Good morning, and TGIM, apparently.
Today we can also celebrate green roofs, applesauce cake, drive-in movies, gardening exercise, yo-yos, caves and Karst. (I’m going to boycott Russian Language Day. Enough said.) This is also the start of Love Your Burial Ground week – so insert your ironic joke here about curricular change and how many friends the dead still have.
It’s been 2 weeks since my last update on pandemics and monkeypox, and I’m sure you’re just clamoring for an update. It’s not exactly “light fare” for your Monday morning, but I’ll try to make light work of it…
Judging by the largely-unmasked crowds assembling for concerts, festivals, convocations and conferences around the world, I don’t have to tell you that the pandemic is widely perceived to be “over” – even as millions fall prey to Omicron subvariants in what has been called the “Great Reinfection.”
COVID19 Eases Up?
Although Australia is struggling with a 50% spike in sick leaves thanks to a post-pandemic rebound of cold and flu infections, the rest of the world is breathing a sigh of relief, it would seem. Shanghai’s draconian 2-month lockdown of 25M people has started to ease. A spring Research Co. survey found that 76% of Canadians believed the worst of COVID19 is over (although 45% were “anxious” about the return to normal). Ontario officials celebrated the lowest number of ICU cases in 6 months, just as voters were heading to the polls. (No doubt a coincidence, right?) New Brunswick and all other provinces are seeing COVID19 hospitalizations and deaths steadily decline too. (There’s no point reporting case counts, since rapid tests are wildly inconsistent now, are not being reported, and many cases are asymptomatic. Just assume Omicron is omnipresent.)
“The problem is that we just don’t have any cross-immunity built up because we haven’t really had a flu season in the last two years. There is just no baseline immunity.” – Karen Price, president, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners
3rd Biggest Killer
Much though we’d like to forget it, COVID19 remains a deadly threat to many vulnerable people. The Spectatorreported Friday that “nearly one Hamilton senior a day died of COVID in May,” and that COVID19 remains the third leading cause of death in Canada (after cancer and cardiac disease). As politicians and campus presidents emphasize the need to “live with COVID” and undertake our own personal risk assessments, author Jacob Scheier attacks the “market-eugenics” it implies: accepting severe illness and death among the elderly and immune-compromised, in exchange for economic recovery. “Most people oppose ‘survival of the fittest’ as public policy,” he says, but “collective responsibility… had to be seen as a drastic temporary measure” in a capitalist society.
“Are we the kind of society that wants our lifestyle back at all costs?” – Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist, uOttawa
Doses and Distancing
As COVID19 increasingly seems to be displaying the seasonality of a traditional respiratory virus, the Biden administration forecasts 100M new cases again this Fall. While many of us are still waiting to be eligible for our 4th dose, Sweden is offering 5th doses to those who are pregnant, over 65, or immunocompromised. (For what it’s worth, the CDC says Americans over 50 should have a 4th shot.) One McMaster U palliative care physician is among those urging a return to mask mandates and vaccine passports, right now.
“COVID continues to be among us, and… we need to continue to plan for times when… there will be additional waves and so the risk will be higher and… we’ll have to be even more cautious.” – Yves Léger, acting deputy CMOH, New Brunswick
Dropping Our Masks?
And yet, so many CdnPSEs have announced they are dropping their campus mask mandates that I have long since stopped keeping track. (As a quick sampling: just last week Algonquin, McMaster, Memorial, Queen’s, and St Lawrence College all dropped or “paused” their masking requirements, and Tyndale U started calling itself a “mask-friendly campus.”) But not every ONpse is lowering its guard: Western U announced in mid-April it would maintain its vaccine mandate until the Fall, and would require masks until at least mid-June. Niagara College has extended its mask mandate until the mid-term break Jun 27, and will implement a “modified masking policy” thereafter. Ontario Tech will mandate masks in all buildings until the Fall term. uWindsor is maintaining its mandatory mask policy “until further notice,” as is Laurier – specifically to include its June convocation. Conestoga College is also maintaining its mask mandate, while uWaterloo says masks will remain mandatory on campus “for the foreseeable future.”
Americans Mask Up
South of the border, the number of PSE campuses reinstating mask mandates has been growing since April, when Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Columbia, uPenn, uConn, and many others announced the measure in response to surging cases of COVID19 driven by the Omicron wave. In late May, they were joined by Penn State, UC Santa Barbara, CalPoly San Luis Obispo, and uHawaii. UCLA reimposed masks as its campus reported 870 new cases. It’s rare to see US campuses announcing more stringent precautions than Canadian ones, but it also reflects the more alarming spread of infections there.
What about Next Time?
A WHO panel concluded that the world has learned little from the COVID19 pandemic, and is “woefully” unprepared for the next one, thanks to a lack of political will. And oh, as I’ve repeatedly emphasized here, there will inevitably be a next one: the director of McGill U’s Pandemic and Health Emergency Readiness Lab says there is an acceleration of local epidemics becoming pandemics, potentially tripling in the decades ahead. We can look forward to:
New COVID19 variants this Fall, potentially as effective at breaking through immunity and reinfecting us as the Omicron subvariants were this spring.
Lyme disease is expected to surge again in Canada this year with the deer tick population, which has grown explosively each year with climate change: reported cases climbed 150% last year alone. (Mount Allison U prof Vett Lloyd warns that Nova Scotia has the “highest ratio of ticks to people in Canada,” although Ontario has more ticks in total. They have been spreading northward in Ontario and Quebec for some time.)
Bird flu (H5N1) outbreaks have infected 77M poultry birds across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America this year – but 2,600 outbreaks among wild birds have been unprecedented, and pose a real risk of zoonotic spillover into humans. Already epizootic and panzootic, “these viruses are like ticking time bombs.” In the past decade, the WHO reports 359 people have died from H5N1.
And aside from Meningitis and plenty of other old favourites, there’s always…
Despite the fact that Monkeypox is a rare disease, and not easily transmitted without intimate contact, the rapid spread in Canada and around the world – in just 2 weeks! – has been simply breathtaking…
Rapid Global Spread
Two weeks ago, Quebec had just 5 confirmed cases of Monkeypox, and Toronto, 1. Now, Toronto has its 2nd confirmed case and Quebec has confirmed 71! Also 2 weeks ago, I mentioned that Global.Health had tracked 250 suspected cases worldwide – and now that number has surpassed 1,100. (The WHO reports 550 confirmed cases in 30 countries.) The WHO has elevated the global public health risk to “moderate” in view of its unprecedented behaviour, and warns it “could become high if this virus exploits the opportunity to establish itself as a human pathogen and spreads to groups at higher risk of severe disease.” (Recent samples of the virus show a whopping 47 genetic mutations.) Montreal has already launched a “ring vaccination” campaign, focused on close contacts, and Quebec has received at least 1,000 doses of the smallpox vaccine Imvamune from the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile.
“In a few days, in a couple of weeks, we’re seeing over 500 cases. This is different. This has not been seen before.” – Rosamund Lewis, WHO technical lead for Monkeypox
Warnings Long Ignored
Many scientists have been expecting a resurgence of Monkeypox, from the combination of habitat destruction, globalization, and the waning protection from 50-year-old smallpox vaccinations, and have warned it could evolve to “fill the ecological niche” left by the eradication of smallpox. Annual cases in the Congo have been steadily increasing in recent years, and nearly doubled in 2020 to 6,300. Hundreds of cases suddenly started appearing in Nigeria, starting in 2017. (Scientists have found evidence of “sustained human to human transmission” since then.) In addition to thousands of cases in West Africa, many have been fatal: 70 deaths have been recorded in 5 countries in the past 5 months. More than a decade ago, a UCLA researcher warned that “if monkeypox were to become established in a wildlife reservoir outside Africa, the public health setback would be difficult to reverse.” (Something similar happened with West Nile virus.)
“The recent outbreaks are kind of the culmination of years of warnings that basically went ignored.” – Boghuma Titanji, infectious diseases physician, Emory U
What, Me Panic?
PHOs insist there is no reason to panic about Monkeypox: “at the moment, we are not concerned of a global pandemic,” says the WHO’s technical lead (emphasis mine – I think). As one uArizona biologist warns, “it’s too early to be giving blanket reassurances” because there remain too many unknowns about the virus right now, such as how readily it spreads on surfaces, and whether asymptomatic individuals are contagious. For now, PHOs are merely urging us all to physically distance, wear masks, and wash our hands frequently.
(Sound familiar? We know the drill…)
“What we’re finding out here, in real time, is that we know very little about what’s going on, and I think it’s too early to be giving blanket reassurances.” – Michael Worobey, evolutionary biologist, uArizona
On Friday, I shared a summary of the pandemic’s impacts on K-12 Learning Losses, pointing to US NCES data that showed a 9% decline in kindergarten enrolments in 2020, and 22% in preschool. I said “Chances are, the pandemic had similar impacts on Canadian parents debating pre-school,” but asked readers to share evidence that could refute or reinforce my observations. A big thank-you to reader Pat Martens, president of Plains Edge Consulting, for sharing spreadsheets of Manitoba data…
MB Preschool Declines
Manitoba government data show some significant declines in preschool enrolment since the pandemic began: compared to 2019, kindergarten enrolments in the province dropped 8.3% in 2020, and were still down by 5.8% in 2021, while nursery school enrolments dropped 43.7% in 2020, and were still down 28.6% in 2021. Declines in Grade 1 and Special Ed were gentler but intensified in the second year of the pandemic, rising to 3.5% and 13.6% respectively by 2021. All that despite the fact that births and school-age populations in MB had been steadily increasing for a decade (although births dropped in 2019 and 2020). And those numbers includeregistered homeschool students, which more than doubled in 2020, from 3,689 to 8,027 – or about 3.9% of enrolled students. (You may recall I cited US data that showed homeschooling almost quadrupled there, from 3% to 11% in 2020.)
Thanks Pat – and I remain interested, if others have similar stats for Canada or other provinces. Do they reinforce or refute these impressions?
Speaking of scientists predicting the future, screaming warnings into the void…
Digital Time Capsule
McGill U sealed a “Digital Time Capsule” last month, an interesting initiative to mark its 2021 bicentennial. 50 researchers recorded their answers to the question: “What will be the biggest change in your field over the next 25 years?” (You can see all the profs, currently still “locked,” on this page.) At Homecomings over the next decade, 5 videos will be unsealed each year. “Only time will tell if McGill researchers’ predictions come true.” This 2-min video was released last month to mark the “sealing” of the time capsule, and includes some tantalizing teasers of those predictions, from medical and AI breakthroughs to environmental change, Indigenization, and racism. (You can also watch a 30-min panel event from Nov 2021, discussing the project.) YouTube | McGill | Event
As always, thanks for reading! May your week get off to a smooth start, free of birds and monkeys and ticks. (Oh my!)
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