How do we unlock a lockdown?

Britain’s poking its nose out of lockdown and looking around to see if it’s safe for the rest of the body politic to follow. A lot of people have been vaccinated–or half vaccinated, which will, we hope, hold us for the time being. The number of new Covid infections is dropping. The number of deaths is dropping. The daffodils are blooming.

Daffodils have no antiviral properties, but they do make people feel good.

So what are the prospects of getting out of this mess without setting off a new spike?

 

Daffodils. Take three and call me in the morning–or is that joke so dated that you have to be over 70 to get it?

Peeking out of lockdown

Britain’s four component nations will chart their own routes out of lockdown and each will look contemptuously at the choices the other three made, but we’ll only follow England’s here, because that’s complicated enough, thanks. 

Stage one is reopening the schools, which will open on March 8, and initially all students from secondary level on up were supposed to return at once, bright-eyed and with a negative Covid test in hand.

How were they supposed to get that negative test result? We’ll skip the details, but headteachers said there wouldn’t be time–it would take a good three weeks to get everyone tested. Teachers unions and school governors had been calling for a phased return for a good long while, although the government was ignoring them.

Hell, what do they know?

Then two days after announcing the plan, the government did a U-turn. Of course secondary schools can bring the kids back in stages. 

You’d think a government would be embarrassed to be this visibly disorganized, but if it bothers them they hide it well. And the outrage machine that makes up a large segment of the British media doesn’t seem to be bothered by it.

Once they’re back in school, older kids will take a continuing series of tests–the quick kind called lateral flow tests, which are problematic. They miss a lot of cases in the best of circumstances and miss more when done by non-experts. The kids will have a few tests at school and after that they’ll take them home to do themselves. 

These are school kids, remember. They’re the definition of non-experts. So don’t expect too much from the results here.

The government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling says the scientific consensus is that opening the schools this way will drive up the R number–the number of people that each infected person goes on to infect–by anywhere between 10% and 50%. 

Have I mentioned that teachers haven’t been a priority category in the drive to vaccinate the country? So they’re being asked to take a deep breath, walk into class, and roll the Covid dice. Masks are at least recommended for older kids in class, not just in the hallways, but that’s recommended, not required. 

Elementary school kids? Nope, they haven’t even gone that far. 

And in case the message on masks sounds too coherent, though, the school standards minister (who knew we had one?) went on TV to say that masks and testing weren’t compulsory. Parents could decide whether their kids would use either. 

I despair,” the head of one school was quoted as saying.

Let’s not go through the unlocking stage by stage. What matters is that before the country moves from one stage to the next, the situation will be evaluated. If it looks good, we move on. If not, we wait. So far so good, but what they’ll be measuring isn’t the number of cases but the number of deaths, the number of hospital admissions, the number of people vaccinated, the variant situation. So if a gazillion twelve-year-olds all test positive, it’s okay as long as deaths and hospitalizations don’t get out of control.

Are you getting a sense of why this makes my skin itch? People who test positive are the early warnings of a new spike, but the assumption seems to be that cases can be contained as long as they’re not hospitalized or dying. That kids won’t pass it to families. That teachers won’t be hospitalized and won’t pass it to partners and parents. That kids themselves won’t get seriously ill. That somehow you can get through this thing without having to worry about new cases. That as long as the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed and people aren’t dying in the streets, it’s okay. 

What the government’s doing is betting heavily here on vaccines and tests, hoping to keep the number of cases down to a manageable level until those save our hash. And it may work. In the meantime, forgive me if I scratch where it itches. I like our hash. I don’t want to see us lose it.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says that vaccinating children and teenagers could be the way out of this mess,  but the vaccine trials involving kids have only just begun. We should hear the results in six months or so. That’s not a quick hash-saver.

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Another detail that makes me itch as we poke our collective nose into the open air is that healthcare workers still don’t have proper protective equipment. Twenty healthcare bodies have written  to the prime minister about this. In response, the prime minister rumpled his hair and asked if he didn’t look cute. 

Okay, what the government actually said was that it was monitoring the evidence and would update advice “where necessary.” And by the way, didn’t the prime minister look cute?

Healthcare workers are four times more likely to become infected than the rest of us, and within hospitals people working in intensive care have gotten the highest grade protective equipment, but it turns out that people working on the general wards have double their rate of infection–and less effective protective gear.

But, what the hell, the country’s only had a year to get this right. And we do have a prime minister who knows how to rumple his hair.

Meanwhile, the government is paying consultants to locate the protective equipment that it owns and that it stored someplace, although no one person knows exactly where. Billions of pounds worth of the stuff is stashed here and there.

“We have amounts in containers, in storage around the country; there are some on the docks and there are some en route from China,” the auditor general said. 

I wonder if that’s what’s on the floor by my computer. If so, I’d really like it out of there when the prime minister’s done with his hair. It was only supposed to be there for a couple of days. 

Some of the equipment will go out of date if it’s not used. Some of it is needed in hospitals and (yup, see above) isn’t available. Some of it–possibly all of it–was bought by external consultants at inflated prices and I should have known better than to let them store it on my floor but they were being so damn nice

Anyway, they don’t seem to have a central system to track all this, so they’re paying consultants to figure out what they own and where they can find it. 

You’d laugh if it weren’t so expensive. 

 

The sciency stuff

Lab studies have confirmed that the mutation common to the British, South African, and Brazillian variants really does make Covid more contagious than the original form. The initial argument was based on modeling, and I was holding out for confirmation, thinking that maybe the variants had just gotten lucky. Now, damn them, the scientists have given me what I asked for. So yup, it’s more contagious.

New York and California–not to be left out–have developed (or found, since we don’t really know where any of the variants first emerged) variants of their own. Let’s not panic about them until more is known. There’s always time for that later.

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A new quick Covid test has been developed in France. It gives you a result in ten minutes–a third the time of the lateral flow tests–and it’s more accurate, although still not perfect. It’s 90% accurate, with the remaining 10% taking the form of both false negatives and false positives.

That’s good news, but it’s going into a three-month trial, so don’t rush out and try to buy a few thousand of them for your local school. 

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The US Food and Drug Administration has said that Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine is both safe and effective. That’s not yet approval, but it’s a move in the right direction. If you don’t read past the headlines, you may not fall in love with it: It’s only 66% effective, which is lower than the be-sequined two-dose vaccines that crossed the finish line first and got all the cheering.

Read past the headlines, though.

The vaccine was tested in the US, several Latin American countries (sorry–I don’t know which ones), and South Africa, and 66% is the number that comes out of the jar once you pour all those results together and shake them. In the US, it was “much closer” to the be-sequined numbers. The effectiveness depended on which variants were prevalent in which countries. 

How much closer is “much closer”? In the US, it’s 72% effective. In South Africa, 57%. After that, I run out of numbers. Sorry. 

That’s still not in the 90% zones of the star vaccines, but all the vaccines (“all” here means the ones that have been approved in the US, but may well include others that are in use around the world) are 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death. That’s no small thing. 

 

Creativity and lockdown
In a recent blog post, Emma Cownie asked, Can the boredom of lockdown push us to be more creative? For her, the answer has been yes, and it’s also worked that way for Peter Quinn, who creates special effects for a living. You know special effects–those things we see in movies that kids think are real and adults–um, yeah, we sometimes think they are as well. I won’t try to describe what he’s done, but he’s created a few sequences just to make himself laugh, and he’s strung them together in a video clip. 

They made me laugh too. Go on. Watch it. It’s good for your immune system.

How to get to work on time in the 19th century

Question: In an age before alarm clocks (and then in the one before affordable alarm clocks), how did anyone get to work on time? 

Answer, at least in parts of Britain: Starting in the nineteenth century, they got woken up by a knocker-upper. 

Digression: In American, if you’re knocked up, you’re pregnant. (This does not apply to the male of the species.) In British, though, you can knock up some scrambled eggs without anyone giving birth to little baby scrambled eggs. Knocking something up means you’re building it “very quickly, using whatever materials are available.” In the case of our example, we’ll hope that’s eggs, not cement blocks. 

Being knocked up can also–in British–mean being tired. 

But more to the point, you can knock someone up by pounding on their door when they’re asleep. 

Or on their window.

For the sake of clarity, reproduction takes place in the same way in both countries, it’s only the language that changes. Let’s say you’re talking about waking someone up. By knocking. Take two words, knock and up. Now combine them and shake and you’ll get one of those things we call a phrase–a small number of words that, over and over again, spot each other across a crowded room, run into each other’s arms, and form a unit of meaning.

The American meaning? It dates back at least to 1830 and I can’t begin to explain why it means what it does, but all the same it does.

Where were we?

People were going to work. It was the beginning of the nineteenth century, bang-slam in the midst of the industrial revolution. Industry was (and is) a regimented beast. It depended on everyone being in their place at the same time. Keeping your job meant getting up at the right time.

 

A rare relevant photo. This is a knocker-upper from London. She was known for using a peashooter to wake people up.

Enter the knocker-upper

Actually, knocker-uppers didn’t enter. They walked down a street and tapped on windows, or possibly doors, and they kept going. Because they got paid by the head, and if they were going to make a living they had to get a move on. Getting your butt out of bed was up to you. 

Most of them carried a long pole so they could reach an upstairs window. One, Mary Smith, was known for using a pea shooter. Others carried soft hammers or (so I’ve read) rattles. I’m skeptical about the rattles, because they wouldn’t want to wake the neighbors. Not just because they’d complain, but because they’d be waking them up for free. 

We’ll talk about payment in a minute.

As an aside, you might’ve noticed that “upstairs window” is a little vague. In Britain the floor up one flight of stairs is the first floor. In the U.S., it’s the second floor. The two countries put the numbers in the same order, but they start counting in different places.

Knocker-uppers tended to be old men or women. Does that mean the women were old or just that they were women? I’m not sure. The source I stole the information from lists them that way, either because they didn’t notice that the words can be understood two different ways or because they were doing what I am and dodging the issue. I’m just going to duck behind this nice potted begonia over here and pretend it has nothing to do with me. 

Just think of the women as being a kind of upstairs window.

Don’t think about it too hard.

Occasionally cops worked as knocker-uppers while they were on their rounds, earning a bit of extra income since they were up anyway. Robert Paul, who found the body of Jack the Ripper’s first victim, saw a cop and told him about the dead woman but the cop was knocking people up and couldn’t be bothered.

“I saw [a policeman] in Church-row,” Paul said at the inquest, “just at the top of Buck’s-row, who was going round calling people up. And I told him what I had seen, and I asked him to come, but he did not say whether he should come or not. He continued calling the people up, which I thought was a great shame, after I had told him the woman was dead.”

Knocker-uppers were particularly common in northern mill towns and in London, where dock workers’ shifts changed with the tides, although they also worked in smaller cities and towns. The trade went into decline in the 1940s and 1950s, and the last knocker-upper is thought to have retired in 1973.

I’m not sure why anyone was still paying a knocker-upper in 1972. Maybe out of loyalty. Or because they liked the personal touch.

 

Who paid? 

Customers paid by the week. A knocker-upper named Mrs. Waters (from somewhere in the north of England) told a Canadian newspaper in  1878, “All who were knocked up before four o’clock paid … eighteen pence a week; those who had to be awakened . . . after four gave . . . a shilling a week; whilst those who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance.” She said she “never earned less than thirty shillings a week; mostly thirty five; and . . . as high as forty shillings a week.” 

There were twelve pence in a shilling. I’ll leave you to figure out who got a bargain while I hide behind that begonia again.

How much of a person’s pay would that eat? These were low-wage workers, and in 1880 a male laborer’s average pay was £30 a year; a woman’s was £15. A pound was made up of 20 shillings, and a family’s budget would have had next to no give in it. Still, the knocker-upper’s price had to be within a working person’s reach. 

Mrs. Waters also talked about her customers tapping back to let her know they’d heard her–some cheerily and some complaining and swearing the whole time. 

To keep the times and places straight, knockers-up chalked times on sidewalks and buildings, and some may have hung up signs.

Who woke up the knocker-upper? Themselves, for the most part. They were night owls, sleeping during the day. Think of them as people who worked the graveyard shift. 

How did they know what time it was? Nothing I’ve found addresses this, but cities and towns had clocks–they were an important civic show-off item–and even if you couldn’t look at your wrist and know if you were two minutes ahead of schedule, you’d get a nice loud bong every fifteen minutes, and a count on the hour. When I was a kid–we’re going back to the 1950s here–stores still had clocks in their front windows and long before I had a watch I could walk down the street from clock to clock and know the time. 

Women, men, and meetings: Jackie Weaver’s advice about Zoom

If you’re British, you’ve heard of Jackie Weaver. If you’re not British but spend too much of your life on the internet, you’ve probably also heard of Jackie Weaver.

Weaver was drafted in from the Cheshire Association of Local Councils to host a Zoom meeting of the Handforth Parish Council’s planning and environment committee and act as clerk in the regular clerk’s absence. The council has a history of toxic procedural arguments, and the meeting was called by two committee members, not the chair. Should we speculate and guess that the chair wasn’t happy about that?

He told Weaver she had no authority. She threatened to remove him from the meeting and he said, “You can’t. It’s only the chair who can remove people from the meeting. You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver. No authority at all”

Zap. He disappeared. She’s removed him from the meeting. You can hear someone else saying, “She just kicked him out.”

“She kicked him out,” someone echoed.

I waited for a chorus line to come in, full of sequins and doing high kicks, singing, “She kicked him out,” but parish council budgets are tight, so no chorus line. No high kicks. Local government’s like that. You should see parish council meetings in my village. For a long time, they didn’t even have heat.

When two more members of the meeting shouted and blustered, she tossed them out as well, so they could get some work done. 

“This is a meeting called by two councilors,” Weaver says. “You may now elect a chair.”

One of the people who was still in the meeting proceeded to complain that the chair had been calling himself the clerk. 

“There is no way of stopping him from calling himself clerk,” Weaver said. “Please refer to me as Britney Spears from now on.”

Irrelevant photo: Red sky in the morning, be careful what you say in a Zoom meeting.

No one would have known any of this if a seventeen-year-old politics student, Shaan Ali, hadn’t watched it. He’s fascinated with local politics. All the power struggles. All the arguments. All the technological disasters. 

“You know, old men struggling to use Zoom, fun arguments–there’s always something fascinating going on.”

He tweeted it and it went mad. Weaver became an overnight sensation, interviewed on TV, written about almost a month late in obscure corners of the internet. What she did resonates with every woman who’s ever been bullied or patronized by a man, which is to say 116% of us. It may be on the very mildest edge of our collective revenge fantasies, but the thing is that it actually happened. That’s better than flying kicks, although I’d still like the chorus line.

It’s appealed to plenty of men as well, helped along, I expect, by the cartoonishly stuffed-shirt quality of the chair. He’d patronize anyone he wasn’t sucking up to. He couldn’t help himself. You can find a clip here.

Predictably enough, as soon as she became a hero, she started receiving online abuse, which the police are investigating, for whatever good that’ll do.

The council’s getting its own share of abuse. At the next meeting, members of the public joined the Zoom call and shouted lines from the more famous meeting, turning the thing into chaos. I’m sure I should disapprove, but I love the idea of a meeting being disrupted by random strangers shouting, “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver.”

I’m sure it’s a character flaw. It’s one of my favorites.

But let’s leave Handforth on a more peaceful  note. An internet baker (who knew there was such a thing?) named Ben Cullen created a Jackie Weaver cake. Lockdown does strange things to people. I won’t say he flattered her exactly, but he says he’s had a great response. 

The last word, surely, has to go to Weaver. Someone asked if she had any advice for Zoom meetings. 

“Don’t wear pajamas,” she said. 

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You’ve probably heard that the head of the Tokyo Olympics committee resigned after saying that women talked too much and made meetings too long. 

What you probably don’t know is that in 2019 Montreal city councilor Sue Montgomery started knitting in red when a man was speaking and in green when a woman spoke. The piece she produced is almost entirely red. And it’s a lousy piece of knitting.

I say that as someone who’s not very good at knitting either, but I can knit a straight scarf. Never mind. I never knit anything that made a point as neatly.

The council’s divided fairly evenly–31 women and 34 men, and it’s not, she said, that the women don’t speak, it’s that they tend to use their time more efficiently. “Some of the older men tend to go on and on,” she said. “Some of them can’t be bothered to gather and organize their thoughts before speaking.” 

 

Another Zoom meeting goes to hell in a handbasket

The entire board of a California elementary school resigned after thinking they were holding a private meeting when in fact they were being live-streamed. 

“Are we alone?” one of them asked.

Oh, yeah, absolutely, someone or other said. 

And they believed it and let loose. Parents just wanted the school to babysit their kids, they said. Parents wanted the kids out of the house so they could take drugs. Parents complained, the school board members complained. 

All while they were being live-streamed into the parents’ ear canals

Seven thousand people signed a petition calling on them to resign. 

You’re never alone. 

 

Art news from Italy

Italian police found a stolen painting–a 500-year-old copy of a Leonardo da Vinci–and returned it to the museum that didn’t know it had lost it. The museum had been shut for months. After all, in the middle of a pandemic who goes around counting frames to make sure all the paintings got back on the school bus at the end of the class trip? 

How did the police happen to find the painting? Haven’t a clue, but it was hidden in what a British paper called a bedroom cupboard. I think that’s what I’d call a closet, since I tend to keep my cupboards in the kitchen, where I keep my cups. But, as I often say, I’ll never really understand this country. As a general rule, the police aren’t running in and out of here making sure I haven’t hidden a 500-year-old painting behind the (empty) sugar bowl in the cupboard, so I’m going to guess the guy they arrested did something that called attention to himself. 

The Smithsonian didn’t mention the cupboard but, not to be outdone by a British paper, mentioned that in the picture Christ has corkscrew curls. They were still popular when Shirley Temple was making movies. If that doesn’t put you off them, I don’t know what will. 

Two ways Covid isn’t transmitted

A study says there’s no evidence that Covid’s passed on by what researchers so delicately describe as fecal-oral transmission. 

Tell me I don’t need to translate that for you. 

Diarrhea can be a Covid symptom, and testing sewage is a way to track the presence of Covid and its variants in a community. And toilets really do send up a plume of aerosols when you flush them (unless there’s a lid and you close it–and sit on it to make sure it doesn’t open spontaneously and facilitate a jailbreak). But even so, there’s no evidence that a toilet’s to blame for anyone having caught the virus. 

It sounds like the only danger public toilets present is if they’re unventilated: You’ll be sharing air with other people. But then you would in a store. Or a workplace.  

Food is also looking like an unlikely way to transmit the disease. Several things work against Covid being transmitted by food. It can’t multiply there–it needs to be inside a host. It hates heat (although it likes cold). And it’s unlikely to survive in any place as acidic as the stomach. 

People whose Covid infections take the form of digestive problems probably didn’t get it from anything they ate. It’s a question of whether the virus turned right or left once it got into their bodies by way of the nose or mouth. 

Irrelevant photo: A cheery yellow flower to take your mind off toilets. This is a lesser celandine–one of the year’s early flowers.

To keep Covid out of our digestive tracts, we might borrow Britain’s idea way of foiling the German invasion they were afraid would happen in World War II: They took down all the road signs and railroad station signs. If Germany really had invaded, its soldiers would still be wandering around Cornwall and wondering if they were in Pityme or Splatt.

Yes, both towns are real.

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Last summer, a cluster of England’s beaches were mobbed by people who’d traveled from elsewhere for a day out. And we’re using elsewhere as a code word for anyone who in the middle of a pandemic isn’t welcome wherever here happens to be. The news was full of photos of people packed so close together that they looked like their heads were popping out of each other’s pockets.

Some of that, presumably, was the magical foreshortening that comes from using a telephoto lense, but never mind that. There were still a lot of people. 

We all talked about the photos. We tutted. We battened down the hatches–whatever that involves–and waited for the local outbreaks to hit.

We, you understand, means anyone who didn’t take a day off to go to the beach. Plus anyone who lived locally and could get to the beach without a day trip. Speaking as a lives-locally myself, we have a yes-no relationship with visitors. The economy depends on them. And it’s awfully nice when they’re not around. Especially during a pandemic.

But the outbreak never came–not from the beaches. Admittedly, the test and trace system here is beyond useless, but still. According to Dr. Muge Cevik, a lecturer in infectious diseases and medical virology, “We have known for some time that only about 10% of transmission events are linked to outdoor activities. Even those events generally involve either prolonged close contact or a mixture of indoor and outdoor time.”

The message, basically, is that the important places for transmission are indoors.

 

Long Covid

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study tells us (and of course no one else; we’re their special friends) that 35% of people with mild Covid don’t get back to their earlier state of health within two to three weeks. That’s counting from when the symptoms started. That may not sound as scary as it is. It can go on for a hell of a lot longer than two or three weeks and may mean they can’t go back to work, can’t get back to what used to be normal life, can’t walk to the corner and back. 

That 35% isn’t just the old and the disabled. It includes previously healthy 18- to 34-year-olds: 20% of them end up in the category. And 33% of people who had Covid but weren’t hospitalized (I think at this point we’ve included people who had moderate Covid, not just mild) still have symptoms up to three months later. 

How are we supposed to read “up to” in this context? 

Beats me. 

How does that compare with the flu? 

Only 10% of people who catch the flu are sick after two weeks days. But if you’re determined to catch the flu as a way to avoid Covid, you should understand that (1) it’s not an either/or choice; you’re more than welcome to catch both, and (B) at least in Britain just now, the flu is hard to catch. Lockdown’s turning it into an endangered species. Or maybe that’s Brexit–it’s still wrestling with the customs forms. Either way, the stores are finding it hard to keep in stock.

The better news is that long Covid is starting to get attention from researchers, doctors, and scientists. And opera singers

 

The cost of Covid

The planet’s lost an estimated 20.5 million years of life to Covid. That works out to an average of 16 years of life per death.

 

Pubs and an end to lockdown

Is there a safe way for pubs to reopen? 

A British study from the last time they opened up leaves me skeptical. At least until you find a way to keep drinkers first from getting drunk or if they will get drunk, from acting like drunks. But that wasn’t the scientific answer, so let’s back up and take another run at it.

At the end of Britain’s first lockdown, pubs were given guidelines to keep everyone safe (or to at least gave the illusion that everyone was safe). And pubs did try to adapt. They made more room between the tables–that sort of thing. But in some staff didn’t wear masks and in others they wore them only until they needed to talk, when they’d pull them off. Which sort of defeats the purpose of wearing masks, but then customers weren’t wearing the when they ate or drank, so I could see why they might not have taken this thing seriously.

Lines formed because rooms were laid out and the way people moved through them. It created pinch points. And customers shouted, projecting the virus into the air if they had it. They hugged each other. They table-hopped. They sang. 

Give the British alcohol and they sing. 

Staff rarely intevened, or they made gestures in that direction but didn’t change anything. Maybe they didn’t take the issue seriously. Maybe they didn’t think they had much authority. Maybe they really didn’t.

The study didn’t address the underlying problem, which is that you can’t wear a mask and eat or drink, and if you get a bunch of maskless people in an enclosed space during a Covid pandemic you’re not running a pub, you’re running a germ exchange. 

 

Vaccine news

Research on the Pfizer vaccine reports that a single injection is 85% effective after 15 to 28 days, which means that putting off the second shot won’t be a disaster. That’s a relief for Britain, which bet its chips–every last one of them–on that. The study left some loopholes that a creative virus could wiggle through if it had the determination, but never mind, we’ll take our good news where we can find it.

Pfizer itself now says its vaccine will survive in a standard freezer for as long as two weeks–longer than it had originally thought. That makes it easier for pharmacies and doctors’ offices to work with.

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Our friends the scientists are working on vaccines that will target not just the spike protein but a new spot on the Covid virus, the N protein. Since the mutations we’ve been seeing–at least the worrying ones–are on the spike proteins, this may put us a step ahead of the virus, at least for a while. They’re hoping to start clinical trials soon. 

And a different group of scientists is working on a vaccine that would–if all goes well–create an immunity in the nose and throat, which are Covid’s superhighway. Convince the antibodies to set up shop there and you could keep the virus from infecting anyone else. Once that happens, you’re well on the way toward ending the pandemic.

Or at least slowing it down. Let’s not get too enthusiastic about this.

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Britain’s vaccination project has worked its way from the old and creaky to the somewhat old and not-yet-creaky, as well as to the medically vulnerable–people with diabetes, say, or heart conditions. People who are severely overweight. And it was the last condition that led a doctor’s office to contact Liam Thorpe and say he was eligible for a vaccination. They calculated that he had a body mass index of 28,000.

The body mass index? Oh, that’s simple. You take your weight in kilos and your height in meters and you square one of them and draw a line under the other and then do some terrifying mathematicky things with it all. Then you look grimly at the result, because whatever it is, if you’re part of the culture I live in, you’ll figure you need to lose weight. At least you will if you’re female. The ideal woman is so thin she’s invisible. 

Invisibility is sexy. And gets a lot of social approval. It’s the rare woman who–even if she knows this is bullshit–who’s completely immune.

If your body mass index is over 25, official statistics agree with you: You’re overweight. But a bmi over 28,000 is–should we say it’s unusual? 

How did Thorpe get to that size? Well, he’s 6’2”, but the computer system was speaking metric when his height was entered, so he ended up measuring 6.2 centimeters. Which (or so I’ve read) is roughly the length of your thumb. Or someone’s thumb. I haven’t met yours. For all I know, your thumb is 6’2”. 

It must be awkward buying gloves. 

Somehow during the phone call Thorpe unraveled the problem and said he should wait for his real category to be called before he got vaccinated.

In an article about it, he wrote, “If I had been less stunned I would have asked why no one was more concerned that a man of these remarkable dimensions was slithering around south Liverpool.”

After his story ran in the Guardian,a letter to the editor said that the writer’s daughter’s height had been entered into the computer as 1.7 cm. She figures that gives her the body mass index of five blue whales. 

Art v. Covid: Round one goes to the opera singers

The English National Opera is becalmed in a windless pandemic sea (and beset by overcooked metaphors), but it’s putting its expertise to use by teaching breathing exercises to people struggling with long Covid. On Zoom, of course. Because nothing happens in person anymore. 

Jenny Mollica, who runs the opera company’s outreach program, started hearing about long Covid–the chest pains, the exhaustion, but above all the breathlessness– and thought, “Opera is rooted in breath. That’s our expertise.” Maybe, she thought, the company had something to offer.

She got hold of Dr. Sarah Elkin, a respiratory therapist in the National Health Service, who thought, Why not? 

Yes, I know. I’m claiming to know an awful lot about what people who aren’t me thought. But I’m stealing the information straight from what they said, so we’re on relatively safe ground.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses.

Elkin and her team had some drug treatments they could try patients on, but beyond that they didn’t have a lot to offer. And Elkin used to sing jazz, so she understood first hand what vocal training could do.

They recruited a dozen participants, and one of them said in an interview that in everything he’d done since recovering from Covid, “I was struggling for air.” Even a few of the simple breathing exercises made a huge difference. “The program really does help. Physically, mentally, in terms of anxiety.”

In addition to exercises, they sing, working with lullabies from around the world. They’re easy to learn and they’re soothing, since anxiety is as much an issue for the participants as breath.

Just reading about it, I feel better. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hum a lullaby to the cat. 

 

Ultraviolet light and Covid

A reader and frequent comment-leaver, Peter Wetherill, has been telling me about UV-C light as a way to battle Covid, and I got intrigued enough to see what I could learn about it. The internet isn’t exactly awash in information on the subject, but it does have a bit, so here’s what I’ve been able to sort out. 

Ultraviolet radiation–let’s call it UV, since we’re friends–comes in three flavors: A, B, and C. They’re not the most exciting flavors nature ever created,and that’s probably why you don’t hear about them on cooking shows and why no one’s given them more exciting names. But they’re what we’ve got to work with, so will you pipe down so we can get some work done?

We’re used to A and B, even if we don’t know it. If you use sunscreen, they’re what you’re blocking. Give them enough time and opportunity and they’ll damage the skin, no matter how dark skinned you are, and they don’t do the eyes any favors either. But it takes them a good long while to do their damage. Basically, our bodies have learned to live with them.

C, though, gets blocked by the earth’s ozone layer, so we and our many germs have all evolved without protection to it. It kills germs. It’ll also damage the hell out of people. So that’s the promise and that’s the problem, all neatly wrapped around each other. Can you separate one from the other to clear our public spaces of Covid?

Answer, yes-but.

Robots have been armed with UV-C so they can disinfect the surfaces of empty planes and subway cars. That’s useful but only up to a point. Problem one, Covid doesn’t spread primarily through surface deposits. As far as they’ve been able to trace the beast, airborne transmission’s the main culprit. And problem two, the minute you let people back into the space, it’s no longer clean. Because you know what we’re like. 

UV-C can also be adapted to clean N-95 masks, but its ability to sanitize depends on (problem three) the light hitting the virus directly. If some of the viruses are covered by a fiber or by dirt, the virus wins a round. If some bit of the mask is shadowed, any virus living there wins a round. In an experiment with Staphylococcus aureus, the kill rate varied as much as 500-fold depending on the angle of the light. So it generally takes three UV systems to disinfect a hospital room, and they won’t get everything. The surfaces still need to be cleaned the old-fashioned way.

Why bother? Because they’ll kill viruses and bacteria that the old-fashioned cleaning would have missed.

All of this, remember, has to be done away from human skin and eyes, because we never evolved any protection against it. So you have to clear people out before you can do it. 

What about cleaning the air? It can do that. 

One approach is to install UV-C units in the air ducts of ventilation systems, where no one goes unless they’re in some movie, there’s tense music in the background, and everyone watching suspends what little they know about reality. Using it this way could prevent, for example, what may have happened in a quarantine hotel in New Zealand where the ventilation system (may have; it’s not certain) helpfully moved the virus from one room to another. 

Another way to use UV-C is to install the units close to the ceiling, carefully calculating what it’ll take to miss even the tallest people and being careful not to let the light scatter downwards. Fixtures of that sort cost a couple of thousand dollars each and can be used in waiting rooms, in corridors, and in other badly ventilated places where people gather or pass through and breathe. It sounds like they’ll reliably kill off any germs in their line of sight–but only in their line of sigh. So they clear the upper reaches of the room but not the lower ones.

We’re almost done here. Stay with me, because there’s another possibility, called far UV-C, which is on a different wavelength and don’t ask me about that, please. For reasons best known to itself and to people who actually understand this stuff, it hardly penetrates the outer layer of human skin and, at least in albino rats, doesn’t cause eye damage. If you’re an albino rat, this is good news. But it does still kill viruses and bacteria. So you could use it in a room full of people without worrying about how tall people are or how much of the aerosols they breasted out hang in the lower air. 

David Sliney, retired manager of the U.S. Army’s Laser and Optical Radiation Program said, “There is some evidence that it may even be more effective against airborne viruses” than other UV light. 

This is still in the range of may and some evidence, remember. And again, it only cleans what it can directly hit. The virus underneath your book? It’s safe. The virus hiding in your shadow? It’s safe until you move your shadow. But since most aerosols (and as it happens, the ones we need to worry about) will be floating around somewhere in the room’s air, it can reasonably be expected to unleash a wholesale viral slaughter.

If you’re planning to try this, you need a krypton-chlorine excimer lamp, but they have built-in problems, because they also generate light on a different wavelength–a damaging wavelength.

Back to the drawing board. 

You could filter the lamp–we’ll come back to that–or you could use a far UV-C LED lamp, which is a great idea except that they don’t exist yet, and that’s a problem. It all has to do with wavelengths and efficiency. Get the wavelength right and the efficiency falls off a cliff. Get the efficiency right and the wavelength’s wrong.

That drives us back to excimer lamps. The article I’m linking to expects them to be on the market by early 2021.

Hang on. This is early 2021. You could even argue that it’s late-early 2021. So–as my brother used to ask on car trips–are we there yet? 

Sort of. I asked Lord Google about filtered excimer lamps, and after leading me through some odd corners of the internet, including one involving fishpond sterilizers, I did find some. I think. But first I found some box-like gizmos that draw air in, sterilize it, and breathe it back out so that humans aren’t exposed to UV-C but the virus is.  

I also found a “far UV-C excimer lamp module for microbial reduction applications.” It cleans surfaces and air, it can be used in occupied and unoccupied rooms, and I’m sure the website says how much it costs somewhere but believe me, they’re not leading with that information. Let’s assume it’s expensive, but then so’s death.

In spite of the limited offerings on the internet, the article I’ve drawn most of my information from (it’s published by the IEEE Spectrum) says that “the current pandemic may yet come and go before the world has rolled out germicidal UV broadly enough to make a big impact. And so experts are already planning for the next dangerous pathogen, and when it comes, they hope to greet it with a phalanx of UV air purifiers and surface sterilizers in hospitals, airports, public transit, offices, schools, nursing homes, stores, restaurants, elevators, and elsewhere. The ubiquity of UV technology should make it much harder for an outbreak to spread, perhaps preventing a lethal contagion from ever becoming a pandemic.”

If–like me–you’re wondering what IEEE stands for, it stands for IEEE. You may have to join before they’ll tell you anything more than name, rank, and serial number. It’s a technical professional organization that’s interested in technology. And professionalism. And sounds like the scream of someone falling off a cliff: I-EEEEEEEEEEEEEeeee.

Oh, hell, I don’t know what it does, but it’s big. At least compared to other technical professional organizations. 

By way of a second source, you can find a fairly small bit about it from the FDA–the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Just when we thought American isolationism was over . . .

The Americas are moving away from Africa and Europe at the heart-stopping speed of four centimeters a year. If you plan to row the Atlantic, do it now. Your trip’s only going to get longer. 

I couldn’t find any parallel mention of either the Pacific or some continents getting smaller, but systems have only so much give in them, and what’s gained in one place has to show up as a loss somewhere else. What I’m saying is that if that old pair of jeans suddenly fits again, the credit may not go to your new diet, it’s more likely to go to the Atlantic Ocean. 

 

Zoom news

You’ve probably seen this already (and if you haven’t, you may be the only person on the planet keeping that category open), but that’s not going to stop me from telling you about it: A lawyer in Texas appeared in court, via Zoom, to to argue a case while disguised as a cat

Actually, a kitten. If you play the video–and if you haven’t, you really should–you can see his little kitten mouth explaining to the judge, as we all have to at some point in our lives, that he’s not a cat.

“I can see that,” the judge said soberly, although what he was seeing was that the lawyer was in fact a cat. Which proves that witnesses are expected to tell the truth but judges don’t have to. And that we can’t always believe the evidence of our own lyin’ eyes. 

Also that the English language uses the word see loosely.

A rare relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie. He is a cat–on Zoom, off Zoom, in any and all situations. He is also, it’s worth noting, not a lawyer. But he is slightly out of focus. It’s not his fault. 

I don’t know if any of this will give the defendant grounds to appeal, but some inventive lawyer could have a wonderful time with it. 

The lawyer’s not the only person who’s been trapped by Zoom filters since the pandemic forced many odd things to go online. Lizet Ocampo, the political director of People for the American Way, appeared at a work meeting as a potato and couldn’t un-potato herself. 

“As a progressive organization, we fight for justice for all and access to opportunities, and in the last three-plus years, it’s been a little tough,” she said (irrelevantly) after one someone in the meeting took a screenshot and put it on social media. “I just kind of gave up and stayed as a potato for the rest of the call.”

What makes her comment relevant is that an organization that fights for justice should recognize the importance of its directors understanding–at first hand if possible–how hard it is for potatoes to get taken seriously. Ocampo, I trust, now has a visceral understanding of the problem. 

Congressman Emmer, from Minnesota, appeared at a Congressional hearing upside down, with his head disconnected from any recognizable body part, pretty much stopping any sort of sensible discussion. Contributions included, “Is this a metaphor?” “At least you’re not a cat,” and “You could stand on your head.”

 

Food news

Which brings us neatly to our next topic: Scientists have engineered spinach plants to send emails. 

What, you ask, does a spinach plant have to say and why would it want to say it to us, not to another spinach plant? Well, at the moment, the plant doesn’t get to choose. The email will say that the plant found nitroaromatics in the groundwater and the email will go to the scientists. 

Nitroaromatics in groundwater are a sign that explosives might be nearby, and their presence triggers the plant to send a signal, which an infrared camera picks up. Then the camera sends the email. 

Think of the camera as the spinach plant’s office assistant.

We’ve reached a point where no one thinks it’s strange that a camera sends an email, right? Or that your toaster has opinions about your Facebook posts?

What this means, sadly, is that no one wants the spinach plant’s opinion, it’s just a conduit for information that scientists want. 

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” said Professor Michael Strano, who led the research. “They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves.”

They could, potentially, be set up to send emails related to climate change. 

When I walked past my spinach plants yesterday, I heard them whisper, “We feel so used.” 

I gave them Ocampo’s email address.

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I don’t know why anyone should believe me on this next item, since I can’t prove it by embedding a link. I’m taking my information from a Twitter ad, which if the culprits have any sense will have been taken down by now, but the makers of Weetabix teamed up with Heinz Corp. and advertised–

Okay, you know how British foodies are trying to rehabilitate the reputation of British food? No? Never mind. They are. And it’s important to them, so the rest of us can just play nice, please, and not do what Weetabix and Heinz have done, which was a very unpleasant playground trick involving dry Weetabix and baked beans. Or more specifically, Weetabix with baked beans poured over them. And offered to the world as something to eat. 

Voluntarily.

What is or are Weetabix? Allegedly, a breakfast cereal, although I have tried the stuff and wasn’t convinced. It (I ate less than one, so let’s commit ourselves to the singular) is wheatish and shaped like a raft with rounded corners. Or like a dish sponge. Dry, it tastes like straw. Wet, it tastes like bread that you soaked overnight in lukewarm water. 

Yes, I know: Someone out there loves it/them. Possibly even you. And I respect that, although you’re making a terrible mistake, possibly even wasting the part of your life that you spend eating breakfast. But hey, who am I to judge?

Someone with a blog and no editor to keep me from writing myself over a cliff edge, that’s who. 

But if I go so far as to admit that I could be wrong about Weetabix (and I’m fairly sure I haven’t), I think even people who like Weetabix, or who at least respect them, will admit that pairing them up with baked beans is one of those errors in judgement that comes from being in lockdown too long. 

If you’re good with technology, you might be able to find the ad and turn it into a Zoom filter, then appear at your next job interview as baked beans on Weetabix. The way the job market is these days, how good were your chances anyway?

*

The History of Parliament blog called my attention to a new electronic tool that lets researchers (along with any fool who stumbles in after them) search parliamentary debates and find out how many times a word like, say, Brexit shows up. So someone’s used it to search for all mentions of the word cucumber

Come on, someone had to do it. Let’s be glad they just went ahead and got it over with.

The news–and I know this will surprise you–is that it doesn’t come up often. Even in a debate about the Tomatoes and Cucumbers Marketing Board in 1950.

No, I can’t make this stuff up. I’m too earthbound.

I may be misreading this, but the introductory paragraph seems to say that the word’s never been used but later on the post produces an example of when it was used: in December 4, 1656, right in the midst of Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate. We don’t think of that as a particularly funny time, but during a debate about the rights and privileges of the burghs (don’t ask, because what’s important here is the cucumber), the discussion got increasingly convoluted and MP Philip Jones compared it “to the dressing of a cucumber. First pare, and order, and dress it, and throw it out of the window.”

Reword that and you’d get a laugh. It’s all in the delivery. 

 

Archeology

A four-year-old walking the beach with her parents spotted a dinosaur footprint. It’s 220 million years old and was preserved in the mud. No one’s sure what kind of dinosaur left it but it would’ve been small and walked on two legs.

It was on a beach called the Bendricks, in Wales, which the South Wales group of the Geologists’ Association called “the best site in Britain for dinosaur tracks of the Triassic Period.

*

A couple of prehistoric teeth found in Jersey may be evidence that modern humans didn’t displace Neanderthals but merged with them. The teeth come from two different people and combine features of both modern humans and Neanderthals, suggesting that the blend was common in the population. Modern humans and Neanderthals overlapped by 5,000 years, which is a long enough time to get acquainted, even outside of speed-dating situations.

Does lockdown damage the economy? 

If British lockdown is a song, the chorus is a sour political sound that comes from throwback Members of Parliament calling for lockdown’s end. Let’s look at lockdown and the impact it has on an economy, since that’s one of the primary arguments against it. 

 

The costs of lockdown

Those wild-eyed radicals at the International Monetary Fund looked at the changes in travel, electricity use, and unemployment claims and say the economy deteriorated before government restrictions came into force and also began to recover before they were lifted. Voluntary social distancing and lockdowns, they say, had almost exactly the same impact. In other words, the problem is the pandemic, not the lockdowns.

A different study compared Demark and Sweden and reports almost the same drop in consumer spending during the first wave of the pandemic, although Denmark locked down and Sweden didn’t. Again, they’re saying the economic damage came from the pandemic, not the lockdown.

We could go on, getting into quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), which are a particularly grisly measurement the National Health Service uses (and for all I know, so do health insurance companies or other countries’ health services) to decide if a medicine or treatment is a good buy–or at least an affordable one. It weighs additional length of life against quality of life against money. Because money’s the ultimate measure of everything in our economy, folks. Even our lives.

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses coming up in spite of our recent cold snap.

But I’ll leave you at the door of QALYs while I go home and have a nice cup of tea all by myself. Or with you if you show up and the pandemic’s over. The calculations involved are enough to scare me off. What I can tell you is that the article I’m linking to claims that the lockdown opponents are using QALYs wrong when they cite them to prove their point. 

I’d probably use them wrong too, and prove no point at all. Hence the tea. 

*

Speaking of money and Covid, landlords in England can’t evict tenants who fall behind in their rent because of the pandemic, but that only holds till the end of March. After that, anything could happen. The ban could be extended. The ban could be allowed to lapse. Spaceships could land and magically implant some good sense into all of us.

I like the third possibility myself, but I admit it’s not the most likely.

Some 450,000 families are behind on their rent because of the pandemic. If you want your hair to turn as gray as mine, you can add in the number of families who’ve fallen behind on their mortgage payments. They can’t be evicted yet either, but they’re facing the same three possibilities. 

*

Reopening the schools or keeping them closed is an alternative chorus of the lockdown song.

A study looking at Sweden, with it no-lockdown approach to the pandemic, reports that keeping the schools open with only minimal precautions meant the teachers faced a doubled risk of catching Covid. And their partner had a 29% higher risk. 

The point of comparison was teachers who shifted to teaching online.

The kids’ parents had a 17% higher risk. Not enough kids were tested for them to register in the study.

 

Variant news

Scientists have found some new Covid variants. One popped up in southern California. It was found in October and it’s spread around the country and into other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, where we can assume it’s been stomped out thoroughly.

It’s not clear yet if it behaves any differently from the same-old, same-old variants, but it carries a change on the spike protein, which may or may not turn out to be important. 

The spike protein? It’s the key that lets the virus into human cells. The fear is that a change there may mean the virus gets better at breaking in or at evading our immune systems–or our vaccines. 

Another new Covid variant’s been found in Britain, in Denmark, in the U.S., in Australia, and in some other countries. So we don’t get to wave the flag over this one. It also has some changes to the spike protein, but it’s too early to know how significant the changes are. 

Some experts are recommending surge testing to try to stomp the beast out. Other experts are saying, “Yes, you idiots, but until you offer financial support to people who test positive, a lot of people will hide out instead of getting tested because they can’t afford to take two weeks off work. Or ten days. Or three minutes.”

That’s probably not an exact quote, but it is a good point.

*

Recent newspaper articles gave people a good scare by saying that British variant–also called the Kent variant; one of our world-beating contributions to the pandemic–is linked to a higher death rate. But that’s the same as saying it causes more deaths. It’s one of those read-the-fine-print things. 

A variant being linked to a higher death rate means it may be the cause but it may just happen to be in the room when the higher death rate happens. It hangs out with a rough crowd and they’re happy to let it take the blame. The variant has spread through nursing homes, which are full of people who are particularly vulnerable. The virus wouldn’t have to be supercharged to do a lot of damage among them.

But it’s also possible–not proven, but possible–that people infected with it have higher viral loads, which could both make it more contagious and harder to treat. But even that last part, about a higher viral load making it more contagious and harder to treat, is speculation.

It’s not time to panic over this one–we’ll have all the time we need to do that later if we have to. 

The non-speculative good news is that the current vaccines do a good job of targeting the variant. 

 

A quarantine update

If England’s rules on quarantine hotels looked absurd over the weekend, with its insistence on mixing people from Group A with people from Group B and then treating only Group A as scary enough to quarantine–

We’ll start that over, okay? If they looked absurd over the weekend, Scotland’s looks almost as silly today. Scotland, we read at first, was going to have everyone do a hotel quarantine: Group A right along with Group B. Now it turns out there’s a loophole. A father and daughter who flew from the U.S. by way of Ireland can quarantine at home. Because they came through Ireland. 

I’m happy for them. The child’s eight and hasn’t seen her mother in sixteen months. But it makes no sense at all. 

 

A bit of good news

Okay, I admit that this isn’t going to give us anything immediate, but long term it could help. An antiviral called EIDD-2801 (they haven’t passed that one through a focus group yet) may fight Covid in several ways: In the lab, it keeps Covid from replicating and from infecting human cells. In a mouse trial, two days of treatment reduced virus replication 25,000-fold when they gave it two days after exposure and 100,000-fold when they gave it twelve hours before and after exposure. 

They’ll be going into phase 2 and 3 trials in humans to test its safety and effectiveness in Covid patients.

How does Covid quarantine actually work?

As Britain stumbles its way into quarantining incoming travelers from–well, we’ll get to that in a  minute–this might be a good time to talk about the mechanics of quarantine. And its problems. 

Australia’s sets the world standard for Covid quarantine. Or so I’ve read.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses that I haven’t gotten around to planting. When it isn’t too cold to get them into the soil, it’s raining. When it isn’t raining, it’s too cold. What this proves is that I’m not a serious gardener. But they’re beautiful in spite of me.

Not New Zealand? Singapore? South Korea? Sorry, I don’t make the rules here. The BBC tells me Australia’s system is world class, although they put it in quotation marks, introducing a bit of doubt. For all I know, the country gave itself the award. I’d put it in quotes too but they’re expensive, especially when you consider how small they are and that you can’t just use one, you have to use two. Every damn time. 

So let’s just say Australia’s one of a handful of countries that are doing serious quarantine–including Singapore, South Korea, and New Zealand. But the information I have focuses on Australia, so Australia it is.

The country has been able to mostly eliminate the virus, in part by being ruthless in its lockdowns and in part by quarantining incomers, but the quarantine system has had a series of leaks and each one triggers a ruthless response. So far, the combination’s working.

Australia limits the number of people they allow in: It’s returning residents only, and 40,000 of them are stranded abroad, waiting to get home. Those who do get in have to quarantine for fourteen days in a hotel. 

In July, a quarantined traveler gave the virus to a guard and the country realized the system had a few gaps. Up to that point, guards were able to socialize with each other and with quarantined travelers, and at least one had sex with someone in quarantine. And guards’ schedules  moved them from one hotel to another, so any infections they picked up traveled with them. 

At first, the quarantine guards were rent-a-cops–those people employed by private security firms. I don’t know what they were paid or how much training they got, but my best guess is that the numbers on both were low. 

As for the travelers, a few left quarantine, some dramatically, some quietly. Others went shopping (what’s life worth–your own or someone else’s–if you can’t get some deodorant and a bit of alcohol?) and came back. 

That’s now been tightened up. The guards are no longer rent-a-cops. They keep their distance, wear protective gear, are tested regularly, and not only don’t move from one hotel to another but aren’t allowed to hold other jobs, so if they become infected they don’t carry the disease to another workplace.

Even so, there’s been some transmission, probably through hotel corridors, possibly (at least in one New Zealand hotel) through air conditioning systems. South Australia is looking at ways to upgrade ventilation systems. Other places may be as well.

After one breach, where a guard was infected, “They spent hours poring over CCTV footage to find out what [the] guard did wrong,” said Prof Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. “And the thing that guard did wrong was breathe air. All that person did was walk the halls, breathing the air. Right there. That should have been the clarion call that we need to do something different.”

Rooms with windows that open could be a major help, although it may be hard to find hotels that are built that way.

There’s evidence of guest-to-guest transmission by way of the hallways as well. One got infected from a family across the hall. The best guess is that they opened their doors at more or less the same time to pick up their meals. Whoosh: Air from one room flowed into the other one.

What’s kept quarantine breaches from turning into disasters is contact tracing–something Britain’s committed to bungling. 

 

So what are the British plans for quarantine? 

Ergh.

Hotel quarantine’s been in the planning stages for a while. If in fact the current government does plan. Let’s say they do, just to be nice. It’s all due to start on–oh, holy shit, it was due to start today (that’s Monday) and probably has. Somehow. I’m writing this the day before, so I disclaim all responsibility for what happens between 3 p.m. Sunday and Monday morning.

Hotel quarantine only applies to people coming from countries that scare us. Or, to be more accurate, whose germs scare us. They call it the red list, because red’s a scary color. Just ask a bull. Or J. Edgar Hoover. (Sorry–antiquated American joke and not worth explaining. If you didn’t get it, count yourself lucky.) If you came from (or through) one of the countries that scare us, you’ll be escorted to your hotel, which you had to book in advance. And pay for. And it’s not going to be cheap: £1,750 for one person. More if you add family members.

Don’t kid yourself that Australia picks up the costs of quarantine either. 

When I talk about scary countries, though, I’m not talking about xenophobia. I’m talking about countries that harbor Covid variants which aren’t already running wild in Britain. They may be here, mind you, and one definitely is, but they’re still shy. They’re leaning against the wall and waiting to see if someone will ask them to dance. 

On the other hand, if the country you’re coming from doesn’t scare us, you can go home and quarantine by your own glorious self. Because if you’re infected, you’re infected with garden-variety Covid: the kind we already have plenty of. And since you’re allegedly quarantining at home, if you wander out to buy dish soap, an onion, and a liter of vodka, no one will know. 

And no one will ask how you’re going to get home and who you’ll breathe on in the process. 

The theory behind the scary-country list is that it will let Britain keep out the most problematic of the Covid variants. And it just remotely might if we actually knew where they were, but they’re not in the habit of sending us notes: Headed to Switzerland now. Go ahead and eat without me. They just pop up around the globe, and we’re always behind the game, wondering how they got there and how long ago.

What the scary-country list will do, at its best, is keep the problematic variants down to a manageable level, at least initially. But that’s how Covid got away from us to begin with. We didn’t want all the disruption of closed borders and a long lockdown, so we went for the easy option.

You may have noticed that we haven’t kept it to a manageable level. Ah, but a country can dream, can’t it?

To keep the dream alive, countries can be added to the scary-country list with just a few hours’ notice, promoting the illusion that we can respond quickly as the situation changes. What a traveler’s supposed to do about quarantine arrangements when that happens is anyone’s guess.

Scotland is quarantining every incoming traveler in a hotel, but Scotland is still part of Britain and can’t quarantine people coming in from England, tempting as it might be.

If you have come into Britain from (or through) a scary country, while you’re in quarantine you can go outside for a few reasons, including exercise, but not unescorted. You’ll have someone following you with a huge feathery fan to brush the germs away so they can’t hurt anyone. 

An Australian epidemiologist considers it risky to let anyone leave their room for any reason. An American blogger sitting in Cornwall considers it even riskier to elect an incompetent government.

I don’t know why, but no one listens to the blogger. I don’t know how many people listen to the epidemiologist.

The British government set up a website for people to book their quarantine hotels. The site promptly crashed. And the advice page on hotel quarantine? It didn’t bother linking to the booking page. Plus last I heard, just a day or three ahead of quarantine being put into action, the Border Force didn’t have a clue what it was supposed to do once the system started. Because why would anyone bother to tell them?  

The government had published guidance for the hotels, though. Staff will wear surgical masks. In Australia, they use a mask with a higher level of protection. 

Nothing had been said about staggering meal delivery times. And whatever the plan was for testing staff (let’s be rash and assume there is one), it’s not in print yet either.

Travelers do need to have proof that they tested negative for Covid, but since no one can tell a real certificate from a fake one yet, and since people can become infected after they tested, that’s not a hell of a lot of help.

If an occupied room needs emergency maintenance, repair people are supposed to wear gear that protects against droplets. Not aerosols, which are smaller, lighter, and hang around longer. They’re known to be an important way that the virus spreads.

On the other hand, you know how it is. That kind of protection costs money. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to lose a maintenance person or two, and maybe a family member, and invite the virus variant to travel into the surrounding community with them?

Back in Australia, Professor Nancy Baxter says, “I truly believe that if you’re putting workers in harm’s way, which essentially you are, by putting them in a quarantine hotel, and exposing them to people potentially with Covid-19, that there’s a duty of care that those people have the highest possible protection from infection.”

Where Britain does provide guidance, though, is on fines. Because when you can’t set things up so that people can easily do things right, you can surely punish the hell out of them for doing it wrong. Avoiding quarantine can earn you a fine of anywhere between £5,000 and £10,000 pounds. And lying about your travel history on the new form that asks where you’ve been? That could get you 10 years in jail. 

Or a stern talking-to from the judge. It’s too early to know how seriously this stuff will be treated.

As I-don’t-remember-who has already pointed out, there’s a certain irony to Boris Johnson’s government wanting to lock people up for lying. He made his career by lying and when he was a journalist he lost jobs for it. 

The day before the system went live, unions representing airport and hotel workers were busily pointing out the flaws in the plan, including letting soon-to-be-quarantined travelers mix in the airport with staff and with no-quarantine travelers as they get off planes and wait in one enclosed space after another. It’ll be a duty-free germ exchange. 

Even a spokesperson for Heathrow Airport was complaining about “significant gaps” in the protocols. 

In the meantime, Britain’s cabinet members are pulling in two directions about summer vacations–which aren’t called vacations in Britain, they’re called holidays. The health secretary dangled the prospect of people being able to go on summer holidays within Britain. The prime minister dangled the prospect of staying the hell home. Travel companies are dangling everything they can think of and promising full refunds, eternal love, and the fountain of youth if you’re not allowed to go. 

How Covid mutates and why that might be a good thing

There’s good and bad news about the way Covid mutates, and it’s all wrapped around the same bit of information. 

Like most non-experts, I use the word mutate loosely. If something genomeish leads to change, I think it’s a mutation. Which goes to show you what I know.

Covid, it turns out, doesn’t just mutate, it also recombines, meaning it mixes large chunks of its genome, not just single genes. If a mutation’s a typo, recombination is a cut-and-paste error, dumping a largish chunk of text in the wrong place. And while the virus proofreads typos fairly well, it doesn’t catch cut-and-paste problems as effectively.

I’ve had that problem myself. I still wince at something quite horrible that I let go into print because the spelling was right and my eye didn’t pick up the change in meaning. And I’m larger and (I like to think) more complicated than a virus.

Most of those recombination errors, like most mutations, make a mess and that particular virus doesn’t get to leave little virette progeny behind. But some of them work and the virus changes.

Irrelevant photo: One of Janey’s crocuses.

Is recombination what’s happening with Covid? Possibly. The Kent variant has more than a dozen mutations and they seemed to appear all at once. Emphasis on seemed. A lot of what goes on happens in the kitchen while we’re out front cleaning the dining room. Feng Gao, a virologist from China, says we don’t yet have proof of recombination. “Diversity, no matter how much, does not mean recombination. It can well be caused by huge diversification during viral evolution.”

So let’s not get carried away with this. We’re dancing at the edges of what’s known. But (damn, that tune’s catchy, so I’ll do a few more steps) recombination may be how viruses that infect one species jump to another species: by swapping a bit of genetic code .

It’s possible that recombination means a more dangerous virus will appear–either a new one or a more dangerous form of Covid. So there’s our bad news. 

But the good news is that experiments with a mouse coronavirus show that blocking a single enzyme keeps the virus from correcting its typing errors and recombination events happen much less often. If this holds for Covid, the right drug might be able to block recombination and (or maybe that should be or) push the virus to mutate so badly that it ends up in something called error catastrophe–basically, the evolutionary equivalent of falling off a cliff. While dancing to that catchy little tune.

As a way to treat Covid, blocking the enzyme could make antiviral drugs more effective.

The enzyme goes by the name of nsp14-ExoN, which isn’t particularly catchy. If we’re going to be spending time with it, it needs a nickname. But whatever we call it, it’s common in coronaviruses, so if this works it opens up the possibility of curing other coronavirus diseases as well. 

 

Covid variants

If Britain didn’t end up with the world-beating test and trace system Boris Johnson promised us–and believe me, it didn’t–it may have come up with a world-beating strain of Covid instead: the Kent variant; the variant I mentioned that has all those mutations. Sharon Peacock, the director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium tells us it looks likely to sweep the world.

And unlike the test and trace system, we didn’t pay a penny for it.

Go Britain!

The consortium is testing the genomes on a randomly selected 5% to 10% of all positive Covid samples in the country but aims to test them all in order to keep track of how the virus is mutating.

And speaking of variants, the World Health Organization says the small trial that found the AstraZeneca vaccine to be largely ineffective against the South African variant was inconclusive. They’re not saying the vaccine’s definitely effective against it, only that it isn’t definitely ineffective. 

Which is better than nothing. 

 

Covid and Coca Cola

How much space would all the Covid viruses in the world take up if they could be packed neatly for shipping? They’d fill a Coke can

They’d also fill a can of supermarket brand fizzy orange-flavored sugar water, but Covid’s a brand-name kind of virus. Coke it is. So in the scene where someone yells, “Don’t open the can!” for pete’s sake, don’t open the can. You know what happened when Pandora didn’t listen to the warnings?

I’m not telling. But I did give you a link.

 

Spreading the virus

More than half of all Covid cases are spread by people who have no symptoms. They may be less infectious than people who are sick, but they could well make up 80% of the total number of people carrying the disease. And they’re wandering through the world shedding viruses, not lying in bed at home.

*

A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that wearing two masks can reduce the chance of getting Covid by 90% or more. Yes, not just transmitting but catching the damned thing. 

The study had its limits. It tested a tight-fitting cloth mask over a surgical mask, not two surgical masks and not two cloth ones, and it only looked at one type of cloth masks, although the world’s awash with different types just now. And as the article where I first read this put it, it also didn’t consider “men with beards or children.”

Does having children interfere with the fit of men’s masks more than women’s? Hard to say. The study didn’t test that. 

To keep everything in perspective, an engineering professor says that the only reason to wear two masks is to get a better fit. But the masks most of us wear do fit loosely, so double masking might be worthwhile, no matter who’s right.  

*

Two weeks after U.S. states introduced mask mandates (they haven’t all), the weekly growth in hospitalization rates dropped by 2.9% among people who are 40 to 64. After three weeks it dropped 5.5% among people 18 to 64.

*

Every so often, you’ll find someone saying that Covid’s no more dangerous than a bad outbreak of the flu. So do we have any figures on how much more dangerous it is? 

Yup, some. The risk of death is 3.5 times higher. That number comes from comparing people who are hospitalized with the Covid against those hospitalized with flu. It ignores whatever long- term effects Covid has on the unhospitalized, so I’d say it’s undercounting. Still, it’s a number, and numbers help. 

At least they help most people. 

Covid patients also had one and a half times greater use of the intensive care unit and one and a half times longer hospital stays. And they were more likely to need a ventilator.

In case you think Covid’s only a problem for the old and the ill, not many of the hospitalized Covid patients had other illnesses and 21% were younger than 50. People under 50 made up 24% of the intensive care admissions.

As far as I can see, that doesn’t address the problem of how easily Covid spreads compared to flu. It only compares hospitalized patients.

*

Worldwide, the number of reported Covid cases is down for the fourth week in a row. Take a deep breath. The drop is uneven, it doesn’t count unreported cases, and we forgot to get a guarantee that it won’t go back up, but we have to take our good news where we can get it. This is good news.

 

Is there any news on curing the thing?

In a small study, a common asthma treatment, budesonide, cut the need for hospitalization and urgent care by 90%, and people who took it within seven days of showing symptoms recovered more quickly than the control group. Better yet, it cut the number of people with symptoms that lingered after twenty-eight days. 

As usual, it was a small study–146 people–so it’s preliminary, but budesonide is a well-known and well-studied drug, which would speed the process if it’s adopted.

*

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a combination of two monoclonal antibodies that can keep high-risk patients from developing Covid that’s severe enough to hospitalize them. A similar drug had already been approved. Both take Covid antibodies and synthesize them so they can be given to patients as a drip. 

And it’s that drip business that’s causing trouble. Initially, getting them from vial (or whatever they come in) into human took an hour. It can now be done in sixteen minutes. But some hospitals have been so overwhelmed they haven’t had time to deal with it. 

*

A team of researchers in China has identified six drugs that the FDA has already approved for other uses that could be repurposed to treat Covid. They whittled that down from 3,769. They still need to be tested in the real world, but already having FDA approval for other purposes means that if they work they could be put to use quickly.

After that, the article went over my head, but it has to do with proteases and substrates, not to mention clades. Have fun.

 

Your feelgood story

New York software developer Huge Ma tried to make his mother a Covid vaccination appointment and discovered that not only did the city and state have different systems that weren’t talking to each other but that there were dozens of separate websites, each one demanding that you sign up a different way.

So he took a couple of weeks and made a free website, TurboVax, that compiles information from the three main city and state sites and sends information on available appointments to Twitter.

It cost him $50 to make.

The difficulty of booking an appointment is one reason–although far from the only one–that vaccines are going disproportionately to white New Yorkers. 

“It’s sort of become a challenge to myself, to prove what one person with time and a little motivation can do,” he said. “This wasn’t a priority for governments, which was unfortunate. But everyone has a role to play in the pandemic, and I’m just doing the very little that I can to make it a little bit easier.”

Cornish history: the Prayerbook Rebellion

The Prayerbook Rebellion started when Henry decided to divorce Katherine.

Yeah, that Henry. Isn’t it odd how we’re on first-name terms with people who wouldn’t have known us from the dirt under their feet?

By way of full disclosure, I set the start date a little early, just for context, so nothing happened for the first few years. Then in 1534 Henry founded the Church of England, with himself as its head. And–no one could’ve been more surprised than him–it decided to grant him his divorce, which the Catholic Church was being very crabby about.

Irrelevant photo: Camellia blossoms. 

 

Henry the Much-Married starts the ball rolling downhill

The reconfiguration of the church took on a logic of its own, and starting in 1536 Henry closed religious centers–monasteries, hospitals, nunneries, abbeys. Some of them served a purpose in their communities–as schools and hospitals. The confiscated land and the buildings went to the crown and a lot of it was sold off to the wealthy. Who else had that kind of money? 

We’ll get to Cornwall any minute here. I promise.

In 1537, Henry banned the feasts on saints’ days. That included St. Piran’s Day, which is where I finally get Cornwall into the picture. St. Piran is Cornwall’s patron saint, and at this point we have a reaction on record: A fisherman from St. Keverne planned a protest and was arrested and probably executed. In Truro–Cornwall’s capital–a customs officer tried to stop a ship carrying people to Brittany to celebrate some unspecified saint’s day. He was pushed into the sea. The story seems to drop out of history there but let’s assume the ship got away and the people came back later and lived happily ever after.

The next year, pilgrimages were banned. 

You get a sense of how life was changing, right? Anne Bolyn, who Henry divorced Katherine for, had been dead by Henry’s executioner’s hand for two years by now. I mention that as a reminder of how far all this had wandered from where it started.

Along with the ban on pilgrimages came a directive that churches had to use an English-language translation of the bible. When I first heard about that–this was, oh, maybe a hundred years ago–I thought it meant people could understand the book they considered holy. The problem was, English wasn’t Cornwall’s language. Cornish was. 

It didn’t go down well. So let’s talk about the ways Cornwall was both a part of England and not English.

 

Cornwall as a country and a county

Cornwall was governed by England at this point, and it had been for a long time. Technically speaking, it was just another English county.  But it also had a distinctive culture: Not just its own language, but its own style of dress, folklore, naming customs, agricultural practices, and games and pastimes.”

High on the list of games and pastimes was pushing customs officers into the sea.

Cornwall also had two distinctive administrative institutions, the Stannary organisation, which oversaw tin mining, and  the Duchy of Cornwall. We won’t stop to make sense of those; we’ll just take it on faith they underlined its sense of separation.

Writers of the time–and well into the next century–wrote about the Cornish as a separate people, as distinct and recognizable as the Welsh, and about Cornwall as almost a separate country.

So that’s what we get to plunk onto the separate-country side of the scales. On the English-county side was an English gentry, which England had long since imposed on Cornwall, and the gradual inward seep of the English language. 

It might not have looked that way at the time, but from our point of view we can see the Cornish language in a slow retreat from the Devon border down toward the tip of Cornwall’s foot. 

Why’d that happen? The English gentry spoke English, although they may (or may not–I don’t know) have spoken Cornish as well. That made it useful to know enough English to do business with them, to work for them, to mix with them in whatever other ways the non-gentry mixed with the gentry. To people who cared about refinement, the fact that the gentry spoke English would’ve made English seem like the language of refinement. 

Cornwall’s ports would also have been full of the English language and the people who spoke it. This was a time when it was easier to get from, say, London by sea than by road.

 

All hell breaks (slowly) loose

In 1547, colleges, hospitals, chapels, and guilds were closed, and no provision was made for anyone else to fill the roles they’d played in caring for the sick and educating–well, some small number of kids, but still it mattered to the ones who might’ve been able to take advantage of it, leaving a very practical gap. The next year, an English official was stabbed when he tried to take down an image in a parish church. 

That makes it sound like a sudden thing. It wasn’t. The conflict had rocked back and forth for months, but we don’t do detail here at Notes. Twenty-eight Cornishmen were arrested and ten were executed for it. 

Then in 1549, Edward VI–or at least his government, since he’d have been somewhere in the neighborhood of eleven–introduced the Book of Common Prayer. Which was in English. And it insisted that church services follow it. That demand’s called the Act of Uniformity, in case that rings any bells from your long-buried memory of history classes.

Straw.

Camel.

Back.

For all that Cornish was in retreat, it was still Cornwall’s language, and for many people it was their only language. This wasn’t bringing the church’s language closer to them, it was moving it further away. 

Nationalism, meet outraged religious beliefs. You’ll find you have a lot to talk about.

Three thousand men gathered outside Bodmin–the geographical center of Cornwall, in case that’s of any relevance, which I suspect it isn’t–and drew up a set of complaints. They chose a leader, Humphrey Arundell, who was one of the richest and most powerful men in Cornwall and from an aristocratic English Catholic family. 

Was he Cornish or English? These days, the only way to figure out who’s Cornish and who isn’t is by how many generations of ancestors a person has buried in Cornish soil. I’ve been told four. I’ve also been told two. Either way, I’m too late. Whether either of those was the standard then, when Cornish identity was more sharply defined, I don’t know. I know Arundell was born in Cornwall and that he had family in England. He could as easily have been moved by religious belief as by nationalism. 

Either this set of complaints of a later one (sorry–the quotes have all gone adrift) said, “We will not receive the newe service because it is but lyke a Christmas game, and so we the Cornyshe men (wherof certen of us understande no Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe Englysh.” 

Half the church’s confiscated land was to be returned.

The complaints were sent to the government, which shrugged its shoulders and ignored them, convinced everyone would settle down as soon as it was time for Coronation Street to come on.

Then, in the random way that these things tend to happen, a rebellion broke out in Devon, the neighboring county: A congregation forced its priest to conduct the service in Latin, and in case that wasn’t enough, a supporter of the book of Common Prayer was killed. Somehow or other things escalated and the next thing anyone knew (okay: the next thing I knew) an army was marching on Exeter, Devon’s capital. 

You know how things can get out of hand, right? One day you’re killing someone over a prayer book and before you know you’ve got a whole damn army and you’re marching on the capital, thinking, How’d I get here? Do I really want to do this? Did someone think to bring sandwiches?

Arundell hadn’t wanted a fight, but the snowball was rolling downhill too fast. His army started off toward London. His plan was to talk to the government, with a few thousand soldiers at his back to serve as a megaphone, but on the way it took Trematon Castle, where some members of the gentry had holed up, and Plymouth. It also took St Michael’s Mount, which is in the wrong direction. This tells us that sat-navs (what Americans would soon learn to call GPSs) were no different then than they are now.  

Plymouth, by the way, isn’t in Cornwall, it’s in Devon, a change that’s marked by the River Tamar, which is wide enough at that point that you’d be hard put not to notice it. It’s also very wet, both there and along its entire length. But like I said, snowball; downhill; and melting gently in the Tamar’s waters. Who’s going to argue about county borders when all that’s going on?

 

Across the Tamar

At roughly this point, the Cornish and Devon armies joined together and laid siege to Exeter for five weeks, and they would have blown up the city walls but their gunpowder was too wet. That’s the English weather for you. 

The Cornish weather’s no better.

In London, the news that a Cornish army was marching on London caused a panic. Bridges were pulled down. Plays were banned–they might turn people against the government. France rubbed its hands and declared war.

The government sent soldiers to defend Exeter.

The leaders of the Cornish on Devonian armies wrote the government again, saying essentially the same thing: “We will have our old service of matins, mass, evensong and procession in Latin as it was before.”

This time the government wrote back. Three times, in fact, all of them saying no. In a long-winded, oddly spelled sort of way.

Several battles were fought, and I won’t drag you through them. The English army was bigger and the Cornish and Devonians lost. In one battle so many were captured that the English were afraid they’d lose control of them and slaughtered them instead. 

In the final battle, 1,400 were killed and the survivors fled. Arundell went into hiding and was captured (his servant turned out to have been working for the English). He was taken to London and with other leaders of the rebellion was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Which kind of makes getting slaughtered en masse by the people who captured you look almost good. 

His lands were also confiscated and given to the leader of the English army that had defeated him. He was past doing anything with them by then, but it meant his family lost out. 

All told, some three thousand to four thousand Westcountry men were killed, including some priests and mayors hanged after the rebellion was over. According to one source, hundreds may have been killed for taking part–including many who may not have had anything to do with the uprising. 

 

The aftermath

The Cornish language went into a sharper decline after this, and although the Book of Common Prayer was translated into Welsh, it was never translated into Cornish.

Mind you, I’m not sure how welcome the translation was in Wales.

Stained glass windows were broken out of Cornish churches and images with any scent of Catholicism were destroyed, as they were elsewhere in England. 

Maps stopped showing Cornwall as a separate nation, and by 1700 you don’t find anyone writing about it as almost a separate country.

Ironically, the defeat of the rebellion, which was against the king’s new religion, set Cornwall up to support the king during the Civil War. The king was seen as British and the Parliamentary Army was seen as English. I suspect you had to be there at the time for that to make sense. The Parliamentary Army was also far more Protestantly Protestant than the king’s. I don’t know how heavily that weighed on the scales, but I assume it mattered.

When the king was defeated, it was another whack on the head for Cornwall’s status as an almost-country of its own.