Eduvation Blog

Fallout of a Biological Fukushima

Good morning, and TGIF!

Since the week began, new cases of COVID19 variants have surged across Canada, ICU admissions have skyrocketed, cases on Ontario university campuses have continued to rise, Ontario and Alberta have imposed new precautions, and our springtime sense of optimism is darkening as we seem to be losing ground.

The public health recklessness of the Bolsonaro government in Brazil has sparked a massive, “biological Fukushima,” incubating new COVID19 variants that are more contagious, more dangerous for young people, and – most disturbingly – appear able to evade immunity, potentially overwhelming our vaccines. The fallout from Brazil is just starting to reach our shores, but may rewrite our plans for summer and fall.

While I’d love to wind up the week on a more upbeat note, I’m afraid the most pressing news accumulating is about the pandemic…

 

 

Pandemic Précis

Since my post-Easter roundup on Tuesday…

 

Biological Fukushima

Globally, the COVID19 pandemic has now surpassed 133M cases, and the death toll stands at >2.8M. Case counts in India hit a record of 126,789 new infections yesterday, despite having partially vaccinated >90M people. Japan’s hospitals in the Osaka region are on the “verge of collapse” as 70% of beds are filled with COVID19 patients. (How are the Tokyo Olympics still planned to start in 3 months??) Iran has reported 3 straight days of record infections after millions defied travel restrictions and gathered to celebrate the 2-week holiday, Nowruz. Brazil is now reporting >4,000 COVID19 deaths per day in what is being called “a biological Fukushima.” (To make matters worse, the Brazil P.1 variant may pose a much greater threat as it spreads worldwide than the UK variant, since it seems to be more resistant to existing vaccines.)

 

Vaccine Optimism

South of the border, things look a bit more optimistic as Joe Biden is promising that all American adults will be eligible for the vaccine 10 days from now, on Apr 19, and California’s governor expects to fully reopen the state’s economy by Jun 15. Meanwhile in England, Imperial College London researchers report that COVID19 infections dropped 60% in March, and deaths are declining, thanks to progress with vaccinations (now >60% of UK adults) and national lockdown measures. The vaccine is “breaking the link between cases and deaths.” Thanks to vaccinations and infections, UC London researchers even calculate that the UK will pass the 73.4% threshold for herd immunity on Apr 12 – next week! (42% of Brits have been exposed to the virus, 60% immunized, and 10% have “pre-existing immunity.”)

 

AZ Drama Continues

For several months, the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine has struggled under a cloud of uncertainty (see “AstraZeneca’s Unforced Errors”). Now, the European Medicines Agency has announced a “possible link” between the AZ vaccine and the occurrence of rare blot clots in the brain, but advises no restrictions on its use since its benefits far outweigh the risk. (Reportedly 4 in 1M, and only 1 fatal.) “A causal relationship… is considered plausible but is not confirmed,” said the WHO. So far, there have been no reports in Canada. Many countries worldwide have suspended use of the AZ vaccine for people under 50 or 55, although Britain draws the line at 30 and Spain at 60. The African Union has dropped its plans to buy AZ doses from India, and instead is exploring options with J&J. Mexico and Brazil say they will not limit the use of AZ at all. Oxford is pausing its vaccine trial with children and teenagers.

 

 

Forget Canadian Exceptionalism

Our national sense of “Canadian exceptionalism” and our pride in universal healthcare will be challenged in the weeks ahead, as the third wave of the COVID19 pandemic places unprecedented pressure on our health system. The Atlantic is already running headlines about “Canada’s Vaccine Mess,” in sharp contrast to our collective compliance with PHO directives. (They credit much of our problem to a lack of domestic manufacturing capacity, thanks to controls on drug prices, and contracting internationally for vaccines simply “in the first quarter of 2021.”) So far, we’ve been comparing our pandemic response to our southern neighbours, who have endured “the biggest public health catastrophe in… the modern Western world’s history.” But now, Canada is on track to surpass the US in terms of relative infection rates, and the CDC has us under a level-4 travel advisory. Currently a third of Americans have received at least one dose of COVID19 vaccine, and 19% are fully vaccinated – compared to 16% and 1.9% of Canadians.

 

“In Canada, we’ve obsessed a lot about who gets vaccinated in what order, and I think, in the US it’s been much more ‘Just let ’er rip!’”André Picard, Globe & Mail columnist

 

 

3 Rising VOCs in Canada

Canada has identified >15,000 VOC cases so far, and >90% have been the UK B.1.1.7 variant – but almost 1,000 cases of the Brazil P.1 variant have been confirmed (largely in BC, Ontario and Alberta), and >270 cases of the South African B.1.351 variant (largely in Quebec). Canada is one of very few countries battling simultaneous outbreaks of all 3 VOCs simultaneously. Variants already make up 70% of all cases in Ontario. Several epidemiologists say that variants of concern compose more than half of BC casesdouble what has been publicly reported. (BC has confirmed 877 cases of the Brazil P.1 variant so far, and those numbers doubled over Easter.) Hospitals in BC report a third wave of COVID19 since Easter, as ICUs hit new records and models forecast they will exceed capacity by mid-May. BC set a daily record yesterday, with 1,293 new cases, and new rules will expedite temporary closures when a workplace has 3+ employee cases. BC will no longer routinely do genome sequencing for confirmation of VOCs, since “we assume that anybody who is positive for COVID19 needs to be treated as if they have one of these highly transmissible viruses.” Instead, the focus will be on “escape variants” that don’t respond to immunization.

 

 

Tightened Restrictions

In Alberta, Ontario and even regions of Quebec, pandemic restrictions have been tightened this week in response to alarming increases in hospitalization…

 

Alberta Backpedals

Less than a month after reopening the province prematurely, and faced with rapidly rising hospitalizations, the government of Alberta reverted to “Step 1” of its COVID19 restrictions on Tuesday night. (Indoor dining and libraries are now closed, retailers limited to 15% capacity, indoor gatherings banned and outdoor gatherings limited to 10 people.) VOCs are now the majority of cases, and PHO Deena Hinshaw says “if you test positive, you should assume you have the UK variant.” Officials in Stony Plain physically fenced off a church that continually defied health regulations. Premier Jason Kenney is under attack from his own UCP caucus for taking a “step backward,” and from health officials for taking inadequate measures. Walking the pandemic tightrope has resulted in “an accordion-style opening, closing, restriction and relaxing” of PHO rules. Alberta plans to have half its population immunized by May 31, and 75% by mid-September.

 

“In the race between variants and virus, the variants are winning.” Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta

 

 

ABpse Reacts

In response to Alberta’s move back to Step 1, colleges and universities have been announcing tighter restrictions on ancillary operations since Wednesday.

uAlberta restricted indoor fitness to 1-on-1 training, retail operations to 15% capacity, and is suspending in-person dining as of today.

NAIT closed its library, reduced store capacity to 15%, and is suspending in-person dining today at noon.

Essential instructional and research activities continue in Alberta as before, while students and staff are encouraged to work remotely as much as possible, and the emphasis is on reducing socializing.

 

 

 

Ontario Heads Home

After premier Doug Ford imposed half measures at Easter (a “emergency brake shutdown” that still allowed schools and nonessential retailers to stay open, and only closed restaurant patios in the GTA), PHOs across the province insisted that more was required, and on Tuesday some of them closed schools at the last minute, and urged a provincewide stay-at-home order. On Wednesday, sure enough, Ford finally acquiesced to the obvious and declared a third state of emergency, imposing a 4-week provincewide stay-at-home order effective yesterday. (Most retailers are restricted to curbside pickup or delivery, gyms are closed, and rental evictions are banned, although many school boards will remain open.) COVID19 patients in Ontario hospitals and ICUs are hitting new records, but the OHA has been warning for months they faced a crisis. (Meanwhile the CFIB is whining that Ontario is the “lockdown capital of North America.” Sigh.) Ontario says it will soon dispatch mobile immunization teams to large employers and congregate living settings.

 

“To boil it down as simple as possible, folks please stay home unless it is for an essential reason. The situation is extremely serious and we just need to hunker down right now, we need to limit mobility.”Doug Ford, premier of Ontario

 

 

ONpse Reacts

Most Ontario colleges and universities had already adapted their ancillary operations in response to the “emergency brake shutdown” announced Apr 2, so the “stay-at-home” order resulted mostly in announcements that existing restrictions would stay in place for 28 days, and reminders to follow PHO guidelines carefully in social contexts. Supervisors were also reminded to be flexible with employees who may have young children at home again, should schools close.

Cambrian explained “there will be minimal, if any impact” on operations, with campus remaining open for “required on-site labs.”

Canadore reminded staff and students it is “considered an essential service,” but that all who can work remotely should do so.

Carleton asked staff and students to limit trips outside their homes, and to come to campus only “to maintain essential operations” or “perform necessary work – including approved research – that cannot be done remotely.” The bookstore will offer delivery or curbside pickup only.

Durham’s library, campus store, and athletics facilities were closed.

McMaster explained that, “given the restrictions already in place at the university, and with most people already working and learning remotely, the impact on campus and its operations is minimal.”

Ontario Tech closed its library and athletic facilities yesterday, but essential services, approved research supports, and previously approved in-person classes, labs, and exams would continue.

uWaterloo has closed dine-in food services and athletics facilities, and print, retail and library services are curbside only.

Wilfrid Laurier explained that “restrictions on in-person classes remain consistent with those in place under the emergency brake shutdown.” Study spaces and fitness facilities are closed, and in-person library and bookstore services suspended.

 

 

 

COVID on Campus

Although there have been many stories of travellers falsifying NEGATIVE test results, this is a new one…

Fake Positives: When 3 high school students in Basel, Switzerland falsified positive COVID19 test results in order to skip school, their entire class and several teachers were quarantined – and now they face criminal charges.  Reuters

 

In the US, one outbreak of note right now…

uConnecticut has placed 5 student dorms under quarantine as the campus experiences a spike of 69 new COVID19 cases. Officials blame large, off-campus parties of up to 250 people each. “Students who wish to move out early and complete their quarantine at home are welcome to do so.”  Hartford Courant

 

Since Wednesday, there have been 83 more cases of COVID19 reported by CdnPSEs. (See my master spreadsheet for a running tally of ~1900 cases in CdnPSE since Sept 2020.)

Brock U now reports 60 cases of COVID19 among students living in campus residences (up from 50 earlier in the week). 56 students have recovered, 4 cases remain active, and 31 students are in isolation.  Brock News

Cambrian College reported a confirmed case at its Barrydowne campus.  Cambrian

Durham College reported a new case of COVID19 at its Whitby campus on Wednesday.  DC

Fleming College has launched an anonymous tip line to gather information about illegal parties that sparked a deadly COVID19 outbreak at the Severn Court student residence last month, which ultimately infected 59 Fleming students and 9 Trent U students. The tip line is accessible via the FlemingSafe app.  Global

McMaster U reports a confirmed case on campus yesterday.  Mac

Queen’s U District has a declared outbreak of “70 active cases in young adults aged 18-29.” The outbreak comprises 70% of the active cases in the region. Students have reportedly been enjoying waterfront parks despite a stay-at-home order that makes non-essential trips illegal.  Global

 

 

Public Perception is Key

Ultimately, how effectively public health restrictions or lockdowns control the spread of COVID19 and VOCs hinges on public compliance with those rules – just as the impact of immunization drives will be shaped by vaccine hesitancy. A new national survey captures the public mood in Canada…

 

Canada: All in this Together?

The latest “Confederation of Tomorrow” survey (5,814 adults surveyed Jan-Feb 2021) finds that at least three-quarters of Canadians intend to get vaccinated, understand mask requirements, and are irritated when others around them go unmasked. Vaccine hesitancy is highest in PEI (16%) and the Prairies (11%), among those with only a high school education or lower household incomes, and among those who identify as racialized (particularly Black and Indigenous). Only 19% of Canadians prefer a “faster reopening of the economy, even if more people end up getting sick,” but that rises to 31% among Conservative party supporters. The majority favours closing borders internationally (88%), interprovincially (77%), or even between towns (60%). Public confidence is much higher in scientists (84%) than in governments (52%).  uSask

 

Our Students, Our Challenge?

Looking closer at the survey results for the responses of those aged 18-24, though, it is surprising to see how much greater their resistance is to public health measures. They are 25% less likely to report wearing a face mask “all or most of the time” in stores (72%, compared to 95% of those 55+). They are more than twice as “bothered by mask-wearing requirements” (33%). They are less than half as certain they will get vaccinated (29%, compared to 70% of those 55+). Young men are 3x as determined to reopen the economy quickly (46%, compared to 23% of young women, 14% of men 55+, and 9% of women 55+).  JSGSPP

 

In the end, it looks as though compliance and support for PHO measures depends upon one’s perceived personal vulnerability to COVID19. The natural result are irresponsible social gatherings by young people, fuelling the spread of VOCs across the country right now.

 

 

 

#ICYMI

But let’s not wrap up the week with nothing but bad news and pessimism about the next generation!  Here’s something much more upbeat…

 

 

 

Dynamite Lipsync

Before starting their “April Break,” Lakefield College School’s grade 11 and 12 Dance students created a fun, upbeat music video – including some staff and alumni – set to BTS’ “Dynamite.” It’s 3.5 min of funky, upbeat music and plenty of youthful enthusiasm and energy – generally observing social distance and wearing masks – with some fun choreography and creative edits to boot. Nicely done guys!  YouTube

 

 

As always, thanks for reading.

Enjoy your weekend, safely!

Ken

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