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  • Back to school—with the Delta variant and a half million unvaccinated students


    Stephen Hume
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    As per capita rates skyrocket throughout BC, requiring proof of vaccination for students to attend class is not a violation of their civil liberties.

     

    AS COVID-19’s HIGHLY-CONTAGIOUS DELTA VARIANT rips through British Columbia’s still-considerable unvaccinated and only partially-vaccinated population of almost 1.3 million, the provincial government has finally blinked on its rosy reopening plans.

    Not surprising, the way the actual case counts are rocketing up. 

    The BC Centre for Disease Control dashboard Monday, August 30 showed a count of 1,853 new cases over the weekend. Recall that on July 5, the 7-day average was only 38 new cases. So here we are after several months of cautious opening up with a 1,666 percent increase in the moving average for actual number of cases just a week before school starts.  

    The blink was appropriate. But it’s still just a belated blink, symbolized, perhaps, by Premier John Horgan’s casual if controversial wink at the rules by appearing with six other maskless diners at a restaurant in Vernon where infection rates have just increased from 12 to 195 per 100,000—that’s a 1,525 percent increase. Here on Vancouver Island the increase is the lowest in the province, yet it’s still up 1,350 percent in a few weeks. In Northern BC, the infection rate increased a jaw-dropping 16,333 percent with almost 40 percent of cases among First Nations although they represent only 17 percent of the overall population there.

    Frankly, government should be taking the blinkers off entirely, as faculty at the University of Victoria warned last week.

    Allowing university students to attend campus unvaccinated with no requirements for rapid testing to track potential exposures shows lack of concern for risk to faculty, staff and other students, said Lynne Marks, president of UVic’s faculty association.

    Worse, it doesn’t appear to deal with the dynamic of either university or high school campuses in which classes shuffle and reassemble every 50 minutes—and at universities these classes can be in excess of 300 students.

     

    753719767_5th_Floor_Lecture_Hallcopy.jpg.a825a82148d16f3c0fb75f6e30e5361c.jpg

    A typical university class can have 300 students.

     

    Think about that. An 18-year-old first year student with three large lecture classes and a couple of regular sized classes can mingle with maybe 2,000 strangers a week in an environment where nobody knows who is and who isn’t vaccinated, social distancing is minimal and who knows what standard the ventilation meets.

    Let’s see, a 300-student class that meets three times a week is a potential for at least 270,000 contacts among strangers outside their social bubbles—a week!

    This is like turning on a giant social Mix-Master for exchanging viral loads among virus carriers. 

    Research now indisputably shows that even vaccinated people with no symptoms can be carrying 10 times the viral load of people who were infected by the less contagious original virus in the first wave,   

    History is rife with accounts of generals losing wars because they continued applying the tactics that won past campaigns to the battles being waged by different foes with new weapons and new strategies. 

    Nobody deserves to be the victim of yesterday’s generals in tomorrow’s fight against this rapidly changing, highly opportunistic virus.

     

    139657363_DynamicModellingofCOVID19doneinJune2021.thumb.jpg.5f338fa8757defc2d6b553276e624329.jpg

    Earlier BC government modelling proved far more optimistic than reality, as shown in graph presented by Ministry of Health on August 31, 2021

     

    The fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is not a replay of the first, second or third waves. Rather than signalling that the end of this dreary campaign is in sight, this fourth wave more likely represents another holding action in a long game that’s already brewing.

    What comes next isn’t easily predicted. From the initial scary encounter with the virus—Italian hospitals in chaos, bodies lying in the streets in China, and mass graves from New York to Barcelona—we’ve now got what the World Health Organization classifies as four additional “variants of concern” and four “variants of interest.” They emerged from the 216 million infections world-wide which are now rising by 676,000 new cases a day. The variants have been piggy-backing around the planet on jet planes which we’ve decided must keep flying to keep the economy ticking over.

     

    The precautionary principle & half a million unvaccinated students 

    Nobody anticipated the aggressiveness of the Delta variant that is now the principal cause of infection, hospitalization and death in Canada. And now we have a fistful of new variants to start thinking about. Lambda, a mutation from South America which is already showing up in Texas and California, for example. Its contribution to the worrying mix is an apparent ability to evade the protections that come from the vaccines now in main use.

    Will it, like Delta, emerge as another aggressive threat? Who can say? But it might. And giving it and perhaps other unidentified permutations of COVID-19 an opportunity to spread and further adapt among a large population of unvaccinated school and university students while assuming that measures taken to bend the curve during the third wave are the way to stop them in the fourth wave just seems like an invitation for a fifth wave.

    We’re all tired of the impositions, the inconvenience, the economic burdens, the isolation, the physical and emotional stress. Everybody gets that. But we’re also only 16 months into this. 

    If this were World War Two, we’d be eight months away from Pearl Harbour, with four more years of grief awaiting us after that.

    So perhaps instead of griping, denying, evading, obstructing, lying to ourselves and whining about it, we should suck it up as our parents and grandparents did and start buckling down to what needs to be done to face what might be a long, painful and unpleasant grind.

     

    54622152_Vaccinespreventthousandsofcases.thumb.jpg.dfdf3f2157a325987a358f2633edbdf0.jpg

    The latest (August 31, 2021) projections from Government of BC shows that cases and hospitalizations pretty much depend on vaccinations rates

     

    We were supposed to be back to normal by the time schools reopened. Instead we’re now back to masks indoors for all teenagers and adults with a new safety regulation added—proof-of-vaccination requirements for attending some non-essential public gatherings from indoor weddings to large-scale sporting events.

    But not schools. There’s been a nod to caution by requiring masks in the classroom—well that’s a move in the right direction—but still no imposition of strong rules for appropriate social distancing and enhanced ventilation in classrooms.

    One grim epidemiological flow chart from California where public health authorities are worriedly monitoring the arrival of the Lambda variant, gives a glimpse of the risk. A single unvaccinated elementary school teacher read to her class without a mask and infected half her students who then took the virus home and infected their parents. The spread of the virus in the classroom was directly associated with students’ proximity to the teacher. In a few days, 26 people had been affected. 

    The Centre for Disease Control in the United States, referencing the California incident, said it encourages school authorities to “do the right thing to protect the children under their care.” It urges multi-layered mitigation strategies which included: universal masks in schools “to prevent outbreaks and reduce the risk of children bringing the virus home to others who are vulnerable;” improved ventilation in classrooms to reduce infectious particles circulating through the air and, a side benefit, to reduce exposure to other respiratory viruses that can mask or resemble COVID-19 symptoms; and, finally,  vaccination for everyone who qualifies. In BC that’s every student over 12—because “when our children who are not yet vaccinated are surrounded by vaccinated people, they are more protected.”

    In BC, with about a week to go before classes commence, we still have roughly 655,000 kids under 17 who are not fully vaccinated and another 184,000 in the college and university age group. Of these, about 425,000 are not vaccinated because they are still too young to qualify for vaccination.

    The precautionary principle here points pretty clearly to the value in a plan for vaccinating as many unvaccinated kids as possible in order to protect the large body of students—and by extension their parents, teachers, coaches, dentists, and so on—that can’t yet be vaccinated.

    What we don’t want is an aggressive virus with its emerging subsets of mutating variants swirling around in a pool of half a million unvaccinated individuals.

    Which leads to the question—why aren’t we making vaccination a requirement for all those eligible if they want to attend or teach a class the same way we make it a requirement for other activities?

    Indeed, schools are an ideal place to organize mass vaccination of 12-17 year olds as we’ve done for measles, polio, mumps and so on. And the way to do it is to vaccinate on site, delay the start of classes for two weeks while kids’ immune systems kick in then bring them back to appropriately ventilated and socially distanced classrooms.

    Is this a pain in the neck for administrators? Sure, but for administrators the priority is the safety of their charges, not the convenience of the administrative process. Is it expensive? Sure, but we spent $18 billion and 20 years prosecuting a war in Afghanistan that was a complete failure.

     

    Requiring vaccination is not a violation of civil liberties

    Trips to the mall, the hockey rink, your local diner, the library and so on will all now require proof of vaccination before entry—although some businesses are objecting that they shouldn’t have to ask people for their health care status on privacy and enforcement grounds. This is a bogus, self-serving argument, though. Establishments routinely ask patrons to produce proof-of-age before serving them alcoholic beverages. If they serve underage customers alcohol, they can be arbitrarily closed and patrons who lie about their age to obtain a drink can be charged and fined. 

    Restaurant kitchens are subject to public health inspections and if they are deemed not to meet strict standards or to pose a risk to customers, they can be closed on the spot. 

    All work places are subject to safety checks. If they are deemed unsafe, they get closed and the workers sent home. 

    And insurers routinely ask clients for a full declaration of health status and can unilaterally void insurance if the information provided is false. Somehow providing accurate information about your health status for travel insurance you can enjoy a beach holiday in Florida is no imposition but providing it to protect kids in a classroom is an affront to civil liberties. It’s not. 

    So the argument that requiring vaccination—or even asking about it—status is some kind of new violation of civil liberties just doesn’t fly. 

    The question for government, faced with growing evidence that unvaccinated individuals are a health risk to everyone, most immediately other unvaccinated people but also to many of the already vaccinated, is why it isn’t simply mandating vaccination as a classroom requirement for everyone who qualifies for a jab. 

    And please, spare us the sanctimonious privacy/civil liberties mantra since government already collects more data than it can use on all of us from which drugs we purchase to compiling every traffic offence to having police rip medical masks off protesters at Fairy Creek—that couldn’t be to make sure they are identifiable to facial recognition software, could it? Just asking, since it seemed pretty methodical in the videos I’ve watched.

    However, reassuring as the government’s ability adapt to changing circumstances may seem, it’s been as much a case of the politicians and their advisers following the public as it has of them doing what we elect them to do—actually leading us.  Before the province adjusted its alignment we’ve already had private organizations from sports franchises to retailers simply stepping up and saying “No mask, stay home.” 

    Over the last week of August, with a return to the classroom looming, the Province says the number of registrations for vaccinations by people under 40 has more than doubled. At that rate, another 165,000 people will be vaccinated by September 7, when schools open and students return to campus lecture theatres. 

    That’s the good news.

    The bad news is that teachers, students and staff are still saying the provincial government isn’t providing the kind of strong, assertive leadership that’s required to avert increased danger for at-risk school teachers and college and university faculty and staff if they are forced to mingle in crowded classrooms and lecture theatres where there’s no requirement for social distancing.

    As a piece in Focus on Victoria recently observed, about one in 10 of these falls into groups made vulnerable to much higher risk because of age and the underlying medical conditions that exacerbate symptoms, even for those who are fully vaccinated.

     But there’s concerning evidence of growing numbers of breakthrough infections for fully vaccinated people, most seriously among older groups with underlying conditions but also for children previously considered at very low risk.

    The New York Times reported last week that a survey of children’s hospitals across the United States finds a growing concern among health care experts there that “children not yet eligible for vaccination in places with substantial viral spread (are) now at higher risk of being infected than at any other time in the pandemic.”

    Most children still display only mild symptoms—that’s not in dispute. But that doesn’t mean the blinkers should be on for the other ominous signs that are emerging. As The Times reported, for the first time in the pandemic “The crush of COVID-19 at Children’s Hospital (in New Orleans) grew so intense this month that the state called in a federal “surge team” of emergency responders” from the government’s national disaster medical system.”

    So here we are, a week before school starts. 

    Teachers say: Schools need safety upgrades to classroom ventilation; vaccination clinics on site; comprehensive testing; N95 or medical standard masks for staff and students.

    University faculty say: Modelling by scientists teaching BC universities points to rapid increases in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations; current plans for reopening are inadequate and universities should have the authority to demand vaccinations for students, faculty and staff where deemed necessary. 

    University unions say: Requiring vaccinations for students in classrooms is the most important step necessary to protect both students and staff. They point out that students have the option not to attend classes they feel are unsafe but university employees don’t have the option.

    Dr Bonnie Henry, however, says the government’s “complicated, risk-based assessment” means a vaccination mandate is not warranted for school attendance.

    Basically, the government is saying: “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.”

    Clearly, a lot of well-informed folks don’t think they do.

    Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. He has been vaccinated.

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    In the US, where children are already back at school, the Guardian reports today: 

    "On a state level, local leaders have noticed a sharp uptick in cases among children. In Maricopa county, Arizona, home to Phoenix, children under 12 make up one-sixth of the county’s Covid cases, and 6% of hospitalizations are children. In Tennessee, children under 18 are making up nearly 40% of cases in the state, with over 14,000 cases among children. Texas has reported 20,256 positive cases in the new school year, along with 7,488 cases among staff.

    "By the end of August, children represented about 15% of all Covid-19 cases across the country."

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