Is it safe to lift Covid restrictions?

The latest Covid statistics from Britain are both cheering and worrying, although they’re starting to tip toward worrying. 

Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

On May 12, the country had only 11 Covid deaths and 2,284 cases. Compare that to January 22, when 1,401 people died of Covid and January 8, when the country had 68,053 cases. (Deaths peak a bit later than cases, which is why I seem to be cheating here.)

Some 67% of the British population is at least partially vaccinated. 

That’s the cheery part. So why don’t I just shut up and celebrate?

Blame those pesky experts. Also the pesky data they work with. And more to the point, blame the government–I’d think something was missing from my day if I didn’t–which dithered about whether to quarantine travelers coming in from India and about changing its let’s-all-proclaim-lockdown-over-and-be-happy plans.

 

Irrelevant photo: Ornamental cherry blossoms. We tried growing non-ornamental cherries. The birds didn’t even bother to say thanks.

Stephen Reicher, from Sage, the government’s science advisory group, is warning that the government has to be prepared to not to “dither and delay as in the past” if it turns out that one of the Indian variants has figured out how to sidestep the vaccines. He talks about acting hard and fast, which–well, unless the government gets a politico-personality transplant, isn’t in the cards.

Three of the Indian variants are known to be in the U.K., and one of them in particular is keeping the scientists up at night. It’s called B.1.617.2 by people who can remember that it’s called that, and in a week the number of cases showing its profile doubled in Britain. 

Sorry, It didn’t double, it more than doubled, although we’re not talking about a big block of people yet. A few days back, it was 520. What’s worrying is that it could be more transmissible than the Kent strain of the virus, which is the one that used to keep scientists up at night. Possibly as much as 50% more transmissible.

To some scientists, the tea leaves are looking frighteningly similar to the ones they saw before the Kent variant caused a surge in December of last year.

Come Monday, pubs and restaurants will get the okay to serve people indoors, and indoors among maskless people is exactly where the Covid virus likes to come out and play. So that adds to the worry.

Other restrictions are on a let’s-get-rid-of-these-soon list, including working from home if at all possible. And the travel industry’s been pushing hard to get people going on vacations again. Or on holiday if you speak British.

The new system to allow overseas travel involves traffic lights. Red, yellow, green–all those soothingly familiar colors. Arrive from a red-light country and you go into the kind of hotel quarantine that signals We’re Serious about This. Right after you mixed in the airport with people coming from green-light countries, who get to take a test and go home. 

What’s on the test? Three math questions, one logic question that the government will get wrong, and the old standby, Who was buried in Grant’s tomb? (The answer’s below.)

Any virus that violates the rules will pay a fine. 

Assorted scientists are warning that viruses don’t play by the rules and that it’s very hard to collect fines from them. 

Will the government back away from the planned reopenings? It’s dithering. 

The assumptions behind this are: 1. that 72% of the population will be vaccinated by August or will be protected by having recovered from Covid. 2. that most of the deaths will occur in people who’ve been vaccinated, since although the vaccines are startlingly effective none of them gives 100% immunity–not even against hospitalizations and deaths, although early reports said they did. No one’s to blame there. We’re learning as we go, every last weary one of us.

 

Controlling the variant

One way that Britain’s hoping to keep control of the variant is by intensifying the vaccination programs in areas where clusters are found. I have no argument with vaccinating more people, but there’s a two-week delay between vaccination and a decent level of protection, this isn’t an immediate solution.

On top of that, although the vaccines provide a much greater level of protection than we had any right to expect, they’re not like having your big sister or brother ride the school bus with you. In other words, they don’t give you 100% protection against either bullies or Covid. And when we’re talking about numbers as large as, say, the population of a country, a 2% gap in the protection can end up affecting a lot of people. 

So even though we don’t have any indication yet that B.whatever-whatever can run faster than the vaccines, its transmissibility alone means it’s dangerous. 

Modelers are warning about the possibility of a third wave of infections that could be larger than last January’s. If, that is, the new variant’s as transmissible as they fear.

Am I worried? I’m not losing sleep, but I wouldn’t advise anyone I love to start a travel business right now. Or to eat indoors at a cafe or pub. Because there’s no way to eat or drink without taking that damn mask off, and busy as scientists have been since the pandemic hit, they haven’t sunk their teeth into a solution to that problem.

 

WHO weighs in on a related topic

The World Health Organization has warned that vaccinations are “life-saving, but on their own, they are not enough.” 

That’s in response to the US’s optimistic and (I think) mistaken decision that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks in many indoor settings. 

According to WHO’s Mike Ryan, “Relaxing measures and taking away mask mandates should only be done in the context of considering both the intensity and transmission in your area, and the level of vaccination coverage.

“Even in situations where you have high vaccine coverage, if you’ve got a lot of transmission, then you wouldn’t take your mask off.”

 

Collapsing the curve or watching it skyrocket

Almost from the beginning of the pandemic we heard the phrase flattening the curve. It was one of those word clusters–a bit like herd immunity–that we came to think we understood because we’d heard so often. Or read it.

Well, a new approach to modeling the epidemic says that if you make enough changes at a crucial stage, the curve doesn’t flatten, it collapses. In other words, you get to lace on your big muddy boots and stomp the little bastard. 

And if you miss that crucial time? 

Um, yeah. You have a massive damn outbreak on your hands. Or feet, if we want to hang in there with the boots metaphor. 

The most interesting thing is that the modelers couldn’t come up with a scenario that put the results anywhere between those two extremes.

One of the most powerful ways to control an epidemic is to test known contacts of infected people (which of course means finding them first and quarantine them if they test positive). But there’s a limit to how many people you can trace and test every day. If the number of cases goes past that limit, the disease spreads and congratulations, you’ve just lost control of your epidemic.

The key is to act early and decisively. (See above, Mr. Johnson.)

“A policy that would have worked yesterday will not only take much longer to take effect, but it may fail entirely if it is implemented a single day too late.” Björn Hof, the central mind behind the modeling, said: “Most European countries only reacted when health capacity limits became threatened. Actually, policy makers should have paid attention to their contact tracing teams and locked down before this protective shield fell apart.”

What Hof didn’t say but what seems to be implied here is that Britain’s strategy of lifting restrictions anytime the virus settles down to a less threatening level is self-defeating and leads to another spike later on. 

 

 

All right, gloomy guts, how about some good news?

Okay. In animal trials, a nasal spray vaccine has created sterilizing immunity. That’s the kind of immunity that (in words of one syllable) could wipe this bug from the face of the earth–or at least from your lungs. It would stop you from getting Covid and it would stop you from giving it to someone else. 

The current vaccines can’t go that far. They minimize the risk, and with it they minimize transmission, but they don’t eliminate it.

The vaccine needs only one dose, you don’t have to look away while someone pokes a needle into your arm, and it doesn’t have to be transported at temperatures so cold that sound freezes from the air and thoughts shatter. You probably wouldn’t want to deep fry it, but you don’t need to refrigerate it either. 

But it’s still got a series of trials to go through before we can get our mitts on it. Keep your eye on this one, though. It sounds promising.

*

A cheap Covid test is being developed that reports back in four minutes and is 90% accurate. 

This one can work with either a nasal swab or a saliva sample and it’s actually a bit more accurate with saliva samples, meaning people could stop sticking thin objects up their noses. 

Didn’t our mothers all warn us not to stick things up our noses? Do you have any idea what we’re messing with, using swabs to test ourselves?

It can also spot infections in the early stages, which is important since that’s when they’re most contagious.

Have I written about this one before? I’ve lost track. It seems like some fast, accurate test is always in development. And then we hear nothing more about it. I’m hoping we’ll hear more about this one.

 

So who is buried in Grant’s tomb?

Grant is buried in Grant’s tomb. (That’s Ulysses S., Union general during the Civil War and later president.) 

When I was a kid, some hundred or so years ago, we used to ask each other this. Repeatedly. Maybe we thought the answer would’ve changed. I don’t know if kids in New York still do it. Grant’s tomb is along the Hudson River, begging for kids to use it as the base of stupid questions. 

I haven’t tried the question on anyone in a British airport. I probably should. 

64 thoughts on “Is it safe to lift Covid restrictions?

  1. Right! I shall consider the possibility that it may be someone other USG in that tomb. That should tie up a few minutes.
    Then I’ll give cherries a thought. Probably not many thoughts as I’ve never had a fruiting cherry.
    Covid? Well, the only sensible thought I’ve proffered since this whole shebang kicked off is that politicians should not make decisions on matters in which they have no expertise.
    I’ve proffered quite a few thoughts on similar matters over the years so I’ll leave your page to others who want to weigh -in.
    .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your advice on politicians and experts is–well, it’s expert. If the pandemic response had been led by experts, we might all have avoided a pandemic. Which would’ve been really nice.

      As for cherries, a former neighbor had a cherry tree that the birds loved. She used to hang clothes from the branches, on hangers, in an effort to scare them away. You can imagine how impressed they were, especially since the clothes were on neighbor level and the cherries and birds were on bird-and-cherry level.

      She was, in several other ways as well, pretty crazy. I’ll leave cherry growing, like public health, to the experts.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Results in four minutes? Wow, that’s awesome.

    And 67% seems encouraging, so you can start relaxing….soon. I hope.
    Here, it’s about 20% and yesterday everything was open all of a sudden, restaurants were full, museums and alike, like you wouldn’t believe. I haven’t noticed anyone worrying, though. Everyone just wants you to show them negative tests so we can go on with our lives…kinda of. Now how stupid is that!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m about 10 miles from Bolton, so I know all about the Indian variant. But a tenth of restaurants have closed down since the pandemic began, and that’s just one of the economic sectors affected. This reopening hasn’t been rushed: lockdown started at the beginning of December, and indoor seating at restaurants here has been closed since October. Do we keep everything closed for ever? There’s been more than one report recently of people taking their own lives because they can’t cope with the loneliness and the financial worries any more. I haven’t got the answers, but the scientists seem to want everyone locked down permanently, and it just can’t be done. There’ll be nothing left. As far as the Indian variant goes, most of the infections are amongst schoolchildren, and the hospitalisations are amongst people who are eligible for vaccination but haven’t had the vaccination, which is very frustrating. Please, everyone, get vaccinated!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely agreed on the get vaccinated advice. On lockdowns–I wish I knew an answer. They seem to work best when they’re short and absolute, which is the opposite of what we’ve been doing. The middle ground doesn’t seem like a useful place to be with Covid.

      Opening up indoor eating and drinking (and not requiring masks in schools) strikes me as begging the disease to spread. We talk about kids as if they’re immune, but although they at less risk, they do run a risk, especially of long Covid.

      Like

      • Bolton’s been under additional restrictions since last July. The authorities in Blackpool are saying that it’ll take at least 5 years for their economy to come back from this, even if there are no more restrictions. We can’t take any more. But I don’t see why people can’t keep wearing masks in schools – masks are the least of the inconveniences.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The CDC guidelines in the US do not take into account many things like politics, liars, deniers, and idiots! They say if you are fully vaccinated you can practically go back to normal nonmask wearing except for crowded transport. But how do you know the idiot not wearing a mask next to you is fully vaccinated? What happens if the liers are infected and continue to spread the virus to the other liers in the room thus risking another outbreak or worse the virus mutating into a virus-resistant form. Does the CDC actually think that people will actually do what they recommend?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As much as I look forward to not wearing a mask, I still am wearing one indoors.
    My guess is, since vaccinated people don’t glow brighter than non-v’d, the non-v’d will tear off the masks and run through those interior spaces. I rode a train last week. MAsks are still required there until September 13th. I wouldn’t say it was crowded, but you still bunch up when entering and exiting. If you wait to avoid bunching, you simultaneously avoid riding the train.

    I hope you have a good week. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As an official Big Sister Bus Rider Protector, I agree with this statement 100% … “they’re not like having your big sister or brother ride the school bus with you.”…
    Lately, anytime I hear the word ‘Covid’, I feel like Charlie Brown when his teacher is talking, “Wah, wawa, wah wah.” “What’s that?” oh, ok. And I just keep wearing my mask, washing my hands, and continue my hermit status (with the husband) which I enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Minnesota just lifted its mask mandate, but we’ve been awash in stories of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers for the last year. There’s no vaccine against people all-out, completely, and utterly sucking. I’ll be masking the very few times I’ll be indoors with strangers and will continue my pandemic quarantine, because I’m an introvert and it suits me.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. A better question is “Who’s in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?” And all I want is my second shot of AZ but our stupid government here has decided not to give anymore of that out, leaving many of us in limbo.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. >When I was a kid, some hundred or so years ago, we used to ask each other [who is buried in Grant’s tomb].

    I wonder, does this come from Groucho Marx’s use of it as a bonus question on You Bet Your Life, or did it predate him?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think you need to be updated on the latest vaccine conspiracies here. Firstly, the vaccine makes you magnetic. If you put a piece of metal on your injection site after getting it, metal will stick to you. Unfortunately mine seems to have worn off for some reason. Secondly if you hold a mobile phone next to your injection site, it will emit a whine as the vaccine trackers giving the government your location are sending your coordinates. Thirdly, a politician I can’t remember who said getting the vaccine turns people into “potted plants.” I cannot verify this one anywhere except at garden centers.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Mrs. Grant (the former Julia Dent) is there too.

    I think (noting Greg-in-Washington) some of the conspiracy promoters have IQs commensurate with potted plants. It also makes you sterile (if only…) The fact that the police (among others) can track your cell phone signals to find you – put you at the scene of a crime, etc already seems to have escaped their notice.
    The US’s largest nurses association came out against the CDC’s recommendations. I plan to continue to wear a mask while shopping, etc. (the stores can still require masks) When I’m outside I’m wandering around my own yard, with only birds, cats, possums, etc. (I don’t count walking from the car to the grocery as “outdoors.”)
    “Safe and sane” used to be thing, remember ? Try to keep up…

    Liked by 2 people

  12. We are taking it slow. I read an article on BBC website what the experts will or will not be doing as lockdown eases. Then I read two articles ( different) about how Heathrow is mixing those passengers from red countries with green , no social distancing whilst waiting for immigration.

    Boris, Boris. Did you ever shut Travel down? How many mistakes does he make. I read another article how Australia repatriated 80 out of 150 Australian from India The other 70 tested positive they weren’t allowed in. It is very harsh. I know.
    But it us what is keeping them safe.

    I don’t know what to say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The decision not to repatriate is harsh, but then so is unleashing a more virulent variant in a country that has the disease under control. It’s that thing, I think, about being able to imagine the plight of one person, or 70, but having trouble imagining the plight of an entire country.

      As for Johnson, he doesn’t seem capable of getting this right. He makes noise about the danger of a new variant, then goes ahead and invites everyone indoors, maskless, to eat and drink–not to mention putting people from red and green countries together in a cocktail mixer and shaking until they blend. Talk about self-defeating.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. So I am an expat living in the south of Germany and I am considered very high risk, but only finally got my first vaccination last week. Our vaccination campaign appears to have gone somewhat adrift. Firstly it’s slow. And secondly they kept changing priority and strategies.
    So at first there were a mere 49 vaccination centres for the whole country (80+ million population). Eventually, once they’d sorted out all of the bureaucracy, they finally permitted GP’s to vaccinate, only to then start halving the numbers of vaccines given to the centres although the appointments were already booked.
    In our state you had to completely lose your mind to get through to the said vaccination centre to make an appointment (people lost whole days of work, redialing and clicking) and then, potentially your appointment could just be cancelled. Poof! Just like that.
    Last week, despite the prioritized people still not having all been vaccinated, they decided to open the doors and everyone (apart from those under 16) who wanted a vaccination could apply for one. Since April 1st no one can call their GP as the line is constantly engaged. People who managed to get a vaccine elsewhere also can’t get through to GP’s and cancel their vaccination as, you got it, the line is continuously busy.
    But things are opening up all over the place. Not in my region as the numbers are still really high. We’ve been in a continuous lockdown since November. But in many other parts of Germany.
    The good thing is that the government says we have to wear medical masks indoors, on transport, and in busy outdoor areas. School kids also have to wear medical masks. And they haven’t changed their minds on that.

    The Indian variant is worrying – especially as I read on the BBC that some people were very ill from it in a care home (some even hospitalized) although they had already been vaccinated. However, they didn’t state whether they’d only been vaccinated once.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a mess. The vaccination program is the one thing the British government’s gotten (mostly) right, since they let the National Health Service handle it instead of following their normal pattern of paying a lot of money to some outfit that would screw it up.

      The Indian variant: So much isn’t known. Also on the BBC news, I heard someone talking about the possibility that it wasn’t in itself more transmissible but that social conditions meant that it spread: The people who brought it home brought it to multi-generational families, where it could spread easily. But it’s all guesswork–at best, educated guesswork; at worst, just plain old guesswork–at this point. I’m glad you’ve gotten the first shot. Some protection’s a lot better than none.

      May all our countries not open things up too early.

      Liked by 1 person

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