About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Real-world information on Covid vaccine effectiveness

For the first time, we have some real-world data about how effective the Covid vaccines are. The good news is that a very small percent of fully vaccinated people get sick. The bad news is that the vaccines aren’t  a three-hundred percent effective suit of armor against serious disease. Or even quite one hundred percent.

Among the 77 million fully vaccinated people in the US, the Centers for Disease Control reports 5,800 Covid cases. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.0001%. Of that group, 7% were hospitalized and 74 died, and damn it I wish they’d give statistics either entirely in percentages or entirely in absolute numbers to dopes like me could compare them. I can get as far as saying that most of the cases have been either mild or asymptomatic. If you can translate, leave me a comment. Even if your answer’s wrong, I’m not likely to know. 

Infections in vaccinated people are called breakthrough infections, and it would be unusual if they didn’t happen. They were found in all age groups, although 40% were in people who were 60 or older, 65% were in women, and 29% were asymptomatic. 

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms

So far, they haven’t identified what, if any, risk factors incline vaccinated people toward getting Covid or which (if any) variants are more likely to be involved, but believe me, someone’s staying up late crunching numbers. It’s also not clear how the asymptomatic cases were noticed, since it’s unusual to test fully vaccinated people who show no symptoms. It could be that they were hospitalized for other reasons and a Covid test was run as part of the admissions routine. Whatever the reasons, though, we can assume that the number of asymptomatic infections is an underestimate.

But didn’t they tell us that the vaccines were 100% effective against severe Covid? Yup, they did, and they weren’t lying to us. The odds of a fully vaccinated person getting a severe infection are so small that the sample would’ve had to be insanely large for a case to have surfaced. The people who ran the trial gave us the numbers they had. As real-world information comes in, those numbers change. That’s the annoying thing about the real world. Every so often, it doesn’t line up with our predictions.

I get a rightwing newsletter in my inbox every so often–it’s been interesting so I don’t unsubscribe, although I’m not the person they have in mind–and it’s fond of reporting on cases of people catching Covid after being vaccinated. The tone leans heavily toward See? We told you it didn’t work. If I could, I’d compare that 0.0001% of breakthrough infections with the percentage of unvaccinated people who catch Covid in the US, but we’ll need a person with some minimal mathematical competence to work it out. I asked Lord Google but he was in one of his moods. If you’d like percentages on many unrelated things, I can point you in the right direction. 

The conclusion, if you want one to put in your pocket and take it home, is that the vaccines aren’t 110% effective and we still need to be careful, but we can let go of the anxiety. The numbers are on our side here and the anxiety isn’t helping anyway.

There’s nothing like someone telling you not to be anxious to make you less anxious, is there?

The additional conclusion is, keep the mask. Even if you’re vaccinated, you can still spread the disease. You’re less likely to–if you have an asymptomatic case you’re likely to have a lower viral load–but you can still do some damage. Other people share this world with us. Try not to do them any more harm than you can help.

 

What’s the story on vaccines and blood clots?

The two vaccines that have been linked to very rare incidents of blood clots are based on a single technology–one they share with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Basically, they take an adenovirus–that’s a virus that causes colds–deactivate it, and turn it into a chariot for the vaccine to ride in on.

Vaccines are hopelessly vain. They can’t resist a grand entrance. Horses, polished metal catching the sun, noise, dust, cameras. 

The clotting problem seems–and we’re still at the stage of seems–to be related to that damn chariot. 

The clots happen in veins in the brain, in the abdomen, and in arteries, and at the same time the person’s level of blood platelets fall, and those platelets are the beasties that help our blood clot. We end up with blood clots happening at the same time as hemorrhages, which in everyday English means bleeding. That’s kind of like an elevator going up and down at the same time. 

Normally, you’d pour an anticoagulant called heparin into a person with a blood clot forming in scary places, but when you pair the clots with hemorrhages, you can’t do that.

What are the signs that a person’s getting a serious reaction to one of the vaccines? Severe headaches, abdominal or leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination.

Every article about this says the clots are very rare. 

How rare is very rare? Last I checked, 222 cases had been linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe and Britain, along with 18 deaths. That’s out of 34 million people who’ve gotten the vaccine. Most of those were in women who were–okay, not young but under 60, which looks younger all the time. In the US, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been linked to 6 cases out of 6.8 million people who were vaccinated with it.

So how rare are the clotting problems? About the same as the chance of being struck by lighting in the UK in any year you choose. And that’s in a country that, by comparison with the American Midwest, doesn’t get a hell of a lot of lightning.

The risk of Covid, though, is no small thing. 

And if you’re inclined to roll the dice by going unvaccinated, the risk of having a blood clot after a bout of Covid is 8 times higher than after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine. The risk of clots after Covid is 100 times higher than after a normal infection.

 

Covid immunity and prior infections

And vaguely related to that is the news that having had Covid doesn’t give young people full protection from another bout of it. That’s from a study of 3,000 healthy U.S. Marines who were between 18 and 20 years old and unless the regulations have changed since last I looked had radically and irrelevantly short hair.

Even though the marines had antibodies, they didn’t have the level of protection that the vaccine offers: 10% got reinfected. That compares with 50% who hadn’t had an earlier infection, although in the previously infected group 84% of the infections  were asymptomatic or mild compared to 68% in the previously uninfected group.

The numbers of infections and reinfections were higher than would be likely outside of a military base because of the cramped living conditions and close contact.

The advice to people who’ve recovered from Covid is to boost your immunity with a vaccine.

Why the royals didn’t wear uniforms at Phil’s funeral

The BBC overdid its coverage of Prince Philip’s death so massively that it received a record 110,000 complaints. Enough many shows went off the air that I started to wonder if there’d been a coup.

For the funeral, they decided to be more moderate. I’d report on what was left on the air but I wasn’t watching. Sorry. I can’t do daytime TV, even in the name of research.

I also don’t do royal-watching, but I’ll make a brief exception. The word came down ahead of time that William and Harry wouldn’t walk next to each other in the procession. You know what it’s like when the kids are both in the back seat. It starts out well enough, but then they’re arguing about who reached across the imaginary line between them, escalates to who poked who, and the next thing you know they’re throwing ice cream at each other.

The brothers–watch the procession as many times as you like if you don’t believe me–were not allowed to carry ice cream.

Not only that, no one in the family was allowed to wear uniforms, which is interesting, because the royal family does seem to enjoy playing dress up, and they all have honorary military titles to match their clothes. Except Harry, who had to give up his honorary titles when he left the family business, although he has a less impressive one left over from when he actually served in the armed forces. Andrew, who (mysteriously) is still in the family business, was insisting on his right to wear an admiral’s uniform. And stand in the prow of a ship. That was to be towed along a street flooded to a depth of–

Ellen, stop. Somebody’s going to think you’re serious. But he did want to wear an admiral’s uniform. I’d love to know who leaked that glorious bit of gossip.

Irrelevant photo: Osteospermum–probably.

 

Fake journalist makes real news

An online gamer called Kacey Montagu infiltrated the White House press corps, claiming to work for a nonexistent news outlet, White House News, or WHN. Or alternatively for the Daily Mail, which does exist but which she didn’t work for. 

But it’s not just WHN that doesn’t exist. Neither does Kacey Montagu.

What she–and let’s call himherthem a she, since herhistheir persona is female–did was relay questions to the press secretary via other reporters. That isn’t unusual in these pandemic days. The usual 49 seats in the briefing room have been whittled down to 14, so any number of real reporters can’t be in the room, and the ones who are regularly relay questions from colleagues.

Montagu became visible in December, setting up a couple of Twitter accounts, and her tweets were useful enough (even if they do sound pretty bland) that she gathered a serious political following. 

She was finally unmasked by Mediaite, a website that focuses on politics and the media, and it was her success that did her in. She asked a question about Biden’s relationship with Obama that another reporter followed up on. It wasn’t your most incisive question, but there’s no predicting what’ll grab people’s interest. Or what’ll lead to your downfall. 

What Mediaite found was that Kacey Montagu was, as they put it, “a gag persona for a former Secretary of State made of Legos.” 

That needs translating, doesn’t it? 

Montagu was active on ROBLOX, an online global gaming platform where users call themselves Legos. Which in case you’re not laughing is a joke. 

I didn’t laugh either. Even after I found out it was a joke. The best I could manage was to frown and shake my head. 

Somewhere on the platform is a role-playing group called nUSA–a mock U.S. government. 

I know. People do this to entertain themselves. I’ll never understand our species.

Montagu was the secretary of state at one point but resigned because ”the President went to war with some U.K. and I thought it was a pretty bad idea!”

From this we can deduce that she’s principled if not grammatically gifted.

So who is this person? She’s been careful enough not to leave a electronic trail that leads to the person behind the persona, so no one’s sure. She told one set of people that she was an 18-year-old law student from the United Kingdom who was born in the U.S. and moved to Britain at six. That six is an age, not a time of day. She told another that she was studying political science and wasn’t motivated by politics but was socially liberal and conservative on economic issues.

People who know her online are skeptical about most of that. What they’re sure of is that she bragged online about passing herself off as a reporter.

She did say “I love journalism, and I think the Press Corps is doing a pretty bad job at the moment, so I decided I would ensure some transparency and ask some questions me and some friends wanted the answer to.” 

Because what’s more transparent than passing yourself off as someone else and claiming to work for a media outlet that doesn’t exist, and what’s more incisive than asking about Biden’s friendship with Obama? Talk about your burning issues.

 

Cake and gnome stories

Britain’s caterpillar cake wars have begun.

Britain’s what?

Well, store A, which we’ll call Marks & Spencer, since that’s what everyone else calls it, sells a cake called Colin the Caterpillar. It’s chocolate and cartoonishly caterpillarish. And since M & S is known for high-end food, it got huffy when it found that store B, which we’ll call Aldi and which is known for discount food, started selling a cheaper cake called Cuthbert the Caterpillar, which is also chocolate and cartoonishly caterpillarish and looks similarish. 

So everybody’s going to court, where the lawyers will wear wigs and look cartoonishly British-lawyerish, although, disappointingly, they will not emerge from a chrysalis to show off their wings and fly.

You needed to know about this.

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In the meantime, Britain is suffering through a shortage of garden gnomes. Also of garden furniture, but it’s the gnome shortage that really hurts. The problem is due to a tragic combination of Brexit, Covid, and a hangover from the Suez Canal blockage. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country, but it’s getting serious over here.

Send gnomes.

The Covid testing dilemma

England’s pushing mass testing as a way to contain Covid. It’s free, it’s government approved, it’s somewhere between uncomfortable and painful, and it may or may not be a good idea. Let’s tear the numbers apart and see what we can figure out.

Since the schools reopened, secondary students–those are the older kids–have had to do quick Covid tests twice a week, and that’s been a bulwark of the program to keep the schools open while not letting the virus get out of control. 

The tests, unfortunately, have a reputation for being unreliable, especially when done by non-experts. Since the kids are doing their own tests, or asking their parents or three-year-old sisters to stick the swabs up their noses and down their throats, these are in the hands of the distilled essence of non-expert. One fear about relying on the quick tests has been that false positives will send a lot of people into isolation unnecessarily. So half of the positive tests were sent to a lab to be confirmed by the slower, more reliable tests, and only 18% of them were false positives. 

Irrelevant photo: Rhododendrons. Photo by Ida Swearingen

But wait, because we’re not done yet. Those numbers are from March, and Covid rates have fallen, at least in parts of the country. (Some hot spots remain, and I don’t know if numbers are falling there as well. Just put that possibility off to one side. The recipe may call for it later. If it doesn’t, we’ll stick it in the freezer.) The point is that where the number of cases is lower, everything changes

Why? Because the tests will crank out the same number of false positives, no matter how many people are infected. Find yourself a population of people who’ve never been exposed to Covid and the test will swear on any religious book you like that some of them are infected. 

I’m about to throw some numbers at you, so if your allergies are bad today just skip a few paragraphs.

Ready? In London, the southwest, the northeast, and the southeast of England, the prevalence of Covid ranged from 0. 08 to 0.02. In England as a whole, it was 0.12%. Using those figures (I’d assume that means the England-wide ones), it would take 16,000 tests to find one infected person. If the tests cost £10 each, that means spending £160,000 to find that one person.

Is that worth it? If we were trying to stamp the disease out and keep it stamped, as New Zealand is, it would be. Given that we treat stamping it out as the silly thought of irresponsible day dreamers, probably not. 

Meanwhile, in leaked emails (I do l love a good leak) “senior government officials” are talking about scaling back mass testing, although the Department of Health and Social Care says it has no plans to end the program. One in three infected people, they remind us, show no symptoms but is still contagious. 

That brings us neatly to the question of whether the rapid tests will spot that one person. In other words, it’s time to talk about false negatives. Administered by an expert, the tests pick up 79% of infections. Or to put that the other way around, they miss 21%, and those are mostly people with a low viral load. Or to put that another way, they’re most likely to miss people who don’t have symptoms, who are just the people the testing program is looking for.

Administered by secondary school students or their three-year-old sisters, they’re more likely to pick up 58% of infections, or to miss–umm– I think that’s 42%. Although estimates of the number of cases the test misses vary. It might be as high as 50%. 

The government denies that it has any plans to scale back anything ever and Boris Johnson is urging everyone to get tested twice a week. Even though his advisors say that in areas with low infection rates, only 2% to 10% of the positive results may be accurate. 

But what the hell, guys, we’ve got these tests. Someone’s cousin has the contract for them. Use them, will you, please? For the good of the nation.

 

News of an accurate rapid test that’s in development

A new test is being developed that’s both fast and accurate. It also tracks variants and tests for other viruses that might be mistaken for Covid. It can screen 96 samples at a time and within 15 minutes it starts to report the samples as negative or positive. In 3 hours, it will have sequenced all its samples. 

It’s also small and portable. It doesn’t make coffee, but it just might be able to make you a cup of tea.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory where it’s being developed, said, “We can accomplish with one portable test the same thing that others are using two or three different tests, with different machines, to do.”

That’s the good news. But will it go from development to being manufactured and used?

Market analysis would be required to determine whether the initial cost of commercialization—and the constant tweaks to the test needed to make sure it detected new variants or new viruses of interest—are worth it.”

I believe that translates to “maybe.”

It’s called NIRVANA, which doesn’t seem to stand for anything, so I don’t know why it’s in all caps. 

 

High- and low-tech approaches to Covid

In New Zealand, they’re trying out an app that connects to smart watches and fitness trackers, monitoring people’s heart rate and temperature. It’s called an Elarm and the developer claims it can spot 90% of Covid cases up to three days before symptoms appear.

Does that include people who don’t go on to develop symptoms? I’m have to give you a definite maybe on that, because the article I found doesn’t address it. The company’s own website doesn’t answer the question either but says it will also let you know about stress and anxiety, although you might notice those without needing an app. Basically, it figures out your normal levels and lets you know when you’ve wandered off them, so you could end up going into isolation over the flu as easily as over Covid. That would scare the pants off you but would, at least, take a lot of the punch out of flu season.

So how do you use this? New Zealand wants its border force to try it out, since almost the only cases of Covid there are in incoming travelers, who have to go into quarantine, meaning the people who work for the border force are in the front lines.

When New Zealand says quarantine, by the way, they actually mean quarantine. It’s one reason they’ve been able to contain the virus.

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On the other end of the scale comes the recommendation that we open windows in public places to minimize Covid transmission. It’s cheap, it’s simple, and–

Oh, hell, how many public places these days have windows that open? Okay, ventilation. The air in public indoor spaces needs to be replaced or cleaned. 

We’ve heard a lot about keeping two meters (or yards) away from people to avoid contagion, but in addition to the heavier droplets people breathe out, which can carry Covid, the tiniest particles that we breathe out can also carry it, and they can stay suspended in the air for hours. The goal is to run them outside and get some fresh air in. 

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If you’re looking for a low-tech way to decide how far from people you should be standing, you can think of it this way: If you can smell that they’ve had garlic or peanut butter for lunch, you’re too close. 

 

Drug news

An asthma drug, budesonide, has been shown to shorten people’s Covid recovery time –and it can be used at home without anyone involved needing welding gloves, a deep-sea diver’s helmet, or a set of allen wrenches. It’s relatively inexpensive and comes in an inhaler. It shortened people’s recovery time by three days and at the end of two weeks the people who used it were in better shape than the control group.

It’s not clear yet whether it made hospitalization less likely. In the budesonide group, 8.5% were hospitalized. In the control group, that was 10.3%. That sounds like a result, but the problem with interpreting the numbers is that hospitalization rates are dropping in Britain. If you want to understand why that makes the numbers hard to interpret, you need to talk to someone who actually knows something.

Everyone in the test was over 50 and had underlying health problems. The drug can be used in the early stages of infection. 

What people really want to know about Britain

How do I find out what people want to know about Britain? I scrape the floor of the search engine room and see what questions were stuck there. It’s completely scientific.

The questions appear in italics and in all their original oddity. The answers are in Roman type, which although almost no one knows it is the opposite of italic type. And in case you’re worried that I’m insulting the people who were kind enough to leave me their questions, I’m pretty sure they fled long ago, leaving me a free hand.

 

So what’s your country called anyway?

why is england named great britain

Have you ever noticed that when you start with the wrong question you end up with the wrong answer? Gravity’s to blame here. There’s no escaping it. 

I blame England for the confusion. Or possibly Britain or the United Kingdom. Or someone, because it’s important to have someone to blame. Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are innocent bystanders in this. They got pulled in by the gravity (see? I came back to that) of a larger neighbor.

In the interest of saving space: England’s part of Britain. Britain’s not really a country, that’s the United Kingdom. It’s just–well, think of Britain and the UK’s nickname. It’s all very confusing. The good news is that with Britain having left the European Union, the UK’s likely to come un-united, in which case the question of what to call it will be simplified.

Even if nothing else it.

hy are we called great britain

Hi. Yes, we are. 

Irrelevant photo: potted violas.

Important questions about British culture and history

Why are British roads so narrow?

It keeps out the riffraff.

did the tudors have chimneys

No, but some of their houses did. 

what does british understatement mean

It’s when you understate something. In Britain. Or elsewhere if you are British and like to carry a national stereotype (or characteristic; take your choice) around the world with you. 

I do hope that helps.

is uk beer stonger then american

This is such a regular question (although it usually comes with another R mashed in somewhere, and a few other spelling changes) that I’ve started to ignore it, but it’s time to say greet to an old friend again. This is what the world wants to know about Britain: How much beer do I have to pour down my throat before I get shitfaced?

I always did say that travel broadens the mind.

anglo saxon hunting

The Anglo-Saxons came, they stayed, they hunted. And did a few other things while they were at it, including contributing some lovely swear words to the language. Allegedly.

One important difference between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, who took the country from them, is that under the Normans hunting and fishing were tightly restricted. And these weren’t sports for most people but an important part of how they managed to eat. The Norman aristocracy not only owned the land but every wild beast and weed that grew, ran, or slithered thereupon. And also the water and its fish. Hunt the lord’s whatever and you could end up getting killed for it–quite legally. 

I’d love to know more about the Anglo-Saxon laws and traditions about hunting and land ownership. If anyone wants to point me at a good source, I’d be grateful.

in the times when people wore wigs did mice get into them

Contrary to popular opinion and in spite of how popular wigs were among the upper classes, the fashion was limited to humans, British mice never wore them. This supports the argument that they had better sense than the upper class humans.

emmit website cornwall prank

In Cornwall, emmits are tourists if you speak American and holidaymakers if you speak British. But they don’t call themselves emmits, because that’s Cornish. It means ants. So if they start a website, they’re not likely to call themselves emmits.

Presumably that’s where the prank part comes in.  

That’s an extended way of saying that I don’t know anything useful about this.

medieaval attitudes to male homosexuality the church

Short answer, they didn’t approve of it. Longer answer, they weren’t obsessed with it in the way that so many later churches were (and that some still are). Homosexuality was just one sin on a long list of thou-shalt-nots. And the idea that homosexuals formed a category? That doesn’t seem to have figured into the way people thought about either themselves or each other. 

 

Pandemic questions

will the uk go into a full lockdown

I’m late answering this. Sorry, but it does mean that I don’t have to speculate. Yes, we did, but we waited for the virus to get a head start. Never say that sportspersonship is dead. 

eek and kent varients

Eek indeed.

Most people will want to spell variant with an A, but language changes and maybe we’re looking, appropriately enough, at a variant spelling.

 

Why questions

why does sensus ask if someone has stayed overbight?

Because it’s useful to know about the dental health of the population. How many people in your household have an overbite? Did it stay or did it leave with a visitor?

why do cars look like they are going faster on narrow road

Because of the natural reaction of human beings, when watching a car drive too fast for the conditions, to think, Oh, shit, that doesn’t look good. Narrow road. Relatively high speed. Ergh. 

Why did I get this question? Because I wrote a couple of posts about narrow roads. I am now an expert. 

why do americans have post boxes

To hold our letters.

why don’t american houses have letterboxes

Our letters are free range. We sit around waiting for them to mosey down the street and lasso them as they come past. If we get a lot of them, we herd them into the corral. It brings neighbors together to exchange letters so that they get to the right houses. Sometimes they stampede, though, which can get dangerous.

Why do I get questions asking why we do and don’t do the same thing? Because a lot of people start with their conclusions and look for the evidence. This protects them, at least to an extent, from finding contradictory evidence. This is why the world continues spinning.

 

Questions I can’t explain, never mind answer

note all.siftay

Now this one was interesting. I referred the question to Lord Google, who referred me to an Urdu grammar site, a site that’s partially in Hebrew, an auction site (23% commission),  and a Board of Management meeting of Perth College.

Best guess? The meeting would be more interesting than your average management meeting. Or at least stranger.

brexit and good from ietnam

Lord Google and I both inserted a V into this, giving us Vietnam. Vietnam and Britain did reach a trade deal when the Brexit deadline was looming. Was this particularly good news for either of them? No idea.I don’t think either country is a major trading partner for the other. 

jenny mollica atemkurs

As should already be clear, I often ask Lord Google about questions I can’t make sense of, since it was Lord G. who sent the questions to me in the first place. Some turn out to be about a person I mentioned once and forgot. Checking allows me to pretend that I still remember them. Other times, the questions turn out to be about someone I never heard of, but at least I’m reassured that we’re all operating in consensual virtual reality. 

But when I typed in “Jenny Mollica Atemkurs,” Lord G. told me that there weren’t many great matches for my search. That’s a first. He’s never held out for great before, probably because he considers his suggestions wondrous, however strange they seem to me.

But not this time. The world may be full of Jennys, but he held out for the Mollica Atemkurs kind and found none.

Why the question ended up with me remains unknown.

 

The fill-in-the-blank challenge

this meant that rotten borough _____ represented a tiny number of people in ______.

Ooh, we’re playing MadLibs with somebody’s term paper. 

I’m not in love with my offering, but that’s okay, it’ll give you the satisfaction of being funnier: “This meant that rotten borough X represented a tiny number of people in Y.” Hand that to your algebra teacher. They’ll  be so impressed.

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For those of you who enjoy the history posts: I will get back to them. In theory, I post something non-news related on Fridays. Ideally, it’s about English (or possibly British) history or culture (using an expansive definition of culture). But I got seduced by too much news this week, not to mention by some good weather, and didn’t leave myself enough time. Stay with me. I’ll get back to it. 

The herd immunity debates

Professors at University College London grabbed some headlines with the news that Britain’s almost achieved herd immunity.

Should we celebrate? 

Nope. The small print said we can’t ease restrictions yet. “If we let up, that threshold will go up again and we will find ourselves below the threshold and it will explode again,” Karl Friston said.

This makes it sound like we’ve probably misunderstood what herd immunity means. Or else that the people who wrote the study have. I thought it marked the point where we could all wander back to whatever we can reconstruct of our normal lives, trusting that the virus will stay in retreat. Apparently not, though–at least not by this definition. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose. Indoors. It’s too early in the year for them outdoors yet.

In a rare moment when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and I agree (I’m sure that upsets him as much as it does me; sorry Matt; it won’t happen often), he’s dismissed the suggestion of herd immunity, although his comments are oblique enough to be unquotable. They’re not incoherent but they’re not exactly to the point either. Never mind, though. I have agreed with him. It’s a rare moment. We need to mark the occasion.

Cup of tea, anyone?

Another estimate of herd immunity, this one from Airfinity (it “provides real time life science intelligence as a subscription service” and as part of that tracks vaccination programs around the world), sets it at the point where 75% of the population is vaccinated. The U.K.’s expected to reach that point in August, shortly after the U.S. and a few weeks before Europe.

Sorry about the rest of the world. It seems to have dropped off the map the article I found was using. 

There will, of course, still be a need to booster vaccines to keep up with the variants, at least until those countries that fell off the map get access to vaccines so are species can stop producing variants so prolifically. 

 

Creeping out of lockdown

As Covid deaths go down, Britain’s taken another step toward ending its lockdown, opening gyms, shops, pubs and cafes with outdoor seating, assorted other businesses. Internal tourism is causing traffic jams in all the usual places. 

About half the population has at least one dose of a vaccine. Will that be enough to keep the virus from rebounding? I wish I knew. Chile has an impressive vaccination program and unlocked too early, giving the virus the gift of a trampoline. Cases there have spiked. 

Optimist that I am, my mind snags on Britain’s remaining virus hotspots and on the two London boroughs where the government’s chasing cases of the South African variant. I expect they’ll do better with the variant than with the hotspots, because one of the things the government resolutely refuses to do is pay people a workable amount of money to self-isolate, and if you’re broke you’ll go to work, regardless of what the test says. Because you have to. 

On the other hand–and before I go on I should issue an Unimportant Personal Story Warning–I’m grateful to have stores open. I have a battery-operated watch whose battery stopped operating a while ago. (Whose idea was it to run watches on batteries, anyway? I seem to remember winding my watch every day without feeling unduly burdened. I didn’t even break a sweat.) 

How long ago did the battery run out? No idea. We were in lockdown. Who needs a watch? But eventually I did need a watch and I noticed that mine was no longer in touch with consensual reality. So I got a battery (thanks, Tony). I opened up the back (thanks, Ellen), took out the old battery, put in the new one, put the innards back together, and was just starting to congratulate myself when I found that I couldn’t fit the back on, making the whole project pointless. I put a rubber band around the thing and left it alone.

I still didn’t have a watch.

On Monday, the first day that unimportant stores were open, I took it to a jeweler. Jewelers have a little gizmo to hold the back in place while they thump it shut. I now have a working watch.

I don’t need it more than once a week. We’re still halfway locked down. 

So yes, it’s nice to be able to do that sort of small thing. It also makes me nervous–and it should.

 

Lockdown and the economy

Britain’s economy’s now in the worst recession it’s had in 300 years. Worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s? Apparently. To find one that was worse, you have to go back to the great frost of 1709, when Britain was an agricultural country.

On the other hand, having shrunk 9.9%, the economy then grew by 1% in the last quarter of (I believe) 2020. Household savings during the pandemic reached £140 billion–16.3% of people’s disposable income. That’s compared to 6.8% in 2019. Predictably, that’s unevenly distributed, with some people building up savings while others struggle to hold onto their homes and food banks struggle to keep up with need. 

It’s a lovely way to organize a world. 

 

The Covid risk indoors and out

Want to figure out the Covid risk people face indoors? Measure the carbon dioxide level

This works because–well, the thing about infectious people is that they exhale. Admittedly, uninfected people do too. You probably do it yourself. And all that exhaled carbon dioxide joins together and either stays in the room or doesn’t. The Covid virus does exactly the same thing: It either stays in the room or if the room has enough ventilation it wanders out into the world, where it poses next to no danger.

The thing is that carbon dioxide levels can be monitored cheaply. If you see them rise, you still won’t know if anyone infectious is breathing into the mix, but you will know that the ventilation isn’t what it needs to be and it’s a risky place to stand around inhaling. At that point you can (a) limit yourself to exhaling, (b) leave, or (c) improve the ventilation. Preferably (b), since that will help everyone.

*

An Irish study reports that roughly one Covid case out of a thousand is caught out of doors. 

Professor Orla Hegarty said, “During Spanish flu people were advised to talk side by side, rather than face to face, and this is borne out by how viral particles have been measured moving in the air when people breath and speak.

“The risk of infection is low outdoors because unless you are up close to someone infected, most of the virus will likely be blown away and diluted in the breeze, like cigarette smoke.”

News of international Lego thieves, plus monarchists in mourning

In case you don’t think the world’s strange enough, an international ring of toy thieves is stealing Legos. Not that jumble of Lego’s you stashed behind the couch to pacify the kids from down the block when they stop by. Sure, those are useful. They keep the kids from tipping over the refrigerator, but the thieves are a more discerning bunch. What they want are Lego sets.

We can blame Lego itself for this if we’re in the mood. They started producing limited edition sets aimed at collectors. 

And there you were, thinking toys were something kids played with and dripped chocolate ice cream on. Shows what you know. Toys are something you leave in the box and collect, thank you. If you never open the package, they’re worth more than if you crack the lid just to breathe the rarified air inside. A set that sold for $150 in 2007 (this is allegedly a kids’ toy, remember, selling for $150) can now go for $3,000. If and only if it hasn’t been opened.

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s camellia peeping out from behind the stone wall.

Can we agree that collecting them makes no sense at all? It’s so easy to get wrong. You can get in on the right trend at the wrong moment, when the price isn’t going up anymore, or just before it drops. You can misread the trends and collect the wrong thing, ending up with something you can’t eat, can’t wear, can’t live in, and can’t even play with because, who knows?, the damned thing might be collectible in another year or three.. 

Which may be why people steal them. It takes all the uncertainty out of collecting. And as long as you don’t get caught, it’s an economically viable plan.

 

Home, digital home

A digital home–in other words, a house that doesn’t really exist–has sold for $500,000. Or if you count in ethers, for 288 of them.

What’s an ether? A cryptocurrency. 

Can you buy anything other than imaginary houses with it? Probably, but listen, this really isn’t my area of expertise.

What is my area of expertise? Well, I’m not a bad baker and I passed myself off as a competent editor when I was working. And I wasn’t bad as a cab driver either. 

So–final question–what can you do with a very expensive imaginary house? Explore it. In 3D. Or explore it–and I’m going to have to quote here, because I haven’t a clue what this means and don’t necessarily want to–“using virtual reality (a digital world) or, in future, augmented reality (where digital elements added to a view of the real world).”

At the moment, it’s set in a Mars-like landscape. I think that quote means  you can move it if you want to.

 

Life and death in a monarchy

As I write this, on March 9, all news has been suspended because Prince Philip died. You know Prince P: the queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. 

The first news bulletin announced that the Duke of Edinburgh had died.

The second news bulletin announced that the Duke of Edinburgh was still dead.

The third news bulletin told us in detail that he always appeared in public wearing two shoes, both on his feet.

A later news bulletin detailed the however-many-gun salutes that were set off.

After that, everybody who’d ever seen a picture of him or could spell his name was interviewed live on radio or television, or not-quite-live by the print media. When the interviews ended, the news outlets all traded sources and started over.

This has edged out everything except the weather. Those loyalist kids in Northern Ireland protesting the Brexit border that now separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK? They’ll have to do more than set fire to a bus and roll it downhill to make the news for the few nights. (If I’m wrong about that, I apologize. I wrote this on Friday night and it won’t post till Sunday.)

I’m late in offering this, but I have a bit of advice for the kids: I’ve listened to enough folk songs to know that if you swim down below the waterline and take out your trusty little knife, you can sink an island by making holes and letting the water in. Now that would grab headlines.

Or maybe it only works on ships. I should’ve paid more attention.  

Anyway, the loyalists are the ones who want to stay with the United Kingdom. They’re not in a great position to complain when the queen’s husband bumps them out of the headlines.

As a mark of respect, the Labour Party suspended its campaign for the May elections. 

What? The Labour Party supports the monarchy? Let’s say it doesn’t oppose it. That would be like touching the third rail of British politics. The Green Party, the Scottish National Party, and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party) also suspended campaigning, although the nationalist parties want to leave not just the union but also the queen and the rest of her family, and the Greens  have “a clear commitment to divesting the monarchy of its legislative, executive and judicial roles.”

That’s not quite the same as abolishing the monarchy. Or maybe it is–I can’t quite tell. Whatever it means, it’s very carefully worded.

The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have also suspended their campaigns, but I’d expect that. 

A friend assures me that life will go back to normal any day now, all I have to do is sit still and wait. In the meantime, we’ll all be pious, and I expect I will have offended more than one reader by making light of it. Sorry. People do die, and many of those deaths I regret deeply. This isn’t one of them. You’re welcome to your own reverence. Me, I’m trying to find the narrow footpath between respecting other people feelings and not censoring myself. 

Sorry, I think I just trampled somebody’s flowers. 

The weather, by the way, held its place in the evening newscasts. This is Britain. Princes may come and princes may go, but the weather goes on forever.

 

Your bit of redemptive news

After a spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans, a New Yorker, Maddy Park, found herself terrified on her thirty-minute subway ride home. No one attacked her and no one called her names, but the strain was enough to get her thinking: She could afford a cab, but not everyone could. So with some friends and $2,000 of her own money, she started an Instagram account to pay for other people’s cab rides. “I just said look, I have $2,000, if you need a ride, just charge me on Venmo,” Park said.

What’s Venmo? A digital wallet. If you have to ask, you’re at least as old as I am. Now be nice and don’t ask me how it works.

Within 48 hours, she’d raised $100,000.

The Instagram text invites Asian women and elderly Asians in New York to charge up to $40 for an Uber or a Lyft to @CafeMaddyCab. A later addition includes Asian LGBTQ people. At last call, she was planning to expand the program since not many seniors know how to use 

Tell me about it. 

“People who are donating are people from all across the nation, across all races, ethnicities,” Park said, “and they just sent me messages saying, listen, we really want you guys to be safe too and we’re donating so that more people can take rides in the city. It really opened my eyes to how many people are actually supporting the Asian community in New York City.”

Archeological finds and treasure from a country knee deep in history

The last few years have been good ones for British detectorists.

For British whats?

Detectorists. Those people who wander around with glazed eyes, waving metal detectors above the ground and listening to them beep. They’re looking for buried treasure. Or the tops that people break off aluminum cans. The metal detectors, as opposed to the detectorists who wave them, aren’t discriminating. They’re like gun dogs that point not just at game birds but also at feathered hats, feather dusters, and feathers tattooed on people’s arms. Metal is metal. Let the humans sort it out.

Irrelevant photo: camellia buds.

More people have turned to metal detecting in recent years and they’re uncovering some serious archeological finds, which are making their way into museums. The increasing interest is due in part to–of course–a sitcom. Reality limps along behind the representation of reality. And that, my friends, is what passes for real life. 

In 2018, 96% of the treasure dug out of the British earth was found by people with glazed eyes and metal detectors.

Okay, they don’t necessarily have glazed eyes. It just sounds better that way. And treasure has a narrow official definition–coins; precious metals; that sort of stuff–so archeologists have found plenty of other stuff, but it appears in a different column on the sreadsheet.

A 1996 law that required finders to report treasure also allowed them to split any profits with the landowner, and that’s meant that they’re likely to actually report their finds instead of squirreling them away somewhere or selling them through shady antiquities dealers in back alleys.

Sorry. I don’t know any antiquities dealers, shady or otherwise, so I’m falling back on cheesy stereotypes there.

So when we count up the reasons new people are being drawn to metal detecting, the sitcom isn’t the only one. We can add potential profit. 

A very small and random selection of what’s been found lately: 

  • More than a thousand silver coins in a field behind a pub in Suffolk. The best guess is that they were buried there during the Civil War. 
  • And 69,347 Iron Age coins in a field in Jersey. They date back to 50 B.C., give or take a few months. 

But enough about treasure. It’s the smaller part of the historical riches waiting to be discovered. Let’s talk about archeology.

 

The neolithic era

In Yorkshire, archeologists have uncovered a saltern–an industrial-scale salt-making site–that dates back 6,000 years. Or to put that another way, it predates Stonehenge. It’s the earliest one that’s been found in Britain.

The pottery that’s been found there shows traces of milk, indicating that the people who built it were settled, growing crops and raising animals. And the scale of the saltern says that they were selling salt, not just making it for themselves. 

“It changes how these people are seen,” said Steve Sherlock, the archeologist who led the dig. They were “people who are undertaking a level of industrial processing and distributing.” 

Because of salt’s use in preserving food, the people who produced and distributed it would have been among the wealthier groups of their time. 

Neolithic salterns have been found in Europe–especially Poland and the Balkans–but this is the first found neolithic one found in Britain, possibly because rising sea levels and coastal erosion have swallowed the others. They have a habit of being coastal, since seawater has a habit of being salty.

The pottery found at the site matches a type introduced by people who migrated from what’s now northern France at around 4000 BC. The saltern technology may well have come with them.

 

The bronze age

With the old stuff out of the way, let’s move south to Stonehenge

A major road, the A303, runs alongside Stonehenge, and for years there’s been a fight over whether to dig a two-mile tunnel and run the road through it. Opponents argue that it will do lasting damage to a world heritage site and that millions of artifacts will be lost. On the other hand, once the tunnel’s built, you’ll be able to take a selfie at Stonehenge without a big red bread truck showing up in the background. Which makes it all worthwhile.

After an assortment of court challenges and the use of a lot of newsprint, the opponents lost and the work’s been started. The current stage involves 1,800 test pits, 400 trial trenches, 150 archeologists, 18 months, and some uncounted amount of mud. Construction on the tunnel itself won’t start until 2023. 

Is the tunnel a good idea? Probably not, but what do I know? As long as they’re digging, though, they’re finding some interesting stuff. Let’s not ignore it just because we’re sulking. They’ve found graves, pottery, burnt flint that suggests metal or leather working. (No, I don’t know what the connection is either.) It’s probably too early to know what this tells them about the site or the people. 

 

The iron age and the Roman era

In Oxfordshire, the excavation of a hillfort turned up an iron age settlement that dates from 400 to 100 BCE, not to mention a Roman villa built at the end of the third century CE or the beginning of the fourth. They were found when the Earth Trust, which cares for the hillfort, decided to redevelop its visitor center.

Because no place that welcomes visitors is complete without a visitor center. Where else will people spend their money?

The site was occupied from the bronze age through the Roman era, so the trust hadn’t just planned to just plow through with heavy equipment–they figured they’d find something interesting–but they also hadn’t expected anything quite so rich. What they found included well-preserved iron age pots, Roman bone combs, surgical instruments, and lots of pottery shards. It seems like pottery shards are always in there somewhere.

Chris Casswell, the dig’s head, said, “It’s a substantial iron age settlement. It’s probably no surprise because we’re right at the foot of Wittenham Clumps, an enormous hillfort. The settlement probably continues well into the landscape beyond where we’ve looked.

“Normally we go out and do geophysics, which gives an image of what might be under the ground. But on this site, it didn’t show up any of this. . . . So it’s completely unexpected.”

The Roman villa is still partially buried, and there are at least two Roman cemeteries and stone-built ovens for drying grain.

And in case you’re wondering, the bronze age came before the iron age because copper and tin, which make bronze, melt at lower temperatures than iron. It took humans a while to pull together the technology to melt iron. I had to look it up too.

 

The medieval period

King’s College in Cambridge tore down some 1930s-era student housing and found an early medieval graveyard

According to Bede’s Ecclessiastical History, which was written in the eighth century, Cambridge was abandoned in the fifth century, when the Romans left. A lot of Roman towns were. But take that with a grain of salt. Dr. Caroline Goodson, a professor of medieval history, said, “We already know that Cambridge wasn’t fully abandoned. But what we’re seeing now is a greater and clearer picture of life in the post-Roman settlements.” 

They’re finding lots of goodies in the graves: bead necklaces, swords, pottery, glass, bronze brooches, short blades, mostly from the early Anglo-Saxon period–say 400 to 650 C.E. And because the soil’s alkaline, the bodies are well preserved, so they may be able to extract information about people’s diets and DNA, which should give them information on migration patterns. 

Goodson’s best guess at the moment is that the people were the descendants of Roman Britons along with more recent migrants from Europe. 

“They are no longer living as the Romans did,” she said. “They’re eating differently, dressing differently, and finding different ways of exploiting the land.”

Home brew Covid research meets Goldilocks

When Vittorio Saggiomo, a scientist in the Netherlands, couldn’t work in his lab during lockdown, he invented a rapid Covid test using the materials he had at home: coffee pods. You know, those pretty, nonrecyclable things that–well, if you use them at all, you have plenty of them.

The reason he wanted to do this is because Covid tests give you a choice between a slow but accurate one and a fast but inaccurate one. The slow ones take time because–

Oh, hell, do you really want to know this? They take time because tiny scientists have to take the swab you jammed up your nose, extract the DNA you left on it, and multiply it until they have enough to work with. And it’s not easy to find tiny scientists–they have to be small enough to fit inside a test tube. 

The fast one is inaccurate because it bypasses the tiny scientists and works with just that bit of DNA you left on the swab. 

Irrelevant photo: These are either what you think they are–dandelions–or one of the half dozen or so flowers that look just like them but aren’t. Damned if I can tell them apart.

Listen, if you want a serious explanation, you should follow the link. I didn’t flunk high school science, but that was only because I was hiding behind the bunsen burner when they handed out grades.

Onward. There’s a third way of testing, a process called Lamp, which stands for, um, loop-mediated isothermal amplification.

You just had to ask, didn’t you?

It does the same thing as the PCR test, multiplying that stingy bit of DNA you sacrificed, but unlike the PCR test it doesn’t have to be done at a bunch of different temperatures. One will do.

So Saggiomo’s problem was how to create the right temperature at home. He found a wax that would melt at the right temperature, so that would keep the DNA at a constant temperature. Next he needed something to put it in. At this point, he turned to the coffee pods. 

The final problem was finding a way to heat the pods. In the dishwasher, they got lost. In the microwave, they overheated and the lids popped off. Cups of hot water didn’t control the temperature well enough and the porridge was too cold. Or possibly too hot. The bears got hungry. 

A pan of water simmering on the stove was perfect, though, and Goldilocks and the three bears sat at the table together and said, “Yeah, but where’s our coffee?”

“Shut up,” the scientist said. “I’m on the verge of a breakthrough and all you can think of is caffeine.”

They ate him.

The tests can be made for .20 euros each (don’t miss the decimal point on the left), but whether anyone’s actually going to produce it is up for grabs. 

Anyone ready for porridge?

[For anyone visiting from a culture with a different set of folk tales, the references are to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If I have to explain them, they won’t be remotely funny, but Lord Google will be happy to help you find the tale if you’re interested.]

 

 

More at-home research

From the start of the pandemic, a professor’s thirteen-year-old son watched his father disinfect the groceries and afte a while he questioned whether it really needed to be done. 

“I just told Anand, ‘If you want to do a science project, this is a perfect one,'” the father, Vishal Shah, said.

They took the project seriously enough to quarantine for fourteen days so they wouldn’t contaminate the test subjects, then gathered produce from ten stores in the Philadelphia area, where high levels of community Covid spread were reported, and they went at peak times. They took produce that people touch a lot–apples, avocados, bananas, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, lettuce–and swabbed them five times.

“One of the first things I realized once I told my dad I wanted to do this project was that I had no means of testing for the virus on my own,” Anand said. “My dad’s lab was closed, so I contacted labs across the country and gave presentations that discussed what the project was.”

He found one  in Tennessee that would do his testing. Of the 140 pieces of produce it tested, only one apple had traces of the virus on its surface. 

The study has been published in ACS Food Science and Technology.

Not bad for a thirteen-year-old, even if he did have help.

 

A bit about long Covid

At the beginning of March, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in Britain had long Covid.

So gets long Covid? It was most common among people between 35 and 49 and more common in women than men. It followed Covid’s pattern of hitting hardest in the poorest areas, and health and social care workers are the most likely occupational group to have it. That could be because they–like people who live in the poorest parts of the country–are more likely to be exposed to the virus. 

People with preexisting health conditions were also more likely to get long Covid.

In round numbers, out of seven people who test positive for Covid, one will still have symptoms three months later. 

But there’s still no official definition of long Covid, and that leaves a lot of questions about what happens to people who get it, financially speaking. If they use up their sick leave and lose their jobs, do they have a medically recognized condition so they can apply for support? How is long Covid diagnosed when there’s no definition and no diagnostic code? 

You’ll notice I’m asking more questions than I’m answering, so here’s one I can answer: What’s a diagnostic code? It’s something terribly important that you put into a little blank square. If you don’t have one, please apply to the Department of Diagnostic Codes. As soon as you get it, your life will become more fulfilling.

So are people who get long Covid disabled? In practical terms, some are and some aren’t. Some will be able to work full time, some only part time, and some not at all. Are they officially disabled, though? Gray zone. The short answer is that it’s too early to tell, and figuring it out is going to be messy. If they become officially disabled, an employer’s expected to make “reasonable adjustments” for them. If not–

Gray zone. 

Among those 1.1 million people in Britain with long Covid are 122,000 people who work for the NHS, 114,000 teachers, and 30,000 social workers. I didn’t find statistics on what percentage of teachers that is, but it’s close to 4% of the NHS staff, and their illness is hitting the NHS hard. 

It’s also hitting the people with long Covid hard. Some haven’t been able to go back to work and have lost their jobs. 

Or I think that’s what the article I read is saying. The exact quote is about losing their “roles.” Maybe they’re talking about being downgraded to other roles, but I wouldn’t count on that. If you take enough sick leave–even if it’s your job that exposed you to the sickness–most employers will find a way to show you where the door is. 

One MP is trying to get long Covid recognized as an occupational disease, and to compensate and support workers in health care, social care, and key public services who catch it. I wouldn’t hold your breath, but it would be the right thing to do.

I should also mention the thousands of people who caught Covid in less prestigious jobs in transportation and meat packing and supermarkets–all those people who used to be cheered as key workers and who’ve now been officially reclassified as Remind-me-why-we-cared-about-you.

 

How not to break lockdown rules

An unnamed man broke the Covid rules by traveling from England into Scotland for no better reason than to camp out on Inchtavannach, an island in Loch Lomond. Once there, he didn’t sing “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes” (as far as anyone knows, anyway). Instead, he lost his paddle and got his silly self stranded. 

(Again, if you’ve visiting from a culture with a different set of overused songs, that’s from “Loch Lomond.”)

What happened to the unnamed man isn’t quite the same as, in the famous American phrase, up shit crick without a paddle, but it’s close enough. (That phrase, by the way, is said to date back to the 1860s. You can take it back half a century or so to the days of Admiral Nelson, but you might or might not have to sacrifice the word shit. You needed to know that.)  

It’s not clear what happened to the paddle. The man went for a walk and when he came back he discovered that it had gone for a walk of its own. He and his true love never met again, and someone called the cops–probably him but the article I found doesn’t commit itself. A rescue boat picked him up. I don’t know if he was fined, but I’m reasonably sure that he was teased within an inch of his life.

Do vaccines keep us from transmitting Covid?

One of the endless unanswered Covid questions has been whether people who’ve been vaccinated will still spread the disease, and evidence is piling up that they’ll spread it less. 

During their early trials, Pfizer didn’t test for asymptomatic cases, but AstraZeneca did and they fell by 50%. That matters, because asymptomatic people can still spread the disease, so fewer cases means less spread. Not to be outdone, Pfizer did its own study and reported that one dose of vaccine cut the risk of transmission by 70% and two doses by 85%. 

Don’t put too much weight on the differences in those numbers. They were measuring different things.

In Scotland, people living with vaccinated NHS staff were considerably less likely to catch the virus than people living with unvaccinated NHS staff. 

How much less likely? Considerably. Will you stop asking awkward questions?

Irrelevant photo: More daffodils.

Hospital workers in Cambridge showed a 75% decrease in asymptomatic infections, and an Israeli study showed that when vaccinated people did have infections they had lower viral loads, which would make them less infectious than people with higher viral loads. 

So if we’ve been vaccinated, can we throw a party for a few hundred of our closest friends as long as they’ve also been vaccinated? ‘Fraid not. The British government’s advice is that “the full impact on infection rates will not become clear until a large number of people have been vaccinated” and we should please keep our heads on straight and be cautious. 

Why? Well, consider what’s happened in Chile. 

 

Okay, what has happened in Chile?

It’s vaccinated about a third of its population with at least one dose–it’s vaccination program has been impressive–and even so it’s going into another wave of the pandemic. Both deaths and case numbers are rising and they’re threatening to overwhelm the health system. Some 20% to 30% of the country’s medical professionals have gone on leave because they’re exhausted, wrestling with health problems of their own and with thoughts of suicide.

“When transmission rates are high, the vaccine does not rein in new infections right away,” said Dr. Denise Garrett, an epidemiologist at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington. “And with the new variants, which are more contagious, we’re not likely to see a big impact until the vast majority of the population is vaccinated.”

According to Dr. Francisca Crispi of the Chilean medical association, the government unlocked the country too quickly. It reopened its borders and loosened restrictions on businesses. It introduced a permit system that let people go on summer vacations–or holidays, if you speak British. So people came into the country. People went out of the country. People traveled around the country. Gyms, churches, malls, restaurants, and casinos reopened. Experts fretted, but the government stuck with it, reopening the schools at the beginning of March. 

Nobody traced anybody.

And it all felt so good.

So no. No parties for the time being. Sorry.

 

The mass testing report

A study of mass Covid testing in British universities and colleges reports that it was haphazard, expensive, and a lost opportunity.

The BMJ–a medical journal–sent freedom of information requests to 216 schools and got full information from only 16, leading me to think that information may be free but it’s still elusive. But never mind that. They got partial information from others and it was enough to draw some tentative conclusions.

The testing was part of the government’s Operation Moonshot, which was going to make the country Covid safe and avoid a second lockdown by testing people–lots of people–whether they had symptoms or not. Since it started, we’ve had not just a second lockdown but also a third.

Never mind, though. It’s been a good use of £100 billion. 

The university and college testing was just a small part of Op Moonshot, and the study estimates that every positive test result cost £3,000. It also says that’s likely to be a massive underestimate because it doesn’t include the staffing of test sites and whatever other costs are hidden under the rug. 

You’d noticed that the rug was lumpy? I tripped on it just this morning.

Angela Raffle, consultant in Public Health and honorary senior lecturer at Bristol University, said the testing program was “a desperate exercise in trying to get favourable publicity for number 10, trying to get rid of the Innova test mountain, and trying to change the culture in this country so that we start to think that regular tests for everybody is a worthwhile use of public resources, which it isn’t.”

Number 10? That’s the center of the British government.

And the Innova test mountain? It’s made up of £1 billion (as far as I could figure out) worth of quick-result Covid tests that the government bought and which turn out to work best on people who have a high viral load. In other words, they’re exactly what you don’t want to use on asymptomatic people–the program’s target audience. 

And they’re even less accurate in the hands of non-experts. 

So who’s using them? Non-experts. 

We’ll skip the most confusing of the numbers involved in this and settle for these: Let’s say you use them to test 100,000 people and get 630 positives. Of those, 400 of those will be false positives, and you will have missed half the positive cases (that should, I think, be 230) in your sample. If that isn’t worth £1 billion, I don’t know what is. Or even £100 billion. Because what’s £99 billion between friends? 

Regular testing of secondary school students was rolled out this spring, although it’s too early for anyone to have statistics on how effective or expensive that will be. The program was sold to us as a way to reopen the schools safely. 

Stephen Reicher, a member of Sage, the government’s science advisory group, said, “The government keeps on seeking quick fixes based on one intervention. What they consistently fail to do is build a system in which all the parts work together to contain the virus.” 

 

Vaccine passports vs. mass testing 

All of this is particularly relevant because Boris Johnson–our prime minister when he’s working, which he does sometimes do–just backed off his plan to introduce vaccine passports and announced that we’ll use mass testing instead. But only in England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are doing whatever the hell they want because that’s how it works around here. 

Are you confused? Then you understand the situation.

The vaccine passports were supposed to allow people into crowded events, but MPs from across the political spectrum opposed them, including a good number from his own party, and they were joined by an assortment of civil liberties groups he wouldn’t normally listen to but what the hell, let’s mention them anyway. They’re particularly problematic because not everyone’s eligible for the vaccine yet. 

So instead of vaccination passports, everyone in Britain is going to be offered two rapid Covid tests a week. 

How many of us will use them? My best guess is not many, given the odds of coming up with a false positive and having to self-isolate. For someone who’s retired, that’s a minor inconvenience. For someone who’s working and can’t afford to miss a paycheck, that’s a disaster. 

The usual suspects are saying this would work better if people were paid enough to live on when they can’t work. And if the contacts of anyone who tests positive were traced effectively.

The usual suspects will be ignored. 

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Last weekend, the government announced a pilot program of nine events to try out Covid passports. Presumably that was before it abandoned the idea, who your guess is as good as mine, which is roughly as good as theirs. Five of the nine venues said they had nothing to do with the program. 

You have to love this government. It’s a gift to satirists everywhere. If only it wasn’t supposed to run the country as well.

 

Other vaccine news

Russia has announced a Covid vaccine for animals, Carnivak-Cov. The idea is to prevent the virus circulating in dense animal populations, where it can mutate and spread back to humans. 

And Pfizer reports that its vaccine is effective in kids between 12 and 15. It’s still testing kids between 5 and 11 and any minute now will begin tests with kids between 2 and 5. All of that’s important because although kids are less susceptible to Covid, they can sometimes get very sick indeed and can less rarely get long Covid after a mild bout of the disease. 

They can also form a nice reservoir where the disease can sit and breed before returning to the more susceptible adult population.

 

And your light relief for the day is…

An art director, David Marriott, was stuck in Australian quarantine after flying back from his father’s funeral and was going ever so slightly nuts with boredom, so he made himself a cowboy outfit out of the brown bags that his meals came in when they were left at his door.

Then–as anyone would do–he realized that any serious cowboy needs a horse, so he made one, also from brown paper, but plus the ironing board and a lamp. Its–or, I guess, his–name is Russell, and Marriott’s asked for a pet walking service.

The photos are worth clicking through for–not just Marriott brushing Russell’s teeth, but Russell lined up to use the toilet since the management turned down the pet walking request. Russell’s in quarantine too.

Marriott’s thinking about adding a cat and a dog next.