By the numbers: how to help Covid outrun the vaccines

In Europe, a group of experts who model disease spread plugged as assortment of variables into their computers–things like vaccination, transmission, and mutation rates–and asked about the odds, under various conditions, of the virus mutating into something that would escape the vaccines.

It turns out that that highest risk comes when a large proportion of the population has been vaccinated but when it’s still not a high enough proportion to create herd immunity. In other words, exactly the situation in Europe right now. And in the US. 

Britain has a higher percentage of vaccinated adults, but I think I could safely add “and Britain” to that paragraph.

This sounds counter-intuitive, but when a large proportion of the population’s been vaccinated, a vaccine-resistant strain of the virus will have an advantage. So what countries need to do at that stage is control the spread.

Irrelevant photo: The north Cornish coast

“Of course we hope that vaccine-resistance does not evolve over the course of this pandemic, but we urge caution,” one of the study’s co-authors said. “Evolution is a very powerful force and maintaining some reasonable precautions throughout the whole vaccination period may actually be a good tool to control this evolution.”

I mention that just in case anybody’s listening. In Britain, they’re  not. Masks are now optional in most situations, although many people are still wearing them. (Thanks, folks. You’re wonderful.) Nightclubs are reopening. (Thanks, Boris. You’re a fool.) Vaccinated people wearing blue, who say please and thank you, and who come into the country from Covid-safe countries or from countries that might or might not be Covid-safe no longer have to go into isolation, never mind quarantine. 

Why? Because the government’s thrown up its hands and said, “This is making us confused and we’re not going to bother anymore.”

So yes, we’re being perfectly sensible here. Wish us luck.

Thank you.


Breakthrough infections and the Delta variant

When vaccinated people get infected with the Delta variant, as some small percentage of them will inevitably, they’re very likely to get mild or asymptomatic cases of Covid, but that doesn’t tell us whether they’ll be as infectious as an unvaccinated person who gets infected. 

Stop the presses, though. For the first time, we have a gesture toward a move in the direction of an answer: They will have as high a viral load as an unvaccinated person. That seems to mean that they’re every bit as likely to transmit the virus, although no one seems willing to say that without a plugging in some sort of word that creates wiggle room in the sentence.. 

As the US Centers for Disease Control director put it, they “have the potential to spread the virus to others.”

That’s a large part of the reason that the CDC reversed its throw-away-your-mask-if-you’re-vaccinated policy and now recommends masks for all students, teachers, visitors, and school staff when they’re indoors. And all includes people who’ve been vaccinated. 

The CDC also recommends masks in indoor public places in parts of the country that have had at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week. That’s something like 60% of the counties in the US. 

And it says that vaccinated people should be tested for Covid after they come into contact with an infected person. Even if they don’t develop symptoms. 

In a couple of months, we may get definitive news on just how infectious fully vaccinated people who have mild or symptomless Covid are. In the meantime, we’ll have to go with seems and as high a viral load. Common sense might indicate caution.


Covid and public policy

A paper from the Commission for Pandemic Research of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft–a group whose name is almost as long as the paper itself–makes a heroic effort to talk sense to people (and more to the point, governments) who are still recommending hand washing to combat the spread of Covid. 

Okay, that interpretation is strictly my own. What the article I stole this information from says is that they “aim to contribute to establishing a reliable information base that is broadly coordinated among specialists as well as offering concrete advice on how to guard against infection.” 

So to be objective and reliable and not at all snarky about this, they’re aiming to contribute to establishing a coordinated effort to offer the world an extended string of verbs with the intervention of a few nouns. And they’re damn good at it. 

The article’s headline is an even better source of fun: “Prevention of coronavirus infection spread through aerosols.” I spent an unconscionable amount of time wondering how to spread the prevention of infection before I worked out that prevention isn’t being spread; spread has taken a part-time job as a noun.

To be fair, the committee with the long name probably didn’t write the headline.

Are you following any of this? I’ll get to the information any minute now.

For all its oddity, the headline doesn’t approach the genius of a newspaper headline published during the Falklands War that said, “British left waffles on Falkland Islands.” I had a carton of maple syrup all packed up and ready to send to the Falklands before I realized that left was the noun (political leftists, presumably in Parliament) and waffles the verb. 

Maybe this is only funny if you’ve worked as an editor.

But to go back to our article: It breaks infections into two categories, direct and indirect. 

Direct infection happens when one generous soul is close to someone else and passes the virus on to them. That usually happens indoors. 

Indirect infection happens when infectious aerosols accumulate indoors. The first person–the one with the virus–doesn’t have to stay in the room to make sure the second person breathes the germs in. If they’ve spent time in the room, exhaling, when they leave, unless the room’s well ventilated, their germs will not follow them out.They’ll stay there, available for the second person to inhale and take home.

And all of this is free. Just imagine! No one has to pay a red cent for it.

Indirect infections are what make it pretty much pointless when people put on their masks only when another person comes into the room, the shop, the wherever. They’ve been in there breathing. They can’t unbreathe those aerosols. 

Indirect infection is somewhere between hard and impossible to accomplish outdoors, although direct infection is possible if the people are in close enough contact for a longish time. So if you’re spending time in a bus shelter, at a demonstration, at a football game, or in a brawl, you might want to wear a mask, even though you’re outdoors. And you might want to ask the people you’re brawling with to also wear masks. 

In closed rooms, though, they (that’s the experts, not the people in the brawl) suggest using–well, pretty much every breath-related protective measure you can think of: avoiding contact, keeping a distance, wearing masks, using protective panels, and ventilating the hell out of the room.

Yes, “ventilating the hell out of” is a thoroughly scientific term. It means opening windows and using permanent ventilation systems as well as mobile air purifiers.  

“Only regulations that are as consistent and uniform as possible guarantee a high level of safety with as few restrictions as possible,” the article says, paraphrasing the experts, something that becomes necessary when the nouns and verbs grow exhausted from holding down two jobs. 

I’d love to think that the world’s governments will get their heads around the idea that consistent regulation is the way to live (relatively) safely with Covid, and that ventilation and masks are essential parts of that. But then I’d love to think all kinds of things, including that our problematic species will still be around in, oh, say seven generations, and that it will have gained some wisdom. Those aren’t impossible, but I’m unable at this time to issue the money-back guarantee that we inadvertently advertised. 

62 thoughts on “By the numbers: how to help Covid outrun the vaccines

  1. Since my son is 11 and unvaccinated, I am now taking more precautions like wearing a mask outside when people are near me. I also wear a mask in the hall of our building and elevator even if no one else is there as well as wearing a mask in all inside places even though I am fully vaccinated.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. We are swiftly headed in the wrong direction in my local area. Back in June, we were doing so well that we were down at the green risk level. We have a higher than average vaccination rate here and most people were complying with mitigation efforts. Even I went into a grocery store unmasked twice (I always go early in the morning so there were few other customers). Then very quickly we started clambering through the other colours of risk levels and we are currently at very high risk. Whereas a few weeks ago I had been in the minority as a mask wearer in stores, I observed yesterday that every customer bar one was wearing a mask. Our school district has also switched up its plans for September, how saying that all staff and students will need to be masked regardless of vaccination status. I am relieved. My kids didn’t want to be the only ones wearing masks in school. Other than those two times I went into the store without a mask, we have continued to be pretty cautious. We still only socialize with (vaccinated) friends outdoors and we are still avoiding indoor activities for now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fortunately, nothing much has changed around here. But I am people watching and my hand is hovering over the button to purchase some medical grade masks now that I can’t rely on others to wear one to protect me, even though I’m offering the courtesy of protecting them. But, as you say, where selfish & stupid governments lead…

    Thank you for the “British left waffles on Falkland Islands” headline – it provided a much needed laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Just returned from a four-day camping trip in Yosemite National Park which was very crowded, especially at Yosemite Falls. I felt much safer from the bears that just want your food if you leave it out of the bear box than I did from the multitudes of unmasked people crowding the trails and facilities. Masks were required of everyone indoors but the sheer number of hungry visitors at the lodge and caffeine-seeking folks at Starbucks was intimidating. Some plastic fencing at the base of Yosemite Falls intended to keep people from clambering over the rocks was trampled and at least 100 people were all over those rocks like ants on spilled sugar. There was a sign explaining that the park didn’t want to expose their rescue people to covid when rescuing people off the rocks. No matter. Eager visitors ignored the sign. Glacier Point was great because wind, lightning and hail cleared the air before we ventured out of the car and, thankfully, most people fled when the skies opened up. Bonus: we Californians don’t see much rain, let alone hail, so we were happy to sit through that entertaining storm. On my way back to the coast, I tried to make a bathroom stop at an In-n-Out burger place. 104 F with a line of hungry, mostly unmasked folks cheek by jowl out the door onto the hellishly hot patio with the doors held wide open. No thanks! Got right back into the car and just suffered with a full bladder for another 80 minutes to home in 75 F San Luis Obispo. This was my first excursion out among the public since February, 2020. Your post reflects what I learned on this trip. I must personally go back to consistent mask wearing, stay home as much as possible, banish any thought of a mask-free future, and trust only info and directives from highly qualified scientists. Exhausting but necessary. It would be horrifying to find that I was the one who incubated a deadly mutation. The other awful lesson of this trip was seeing the damage done to the forests by climate change, bark beetles, super hot fires and drought. Aarrgghh.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My mind seems to be able to take in only one worldwide disaster at a time, although we’ve got easily three going on (I’m adding the refugee crisis). Maybe more. I’m stuck on Covid. I know any number of people who are traveling here and there. They shock the hell out of me, for all the reasons you mention. In the meantime, half of Britain’s come to Cornwall because international travel’s too dicey. It’s not as crowded as you describe, but the shops, the cafes–yeah.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is crazy stressful in any tourist spot like Cornwall, Yosemite or where I live. As I walked the trails in Yosemite, my eyes were on the other people as I navigated around them. My thoughts were on the fire danger. When I managed to change focus to actually take in the beauty, I sometimes got tears mourning the effects of the almost inevitable future damage. Right now I’m thinking I’ll take a walk in our state park by the ocean but will wait until 6 pm in the hope that I can avoid the visitors from the valley who are fleeing the terrible heat and dust where they live. So yes, so many disasters unfolding around us. It feels like these things are ping ponging around in my head.

        Liked by 1 person

        • For whatever the thought’s worth, I believe that we’re no use to the world if we can’t clear our heads a bit. Toss me that ping-pong ball. I’ll tuck it into a drawer and send it back whenever you need it.


  5. I went to an event today in which there were fifteen of us inside a large room. All the windows and doors were open. Big tick. We were all sitting about a metre and a half apart. Tick. We were playing wind instruments, so you can’t wear masks when you do that, but most people weren’t wearing masks when they were moving around. Big fail.

    I was the second-youngest person in the room and I assume they all thought that being double jabbed was enough. I even told one person that I wasn’t going to go through a door when she was on the other side because she wasn’t wearing a mask.

    It’s not just the young who are being stupid about this and these were all people who had professions when they worked.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Being well educated, being professionals, and even being smart can’t stop people from also being damn fools. It’s taken me seventy-odd years to learn that, but by now I’m firmly convinced of it.

      I have a meeting coming up–village politics and I’d love to skip it but don’t feel that I can–and I’m pushing for masks and windows. Last time, people were really good about it. Fingers crossed that they will be again.

      Will you get together with them again do you think?

      Liked by 2 people

      • No. It was a one-off event because a summer school had been cancelled.

        I’ve booked a weekend away next month where we’ll be playing wind instruments together in fairly small space. There won’t be many of us, but the room in which we’ll be playing doesn’t have many windows that can be opened. I know most of the participants well enough to be able to say how we need to behave, but it all depends on how sensible they’ll be.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Good grief.
    How do you keep any of this info from oozing out of your brain at an inappropriate moment in the privacy of your own home?
    Thank goodness I have you to do the research.
    I will wear a mask whenever I’m AWOL from the house.
    Somehow I’m sure that’s not enough.
    Thank you for the post. Scary indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I alternate between feeling fatalistic about it all and feeling scared. And in between looking at the apparent normality of the world–no one trundling carts by, calling “Bring out your dead”–and forget that I need to be careful. That, in all its insanity, is how I’m managing. I don’t recommend it, but then I didn’t exactly choose it either.

      None of it is enough. Do what you can. Stay as safe as you can. Love while you can–but you’ll do that without my sage advice.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Yes, your last answer sums up the idea that we all need to fight against just becoming fatalistically numb. I went once into a grocery right after we were allowed to be maskless, but haven’t done it since. There was w such a narrow window. The group of friends that had been gathering once a month met last month for the first time since early 2020 but now we are wondering about this month. At least it is still warm enough to sit outside.
    Good luck at your meeting. It will give you grist for another column, no doubt.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sensible precautions, all of them. And sadly, none of this is new. In June 2020, when we thought we might reopen our workplace, we had already discussed these points. We inspected air conditioning at work, and made sure that it refreshed the indoor air sufficiently often. It cost a pretty penny, but we also added in hepa filters everywhere, and began to wonder how to ensure constant masking. As it turned out, nothing worked, and soon delta put all these plans to rest.

    The US-CDC earlier, and the UK PM now, seem to be very optimistic about discarding masking rules. Unfortunate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very unfortunate. The CDC, I think, is seeing its mistake. Or I hope that’s what’s happening. Britain’s prime minister–well, I have the impression that he’s constitutionally incapable of that. All we can do is wear our own masks, be careful where we go (those of us who have that luxury, and not everyone does; I’m lucky enough to be retired), and hope the virus mutates in kindly ways.

      I’m impressed with what your workplace did. But this isn’t a problem one person, one workplace, or even one country can solve on its own.

      Stay well, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m only an editing student and I found the “waffles” headline amusing.

    Just checked: despite the CDC and MN Dept of Health guidance, my school is pretty much back to normal this year, despite its entire student body being too young to get a vaccine. Masks are optional and I’m left wondering how many emails I’m going to have to send to the school superintendent and Governor Walz, or if instead I decide I can’t take it anymore and just give up.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I work at Walmart. They just decided that the employees all have to wear masks, but the customers don’t. I really don’t feel safer this way. (I work overnight, and we are ALL vaccinated.)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. In the U.S. they are starting to be more strict about wearing a mask and so on, and the numbers are going up. At work we now have to wear a mask and everyone is vaccinated. We were mask free for 4 months. My manager said that the vaccine is 90% effective against the variant. I don’t know what to think. I hear so much different information.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t quote numbers–it depends on the vaccine–but they do all cut the number of infections way down. The thing is, 90% still leaves 10% who can get infected. Most of those will be either asymptomatic or mild to moderate infections–utterly unpleasant but not life threatening. On top of that, vaccinated people who get infected are likely to still spread the disease. So yes, we need to be masked.

      A small percentage of the vaccinated people who get infected will get a serious case. It’s a much smaller percentage than among unvaccinated people, but since the number of people involved is so high the numbers can be scary.

      They sure as hell scare me. This thing isn’t over yet and we’d be fools to act as if it is. Unfortunately, a lot of people are being fools.

      Stay safe, Shell.

      Liked by 1 person

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