health minister Greg Hunt has announced second boosters (4th shots) of COVID19 vaccine for adults aged 65+, Indigenous Australians aged 50+, the severely immunocompromised aged 16+, and the residents of long term care homes. The “winter jabs” will be available starting Apr 4. Cases in New South Wales are expected to double in the next 6 weeks thanks to the BA.2 subvariant. The Guardian
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
The WHO reports that globally, COVID19 cases have started to rise again – while many countries have decreased their testing, too, meaning “the cases we’re seeing are just the tip of the iceberg.” New infections jumped 8% last week, in the first rise since late January. The biggest surges have been in China, South Korea, and Africa. Reuters
The pandemic is following a well-worn pattern: “as with diseases such as malaria and HIV, rich countries are ‘moving on’ from COVID while poor ones continue to get ravaged.” In the global south, just 13% of the population in low-income countries has been vaccinated, and nearly 3 billion people are still waiting for even their first dose. “Some pandemics never truly end – they just become invisible to people in the global North.” The impacts of the pandemic have been unequal in the “first world,” too. COVID19 shortened life expectancies in 27 of 29 countries, particularly among males and people of colour. And while birth rates plummeted in wealthy countries, they actually rose in poorer ones, disrupting access to contraception and leading to ~1.4M unintended pregnancies. Anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse all rose during the pandemic, and disproportionately impacted lower-income, racialized and front-line workers. The Atlantic | Scientific American
“Privileged people should not get to decide on their own that a global pandemic is over.” – Madhukar Pai, tuberculosis researcher, McGill U, and 3 co-authors
Much of the world has been racing to pronounce the pandemic over…
Dropping Masks and Mandates
Back in February, Canada’s premiers were scrambling to announce an end to mask mandates and vaccine passports, and ever since CdnPSEs have been struggling to clarify their campus policies. (PEI appears to be the only province with a mask mandate, and it will end in early April.) I’ve stopped tracking them in detail, but my sense is that the vast majority of CdnPSEs have indicated they will keep existing policies until the end of the current semester (like Ontario universities). That puts many institutions, like those in Ontario, in the awkward position of trying to enforce mask requirements on campus, while the province has loudly relaxed them just about everywhere else, including K-12 schools. (I suspect we’ll see mask fatigue meeting enforcement fatigue everywhere before long.) A few institutions jumped to ditch mandates immediately (like uAlberta, Mount Royal U, Simon Fraser U and Cape Breton U), deferring to their provinces’ positions.
Speaking of provincial positions, particularly in Alberta we’re seeing politicians taking steps to try to preventfuture health mandates. In late February, Mackenzie County passed a new policy that makes any business with a vaccine mandate ineligible to win contracts with the County, and bans their employees from county sites for existing contracts. “Corporate use of coercion and intimidation towards employees to dictate personal health choices are inappropriate, and we will not work with companies that tolerate or promote such behaviour.” This month, Alberta’s UCP government introduced Bill 4, which will require municipalities to obtain provincial approval before they can impose mask or vaccine mandates on private businesses. (This seemed to be aimed at the City of Edmonton, which kept its own mask bylaw in place.)
I thought for sure we were done with this stuff, but…
400+ cases at Cornell
Cornell U (NY) reports 391 active student cases of COVID19 on campus, and 41 active employee cases – despite a 96% vaccination rate. Cornell raised its alert level to “yellow,” requiring masks in classrooms and labs. Cornell | Inside Higher Ed
143 cases in McGill Dorms
McGill U is reportedly running out of isolation rooms, as cases among students in residence surge in the wake of spring break. The student housing office has had to change its protocol to permit students who have tested positive to break quarantine in order to pick up their meals in the dining halls, and permit infected roommates to stay in their double rooms. Active cases doubled last week to 143, most in residence. Montreal Gazette
“I think half of my friends (in residence) are positive.” – Madelyn Mackintosh, first-year student, McGill U
Laval Students Forced Online
In-person learning and internships were halted last week for medical students at uLaval after “several” students tested positive for COVID19 after “an off-campus social activity.” All program activities will be delivered remotely until Apr 4, and exams scheduled for last week will be rescheduled. CBC
Chinese Administrators Fired
Administrators at the Jilin Agricultural Science and Technology U have reportedly been fired after a cluster of 74 cases arose on campus. More than 6,000 have been quarantined, and students are complaining about the conditions on social media. CBC
Although the Omicron wave has crested across Canada, aftershocks (or some aquatic equivalent) will continue to hit this Spring…
With COVID19 testing and self-assessment increasingly a thing of the past, only ongoing wastewater monitoring is providing a sense of the pandemic’s movement – and it appears that case counts are spiking in many regions, including Kingston, London, and other regions of Ontario. (In Kingston, the rate is 4x higher than at the peak of the Omicron wave in January, while London’s rate is 3x higher than in February. Last week Peter Juni said 50% of Ontario PHOs were reporting “exponential growth.”) Across Alberta, wastewater measures have been rising for several weeks. Rising numbers in Saskatchewan suggest another pandemic wave could be forming there, adding to the strain the health system is already feeling.
“We’ve got just so many people infected that just some random additional contacts leads almost immediately to a resurgence in the wastewater levels. So that makes this whole situation volatile.” – Tzu-Chiao Chao, molecular biologist, uRegina
In the wake of March Break, easing health restrictions, waning immunity, and rising wastewater numbers, most PHOs anticipate the Omicron BA.2 subvariant will drive an increase in COVID cases and hospitalizations across the country in the weeks ahead. What’s unclear is whether Canada’s next wave “will be a surge or a ripple.” Federal PHO Theresa Tam anticipates a spring “blip.” uAlberta’s Lynora Saxinger points out that regions hit hardest by Omicron BA.1 may be spared the worst of BA.2, while other regions may see a bigger wave. SFU epidemiologist Caroline Colijn believes the confluence of BA.2 and lifting restrictions will cause a considerable surge.
Without a third booster dose, we’re more susceptible to Omicron – a recent UK study found that 2 Pfizer shots were only 8.8% effective against symptomatic disease after 25 weeks. And uptake for booster shots is lagging: just 49% of Canadians aged 5+ have their third dose. Unfortunately, the end of mask mandates is sending the message to the public that the pandemic is over, when it really isn’t.
No More Booster Shots?
The past year has taught us to expect a new shot of COVID19 vaccine every 4 months or so, and as new variants arise, we might expect new shots at least annually, if not every 6 months. But, say some experts, we may not face “a bleak future of infinite catch-up.” As the world racks up infections and vaccinations, our immunity will improve. With any luck, it may just be older and immunocompromised people who will be looking at annual COVID shots – although it is still too early to tell. The Atlantic
Far From Over
WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris emphasizes that “we are definitely in the middle of the pandemic,” not its end, and that the acute phase could end this year, if we get 70% of all the world’s countries vaccinated. Reuters
Although lingering anxieties about the pandemic and geopolitical turbulence may be keeping ME away from airports a bit longer, young people are bouncing back much faster with pent-up wanderlust, and of course higher ed is happy to cater to them…
Start Your Own Journey
Queen’s U Belfast (Northern Ireland) released 2 impressive, cinematic :90-sec videos last week aimed at prospective international students in North America. Madelyn from Illinois has spent 7 years enjoying the mountains, seashores, and people of Northern Ireland, and apparently hiking and surfing. “The land is the culture.” Nikola from Vancouver loves adventuring, hiking and canoeing, and emphasizes her friendships and sense of independence. Neither ad mentions subject areas of study or career outcomes at all – it’s much more a tourism and lifestyle appeal. YouTube
As always, thanks for reading! I hope your week gets off to a great start.
Stay safe and be well,
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