Monday, June 7, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Again, my apologies if you missed Friday’s Insider, focused on Pride Month, reconciliation, EDI progress and challenges in higher education. It was a big topic and it took me 2.5 days to write, so it didn’t arrive in your inbox until Friday afternoon. (The content wasn’t particularly time-sensitive, though, so if you have a chance please do check it out: “Pride vs Shame; EDI and IDIC.”)
But today, it’s a new week so it’s time for another round-up of the pandemic…
Although our neighbours to the south are partying like the pandemic is over, global attention is increasingly focused on rising VoC’s – which may still have the potential to slow our progress, and delay our September reopening hopes…
Southeast Asia is seeing a sharp rise in COVID19 cases driven by new variants. Vietnam suspended inbound international flights last week. The Philippines extended restrictions until mid-June. China reimposed travel controls in Guangdong after a spike of cases in the region. Malaysia imposed a national 2-week “total lockdown” as they warn of increasingly serious cases involving children. Myanmar has been reporting record COVID19 deaths since healthcare and testing collapsed in the wake of the Feb 1 coup. Africa has recorded a 20% increase in COVID19 cases over the past 2 weeks as vaccine shipments slow. In particular, South Africahas experienced a 60% surge in COVID19 cases in just one week, and has the highest caseload on the continent.
New Greek System
Last Monday, the WHO proposed a solution to the COVID19 naming dilemma: previously, our choice was either complicated numeric designations or placenames of origin, which were much more memorable but could encourage xenophobia and racism. (My approach has been to use both for clarity.) Instead, the WHO has assigned 10 letters of the Greek alphabet to global variants of concern (VoC) and variants of interest (VoI). The UK or Kent strain (B.1.1.7) is now the “Alpha Variant,” and although it had quickly become the dominant strain in North America, it is now waning as a proportion of total cases – suggesting that other undetected strains are gaining ground. The South African strain (B.1.351) is now the “Beta Variant.” The Brazilian strain (P.1) is now the “Gamma Variant.”
Although there are disturbing reports of new regional strains, the fourth global VOC currently poses the greatest threat. These are the B.1.617 strains, which I’ve been referring to as the Indian “Double Mutant” and “Triple Mutant” variants. Now, they will simply be called the “Delta Variant.” In effect, this is the version of the novel coronavirus that has evolved in the context of a half-immunized population: Delta is 30-100% more transmissible than the already highly contagious Alpha, and a single dose of vaccine is only ~33% effectiveagainst it (compared to 50% against Alpha). It may also be causing higher rates of hospitalization. In Melbourne, Australia officials are warning that health restrictions will need to stay in place, because the latest outbreak is being driven by Delta. In Canada, the Delta strain is already at least 20% of total cases and has been identified in all 10 provinces and 1 territory (but we need to bear in mind that most Canadian health unit labs are not equipped yet to test for complex strains like Delta). Health officials warn that Delta will become the dominant strain in Ontario within weeks, and even earlier in Peel Region. (See the projection above by Queen’s computational biologist Troy Day.) The Alpha strain drove Canada’s third wave of the pandemic, and the Delta variant will drive our fourth.
“The virus is definitely upping its game.” – Peter Juni, Scientific Director, Ontario Science Advisory Table
“This is really the big risk with the one-dose strategy.” – Angela Rasmussen, Virologist, VIDO, uSaskatchewan
Second Doses Critical
As Angela Rasmussen, Virologist at uSask’s VIDO, puts it: “This is really the big risk with the one-dose strategy,” and Canada’s decision to delay second doses to focus on “first doses fast.” Unfortunately, a single dose of Pfizer or AstraZeneca COVID19 vaccine is only ~33% effective at preventing symptomatic infection from the Delta variant, but 2 doses are substantially better: 88% for Pfizer and 66% for AstraZeneca. (Once again, AZ’s rep as second choice is being reinforced.) So as the Delta variant becomes dominant in Canada, the race is on to accelerate second doses so the population is fully vaccinated. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top PHO, emphasized Friday that the current 7% of Canadians fully vaccinated is inadequate to permit lifting of health restrictions. Ontario is being urged to prioritize vaccine shipments to Peel Region, a hotspot of essential workplaces and rising cases of Delta (~100 so far). Virologists emphasize we also need to prioritize second doses for the most vulnerable. Western microbiology prof Eric Arts observes, “If, for example, we try to finish immunization of the 12- to 18-year-olds before we go back to over-80 year-olds for a second immunization, we could be playing with fire.”
The US CDC reports that more and more American children aged 12-17 were being admitted to hospital with COVID19 in March and April, when vaccinations were protecting more adults. Even worse, many were seriously ill: about one-third were in the ICU, although thankfully none died. The CDC is emphasizing the need to vaccinate American adolescents.
Schools Stay Closed
Uncertainty over the Delta variant is driving politicians to keep K-12 schools closed this spring. In Ontario, premier Doug Ford’s much-delayed Wednesday announcement was that 2 million students will not return to the classroom until September. Ontario public schools have been closed for 23 weeks so far in the pandemic – longer than any province in Canada. (Quebec schools have been closed for just 8 weeks, and BC for 12.) Ford specifically mentioned the Delta variant in the announcement, and the fact that hospital ICUs still have 573 COVID19 patients – more than at the peak of the second wave in January. On Thursday, Manitoba followed suit, announcing that many schools will be staying closed in Winnipeg, Brandon, and other hard-hit areas. ICUs have been overwhelmed in MB, and now 2 COVID19 patients have died during transport out of province.
It looks as though the race between vaccination and variants will play out this summer, determine the scale of the fourth wave, and define our Fall reality.
Cautionary Tale in UK
Once again, the UK offers Canada a glimpse of what might lie ahead – but instead of vaccine progress and reopening, now the Delta variant is driving a pandemic resurgence. Even though 75% of UK adults had their first dose (largely of AstraZeneca vaccine), new COVID19 cases are now topping 5,000 again daily because a single dose is far less effective against the Delta strain. (There have been 12,431 total confirmed Delta cases in the UK so far.) Scientists say the UK is seeing the start of a third wave as a result, and are urging the government to delay the scheduled Jun 21 entry into Stage 4 of reopening. But government advisors observe that hospitalizations and deaths will be substantially lower due to vaccination, so that rising case counts need not cause panic: “If we scamper down a rabbit hole every time we see a new variant, we’re going to spend a long time huddled away.”
We really need to stay hunkered down until the majority of Canadians have their second dose, but of course too many of us keep failing the marshmallow test…
Although generally Canadians have been pretty compliant with PHO orders during the past 14 months, there have been pockets of resistance in Quebec, Alberta and parts of Ontario, where some people clearly distrust government or disbelieve science. The government of Alberta is pushing to open the Calgary Stampede July 9, although doctors’ groups are urging caution to prevent a 4th wave this Fall. This weekend, authorities finally physically closed Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, changing the locks for repeatedly flouting health restrictions. (In all fairness, the pastor is right to accuse Jason Kenney of hypocrisy, after photos of his rooftop patio dinner surfaced.) On Saturday 1,000+ unmasked protestors in Montreal crowded streets outside the Health Canada offices to demand the end of mandatory restrictions. (It’s telling that no arrests were made and no tickets were issued. Quebec politicians don’t disagree with the protestors.)
“In our opinion, it is unsafe to hold a major event such as the Calgary Stampede, which may draw attendees and participants from multiple provinces and countries before at least 70% of eligible Albertans have been fully vaccinated with two doses.” – Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, letter to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney
Gold Medal Stubborn
Perhaps the most stubbornly reckless behaviour is occurring at the intersection of macho athletic culture and global billion-dollar business interests. The IOC has apparently passed the “drop-dead date” for cancelling or postponing the Tokyo Olympics, which are still scheduled to start Jul 23. “Barring some Armageddon,” says Dick Pound, “we are a go” – despite Tokyo remaining still under a state of emergency. (Postponing last year’s games cost an extra $3.5B.) Even if 80% of athletes are fully vaccinated, as organizers hope, that means 3,000+ athletes and support staff from hundreds of countries will not be. And almost 1,000 others will still be vulnerable, assuming the vaccine is 95% effective. The real danger is to Japanese workers and the general public, 97% of whom are still unvaccinated. Small wonder that 10,000 of the 80,000 volunteers have already quit the Olympics, and doctors criticize the IOC for “belittling human lives.”
Since my last report a week ago, there have been just 3 cases of COVID19 reported by CdnPSEs. (See my master spreadsheet for a running tally of 2,700+ cases in CdnPSE since Sept 2020.) I think it may be time to close the book on the tally for this academic year…
Red River College reported a case on its Notre Dame campus May 31. RRC
SAIT has tracked a total of 93 cases since the academic year began. (Since I had only logged 19 based on announcements I saw, I have added 74 to the master spreadsheet.) But just 1 case was reported on May 30, which I’ll count among this week’s cases. SAIT
uWaterloo reported one case on campus on May 31. UW
I still can’t imagine when I’ll want to get back on a plane or even queue up at airport security. (I’m already turning down overeager conference invitations for in-person keynotes in the US this Fall.) The travel and tourism sector has been hit harder by pandemic lockdowns than any other, so you can hardly blame hospitality schools for recruiting more aggressively…
Go For What You Love
Fairleigh Dickinson U (NJ and BC) released a new 1-min spot last week for its School of Hospitality, featuring what I’d call a “lifestyles of the rich and famous” vibe. FDU welcomes “Instagram mavens… thrill seekers and risk takers” to enter “a world of luxury.” From infinity pools and parasailing to gorgeous beaches, hotels and sunsets, the ad simultaneously promotes tourism itself, and one of the world’s top 10 programs. YouTube
Just how “back to normal” we get on campus this September hinges on the race between vaccinations and the variants, as outlined above. I’ll be back in your inbox (hopefully tomorrow) with a summary of the latest CdnPSE plans for Fall.
Meanwhile, do drop me a line if you spot something interesting, thought-provoking or cool happening on your campus, or elsewhere in the world!
As always, thanks for reading. Stay safe and be well!
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