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  • Just give us the straight goods on COVID—without bureaucratic rhetoric like “discontinued isolation”


    Stephen Hume
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    With 243,000 unvaccinated kindergarten-to-grade-fivers in BC there’s a lot of room for COVID-19 to wreak havoc—and no need for euphemisms.

     

    ONE DEATH IS A TRAGEDY. A million deaths is a statistic.

    So observed the brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, that self-styled “man of steel” of the Bolshevik revolution. Stalin, of course, like many a cold-blooded political zealot before and after, dealt mostly with his regime’s generation of statistics. He did not trouble himself overmuch with the tragedies.

    Government policy-makers, who mostly tend to see themselves as benign benefactors, also prefer to work largely with statistics. Bureaucrats use the generalizations inherent in statistics both to distance themselves from the specific consequences of their decisions and to obfuscate, deflect, redirect and obscure what’s actually going on. Often, it’s because they think we might not respond the way they’d like us to respond—with the calm and dispassionate disinterest that minimizes the political risk to their elected bosses.

    And they—and we—know exactly what they are doing, which is why we have freedom of information laws, however feeble, to purportedly help us at least try to obtain the knowledge that is rightfully ours (we paid for it, after all). But the information is often mislabelled, misdirected, shuffled into different jurisdictions, hidden behind cost-of-extraction barriers or simply filed in such a way that makes it difficult for the uninitiated to retrieve, buried in an avalanche of relatively undifferentiated numbered files, for example. 

    That’s where I find myself now, wading through chart after chart, table after table, spreadsheet after spreadsheet and jurisdiction after jurisdiction just attempting to figure out the early consequences of British Columbia’s school opening plan. 

    The effort is undertaken in the context of a recent and alarming local surge in British Columbia’s COVID-19 cases at a time when the New York Times reports dramatic declines in new daily infections (down 28 percent), hospitalizations (down 20 percent) and deaths (down seven percent) across the United States.

    As October began, however, BC still seemed on a steep upward trend in new infections, although the rate of hospitalizations was flattening and deaths were actually declining. Yet, as a report late last week by CTV’s Penny Daflos pointed out, as a proportion of population this province has people sick with COVID-19 in numbers that are nearly quadruple those of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province.

    The question is whether miscalculations by BC’s government are behind the surge here. After all, 17 percent of infections are now among children under age 11 and 30 percent are under age 18. These age groups are now important drivers of BC’s pandemic momentum. COVID-19 cases among BC school children seem to have risen more sharply and far more rapidly than in Ontario, which has four times BC’s school enrolment. 

    The increase here was steepest for elementary schools. The BC rate of new infections for unvaccinated kids aged five-to-nine increased 73 percent between school opening and the end of September. The 9 - 11 age group saw a 53 percent increase.

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    A presumed upside seems to be that statistically, the younger the patients, the less severe the symptoms.

    Nevertheless, the infection rate for kids under 10 was the highest per capita for any age group—not surprising perhaps, since it remains the largest unvaccinated group in the province.

    There are about 243,000 kids enrolled from kindergarten to grade five. They are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. That’s a lot of room for a fast-moving, highly-contagious virus to rapidly expand its reach.

    Additionally, there are those under five years of age, the kids not yet in school. The last census count showed another 237,000 children aged 0 - 4, many of whom are at risk of infection by older siblings returning from the classroom. 

    On September 28, BC’s public health officer described this upward trend in school-aged children and those younger as “concerning.” 

    How concerned should we be? 

    Research normally lags real time events but one study reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics in early September found that children under the age of four are actually more vulnerable than older kids in the unvaccinated grouping.

    In fact, children in this age group have had the highest rates of pediatric hospitalization. Between late June and mid-August, as the Delta variant of the virus spread, the study discovered, their rate of hospitalization increased 10-fold.

    Of the children hospitalized, it said, about 23 percent were admitted to intensive care, the number requiring a ventilator increased 67 percent and the number who actually died in hospital over the same period doubled.

    Looked at another way, the hospitalization rate for children under 10 is about 2 percent—statistically small. That reassuring statistic comes of combining two numbers. For children aged 5 -1 1 the rate is 0.3 percent. But for children under 5 the rate is 1.7 percent. 

    Those statistics indicate that in actual numbers, the risk for children still appears to be very low. Statistically, about 1,000 children were diagnosed with COVID-19 during the last week of September. Only 5 needed hospital care.

    In BC there are about 500,000 kids under 12 and therefore not vaccinated. Let’s do a little mind experiment. If 95 percent of them were to catch COVID-19 and “only” two percent of those who did get sick were to go to hospital, that’s 9,500 children needing hospital beds. If 23 percent of those in hospital were to require intensive care, that’s about 2,200 children. Hopefully, it never comes to this. A critical part of planning, however, is to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. While the scenario just sketched may be an outlier, it certainly seems possible.

    Clearly, “only” is a statistical euphemism. If it’s your child heading for hospital with a one-in-four chance of going into intensive care and perhaps dying, there’s no “only” about it. Thus the statistics of the many give way to the tragedies of what individual parents face in real time rather than the cerebral abstractions of risk evaluation models.

     

    MY FIRST WEEKEND OF OCTOBER began with a cautionary message from some parents in Alberta. 

    In their kids’ elementary school, I’m told, classroom attendance by just two children with unvaccinated parents resulted in 70 rapidly spread infections among an enrolment of 350 students. The school was forced to close.

    By comparison, at a middle school attended by an older sibling where there’s a high vaccination rate among the 12 to 15-year-olds, only one COVID-19 case has been recorded since school opened. Obviously, vaccinations are the key. So far, though, we still can’t vaccinate young and very young children. A strict precautionary approach would seem most prudent.

    Admittedly, circumstances are much worse in Alberta than they are in BC. And yet, there’s not much satisfaction to be taken from those statistics, either. 

    As of October 1, federal data shows that BC ranked second among Canadian provinces for the infection count over the previous seven days. We find 17 percent of all Canada’s cases in a province where 81 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated. Only Alberta, with 11,445 cases—38 percent of all the cases in Canada—tallied more cases than BC. 

    So the two western provinces representing about 25 percent of the country’s population went into October reporting about 55 percent of the entire country’s COVID-19 cases and 50 percent of the deaths.

    The CTV report points out that infection rates here for new cases, hospitalizations and deaths now exceed rates in Ontario by almost 400 percent. For every 100,000 residents of Canada’s most populous province, there are 34 people sick with COVID-19. Here in BC, it’s 127. 

    In Ontario and Quebec, the fall surge in COVID-19 cases that began at the end of July with a return to school by large numbers of as-yet unvaccinated kids has begun to tip mercifully downward. Here on the country’s western fringe it’s still trending upward.

    Why?

    “It’s plausible that is due to what we’re doing in schools,” one physician and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto told CTV. Framed another way, perhaps the engine driving increases here is what wasn’t done in the schools here soon enough or vigorously enough.

    In BC, policy-makers focused on curbing the spread of the virus by vaccination. Schools were deemed safer than almost anywhere else. Kids weren’t considered a major vector for viral spread.

    Back in early August, the BC Teachers’ Federation was urging a proactive universal mask mandate in classrooms, even for primary grades, and it wanted a major re-do of school ventilation systems to include extensive use of high grade air filters.

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    The province addressed ventilation by upgrading central heating and air conditioning. There was a partial mask mandate but a full K-12 mandate wasn’t imposed until October 4 when government apparently caved to growing parental pressure.

    But early on, Ontario acknowledged the role of airborne transmission and its importance with the highly transmissible Delta variant, the U of T epidemiologist observed for CTV. That province responded with a full mask mandate from the get-go and installed specialized stand-alone air filtration units in every classroom.

    So the question seems fair: Has BC’s pandemic management policy for schools been too cautious and reactive when it should have been aggressively proactive? 

     

    IN HIS ESSAY Politics and the English Language, George Orwell compared bureaucratic rhetoric and its reliance upon generalizations, averages, euphemisms, platitudes and high-mindedness as a kind of intellectual and linguistic snow falling unobtrusively—but purposefully—“blurring the outlines and covering up the details.” 

     

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    George Orwell, c. 1940, by Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

     

    We’ve had plenty of exposure to inconvenient details recently: dead children buried in unmarked graves at residential schools; the faces of the homeless—sorry, the “unhoused;” the circumstances of teenagers who end lives just beginning when they cannot obtain timely psychiatric treatment; the increasingly grim facts of how climate change will impact all of us and how deeply invested our government is in perpetuating the use of the fossil fuels behind it.

    Not to mention the pesky details of who’s in hospital with long-haul after-effects of COVID-19 infections and exactly how many of them there are. Only thanks to impertinent media scrutiny do we now know that government was under-reporting this phenomenon by about 50 percent every day. And so, on a Thursday it was 332 in hospital, then on Friday it was suddenly 484 with the explanation that the additional 152 cases were previously unreported because they had a different label—“discontinued isolation.”  

    In Victoria, officials rushed to provide 50 additional housing units where homeless people—oops, “the unhoused”—could properly isolate after contracting COVID-19, but it took a leak of public health documents marked “for internal use only” to prompt that response.

    It turned out, the nosy reporters discovered, that on the day the documents leaked, people without shelter or in temporary housing actually made up one-third of all Island Health hospitalizations on that day and that hundreds of cases involved people living in 22 shelters and on the streets. 

    Look, the health ministry, public health agencies, administrators for health regions, frontline social service and health providers, provincial and municipal politicians are all stressed by what, for this generation of government, anyway, is an unprecedented crisis.

    We all get that. 

    Parents are stressed. Employers and employees are stressed. We all want this to be over. We also know it won’t be over without all of us doing our bit.

    But this is a democracy. Adults are expected to think for themselves. Perhaps we should start insisting a little more loudly that bureaucrats be less involved with massaging a blizzard of statistics that often seem opaque and even contradictory and just become a lot more forthcoming with the prospective tragedies. After all, the tragedies, not the statistics, are what the rest of us mostly have to live through and then must carry with us for the rest of our lives.

    What happened, what’s happening now, what’s most likely to happen if we do this or if we don’t do that is not beyond the grasp of the general public. Ominous news is not going to cause a panic. History demonstrates quite the opposite.

    Just give us the straight goods, however gloomy, and let’s all get on with doing what has to be done.

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

     

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