Good morning, and happy International Day of Argania! (No, Star Trek fans, not “Organia.” The Argan tree grows in sub-Saharan Morocco.) Today is also Mother Ocean Day, World Lupus Day, and “One Day without Shoes” Day – followed tonight by “Stay Up All Night” Night. (“Make like it’s finals week – but way more fun.”)
After more than 2 years summarizing COVID19 news and PSE implications on a daily basis, it’s hard to believe that it’s now been a full month since my last pandemic précis, “Sixth Wave or Tidal Wave?” (Apr 8). To some degree, an update wasn’t urgent because the pandemic has pretty much been unfolding as I foretold – but also, as I said last week, I took a mini-sabbatical in order to finish a book-length report on the pandemic’s lasting impacts.
Now, as I’m actually starting to book in-person conference keynotes and board retreats again, I feel the need to revisit things, if only for my own peace of mind. As we head into summer here in the Northern hemisphere, is it safe to return to crowded conference halls and campuses once more? Or are we crazy to take the risk?
Let’s take a couple of days to review what we’ve learned about the pandemic over the past month…
For starters, we clearly shouldn’t be too confident that we know what COVID19 will throw at us next. New variants and subvariants have arisen with little notice to spark new pandemic waves. Even Anthony Fauci seems to be getting confused…
Chief White House medical advisor Anthony Fauci has generally been a sane voice of reason and science throughout the pandemic, but he startled us all when he told PBS on Apr 26 that “we are certainly right now in this country out of the pandemic phase” – despite the US logging 50,000+ new daily cases and 400 daily deaths from COVID19. He was immediately forced to clarify, in a Washington Post interview, that “the world is still in a pandemic,” but that the US is out of the first “full-blown explosive pandemic phase,” and is now transitioning out of the second, “deceleration” phase into a third, “more controlled phase, and endemicity.” (But then, Fauci also forecast the “control” phase for last Fall – until the Delta and then Omicron waves hit.) Washington Post | Huffington Post
Superspreader in Washington
It’s worth noting that Fauci decided against attending the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last week – which MC Trevor Noah presciently joked was the “nation’s most distinguished superspreader event.” (The WHCD involves much more than a single banquet, but includes dozens of after-parties.) US president Joe Biden told the crowd, “we’re here to show the country that we’re getting through this pandemic.” The subterranean ballroom of 2,600 journalists and politicians were all fully vaxxed and rapid-tested that same day, although they were also largely unmasked. “There was kind of a cruise ship vibe” to the event, said one reporter. Sure enough, within days, many attendees were testing positive, including the US Secretary of State and journalists from many national news outlets. All attendees have been urged to test again in the wake of the event. New York Times | National Post | CNN | Washington Post
“What are we doing here? …Do you even read any of your own newspapers?!” – Trevor Noah, at the White House Correspondents Dinner
Although we’re all getting numb to some of the immense numbers involved in tracking the course of the pandemic, here are a few key ones that have come to light recently…
15M Global Deaths
Long-time readers know full well that COVID19 cases and deaths are under-reported, from a combination of lax testing, false negatives, shifting rules and government secrecy. Last month, the world surpassed 500M officially confirmed cases (almost certainly an undercount). I’ve described before careful studies of “excess deaths” that give a better sense of the impact of the pandemic on mortality, including indirect deaths caused by impaired access to healthcare. (They also deduct the lives saved from auto accidents due to lockdowns, etc.) It’s probably no surprise that the WHO now estimates that global deaths due to COVID19 were as many as 16.6M in 2020-21, more than triple the official count of 5.4M. (Many regions reported only one-tenth the actual deaths due to the pandemic. India has taken exception to the numbers, in particular.) Globe & Mail
“Testing has been the first casualty of a global decision to let down our guard, we are becoming blind to what is happening with this virus.” – Bill Rodriguez, CEO, FIND
Almost Half of Us Infected?
New data from the BC CDC found COVID19 antibodies in the general population surged from 10% last October to ~40% in March – particularly among younger people. (60% of those aged 10-40, and 65% of children under 10.) This aligns with official estimates that 40% of Ontario was infected since December. (It could be worse – the EU estimates that 80% of Europeans have now had COVID19.) The Omicron wave has pushed COVID19 infections to all corners of Canada, and almost half of the population has now been infected. About 90% of us have been infected, vaccinated, or both.
Only Half of Us Protected
New research out of Ontario found that 2 doses of vaccine were just 36% effective against symptomatic Omicron infection in December, although a 3rd booster shot raised that to 61%. (Canada’s situation is somewhat unique, due to the timing and mixing of vaccine doses.) But as pandemic fatigue has worn on, the motivation to line up for 3rd and 4th doses seems to be waning: although 82% of Canadians have 2 doses, just 48% have 3. That means the majority of Canadians can still catch and transmit the Omicron variant.
Blaming the Unvaxxed
A new modelling study out of uToronto has attracted national media attention, because it appears to blame the unvaxxed for putting everyone else around them at greater risk for COVID19. While vaccinated people “act as a buffer” for the unvaxxed, they are also at heightened risk the more they interact with the unvaxxed. “As a society we need to consider when individuals’ choices create risks for others.” But we also need to bear in mind that “not all individuals who are unvaccinated remain so by choice.” uMontréal bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky warns that “the more you give back freedom… the more we’re creating a society that is unsafe for the most vulnerable, the elderly, those with co-morbidities, immunocompromised, those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, young children.” Winnipeg Free Press | Global | Globe & Mail | CTV
“The risk for vaccinated individuals is driven disproportionately by their interactions with unvaccinated individuals. This belies the idea that it’s just an individual’s personal choice that doesn’t affect anyone else.” – David Fisman, epidemiology prof, uToronto
The global South is heading into cold and flu season, and perhaps inevitably COVID19 is resurgent – but the latest subvariants of Omicron (more on those tomorrow) are exponentially more contagious and fine-tuned to evade natural immunity…
China in Lockdown
China’s “zero-COVID” strategy helped to contain cases early in the pandemic (despite Wuhan being the site of patient zero), but the approach has left a billion people vulnerable to the latest variants, without prior natural or vaccine immunity. In late March, Shanghai locked down 26M people in one of the country’s largest-ever outbreaks. Weeks later, residents were still not allowed to leave their homes, even to buy groceries – and since grocery shelves were empty, that hardly mattered. 87 of China’s top 100 cities faced restrictions or lockdowns, highway controls severely disrupted logistics, and analysts anticipate industrial production and export will be impacted for months. (That’s why Apple tells me their latest computers have a 4-month wait time.) Quarantine orders, factory closures and suspended construction projects have put tens of millions of migrant workers and recent college grads out of work. On Friday, thousands of high schoolers in China were outraged to learn that lockdowns will prevent them from taking the College Board’s AP exams this month, which are often key for admission to foreign universities. (The ACT exam is still being offered online.)
Cases Double in South Africa
By the end of April, reported COVID19 cases had doubled in South Africa after 2 months of decline, prompting concerns of a 5th wave of the pandemic across the continent. An increasing number of those cases were caused by the BA.4 and BA.5 sublineages. About 44% of adults are fully vaxxed, but children are increasingly likely to be winding up in hospitals.
Soaring Deaths in Australia
Like much of the developed world, Australians have been eager to declare the pandemic over, and learn to “live with COVID” – but COVID19 deaths have actually been soaring this year. (Thanks to subvariants BA.2.12.1, BA.4, and BA.5). In the first 4 months of 2022, there have been 5,269 confirmed COVID19 deaths – compared to just 2,226 in the previous 21 months combined. In January, COVID was the #2 cause of death in Australia, behind only cancer, and “excess deaths” reached 22.1% above normal. (And although most were people aged 70+, there were 8 children under age 9 too.) Hospitalizations have doubled in April. Sydney Morning Herald
“We’re reporting more [COVID19 deaths] than a 737 crashing every week.” – Mike Toole, epidemiologist, Burnet Institute
Clearly, the world isn’t out of the pandemic yet, the virus is out there (just about everywhere), and plenty of Canadians could be carriers. Does that mean it’s safe to “go back in the water” this summer? And what about the Fall?
Tomorrow, I’ll continue working this through…
Meanwhile, COVID19’s not the only “toxic influence” going “viral” out there, especially for teen girls…
Detox Your Feed
The Dove Self-Esteem Project launched a new campaign to counter the toxic beauty guidance half of teen girls say causes low self-esteem, and raise parental awareness of just what their daughters are seeing. This 4-min vid is disturbing, memorable, tear-jerking – and definitely worth your time. We see mothers and daughters exposed to atrocious advice, which is ultimately delivered by deepfake versions of themselves. (Misinformation online often comes from sources that appear trustworthy.) Nothing like seeing your own mom recommending botox, filing down your teeth, or cutting your eyelashes off… Strategy | YouTube
As always, thanks for reading!
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.
Until tomorrow, stay safe and be well!
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