Nutburgers, Covid variants, and yes, good news stories

Back in December, an overnight pharmacist at a Wisconsin hospital left 57 Covid vaccine vials–each holding enough for 10 doses– out of the refrigerator so they’d spoil. He was convinced they’d make people infertile and implant them with microchips. He also believed the earth is flat and the sky isn’t real. Seriously. That wasn’t me saying something absurd to make you laugh, and I put his beliefs in the past tense, but for all I know he still believes that.

What is the sky if it’s not real? It’s a shield that the government put up to keep people from seeing god. What the microchips do is anyone’s guess. Make you dance like a carrot, maybe.

He pled guilty to deliberately spoiling the vaccine. Do I need to say that he doesn’t work at the hospital anymore?

Irrelevant photo: a hellebore.

…and meanwhile in Britain

Some dozen hospitals around Britain have seen Covid deniers barging in, denouncing the staff, and taking photos for social media. At one, a group of I’m not sure how many insisted that a Covid patient be sent home and treated with vitamins and zinc. 

“He will die if he is taken from from here,” a doctor told them before they were thrown out. 

Some of the photos they’ve posted on social media have been of empty hospital corridors, which are shown as proof that the hospitals, and intensive care units in particular, aren’t overstretched. NHS staff are being denounced as “ventilator killers,” and are being harassed and threatened on social media.

Seven people have faced fines and arrests, and posts have been taken off social media but more keep cropping up. 

“Staff are exhausted and are running on fumes,” said said Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, the president of the Doctors Association UK. “They should not be having to deal with abuse and even death threats on social media. Nor should they be worried about turning up for their shift due to crowds of people chanting ‘Covid is a hoax’ outside hospitals full of patients who are sick and dying. This is decimating morale, but worse still, could be obstructing patient care.”

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The Wales office of Britain’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency turned itself into a pandemic hotspot by–employees say–encouraging workers to come back to work while they still had symptoms and turning down the requests to work from home, even when the people involved were vulnerable. The IT systems, apparently, are so outdated that it’s not always possible for people to use them from home.

One complaint to Public Health Wales said the DVLA had asked people to turn off their test and trace apps so that their phones wouldn’t ping. Because who wants to be bothered at work with news that you’ve been exposed to Covid and should get yourself tested? 

People who did take time off for Covid-related reasons had that time taken off their sick leave. If they took more than ten days off, they got a warning.

The office has had more than 500 Covid cases since September, in an office with 1,800 employees.

A DVLA spokesperson said that safety is a priority. Want to bet whoever it is is working from home, or at least in a different office?

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The Covid variant first found in Britain seems to have somewhat different symptoms than the earlier variants. Coughs, sore throats, fatigue, and muscle pain are common, but loss of smell and taste are less likely.

As for the South African variant, over 100 cases have been identified in England. It’s not known to be more dangerous, but it has mutations that may–emphasis on may–make the current crop of vaccines less effective. It also may not. The experts are working frantically to figure that out right now. 

It’s not time to panic over this one. A couple of the vaccines may be less effective against it, but they’re not ineffective. One, the Pfizer, looks like it will be fine, but that’s in early tests. And keep in mind that when they talk about the vaccines being effective, they’re talking about people not getting sick at all, not about preventing hospitalization and death and all those things that have a way of focusing our attention on the disease. The statistics on the most severe aspects of the disease are better. 

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And having learned nothing from the Covid spike that followed the Christmas loosening of restrictions, caused the current lockdown, and brought our stats up to more than 100,000 deaths, Boris Johnson, Britain’s booster-in-chief and part-time prime minister, tells us that we may all be able to go on vacation–or in British, on holiday–this summer. Because, yeah, that’s what we should really be thinking about right now. 

I won’t even mention last summer’s encouragement to go on holiday, go out for a drink, go out for a meal, and join in the great germ exchange.

 

What are people doing in lockdown?

In the first lockdown, we read about people baking. Not people who’d been baking since they were twelve, but people who had to call helplines before they could reliably recognize their ovens. Flour was hard to buy unless you were buying in industrial quantities. Experimental banana bread loaves were, some of them, so heavy that if they’d been dropped from third-floor windows they’d have been more dangerous than Covid itself. 

This time, sure, some people are baking, but we’re not talking about that anymore. The focus has moved on and we’re talking about people fitting itty bitty jigsaw pieces together. 

In 2020, sales of jigsaw puzzles were up 38% in Britain compared to 2019. That’s over £100 million spent on something that’s completely useless. Unless, of course, you consider it useful to save your sanity and keep your family members from spilling each other’s blood. People, understandably, have different opinions about that. 

Traditionally, the jigsaw market (a phrase I never expected to find myself typing) skews heavily toward kids, but the best sellers last year were the thousand-piece ones that are meant for adults. I’ll skip the breakdown of what graphics are most popular, but manufacturers reported that they could sell just about any image, even plain white.

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Scandinavia’s biggest film festival, the Gothenburg Film Festival, will go ahead this year, in spite of the pandemic, but it’ll be held on an isolated island and movies will be screened for an audience of one. They invited applications and got 12,000, and I’m not sure if they chose Lisa Enroth because she’s a nurse or because someone drew her name out of a hat, but the festival’s chief exec said, “It feels particularly right to be able to give this unique experience to one of the many heroes of the healthcare system who are all working so hard against Covid-19.”

Enroth will watch a week’s worth of movies and post a daily video diary on the festival’s website, and I’m sure we’ll all be welcome to read it, so polish up your Swedish. (Parts of the website are in English, but the audience member is Swedish. I admit, I’m making assumptions here.)

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We can all take a more active part in the Great Big Art Exhibition, which is inviting people to make art at home and display it in their windows or on balconies or porches, or wherever their neighbors can appreciate it. The first theme, launched at the end of January, is animals. 

The arts organization sponsoring it, FirstSite, has organized British galleries to make work available for people to download as inspiration. When I looked, a handful of people had already posted their work on the site, and it’s wonderful. 

The project will run through April.

How much should we worry about the British Covid variant?

Whoopee! It’s another moment when Britain gets to claim world-beating status. Its new Covid variant may be more deadly than the old ones. In addition to maybe being more transmissible.

Maybe. (Also may be, if you want to split hairs and words.) Nothing’s certain yet, although we’d be smart to act as if the possible bad news is rock-solid certain bad news. Otherwise even more people might die. That has a way of focusing a person’s attention. Or at least it should. 

But that doesn’t mean that the evidence on it is clear.

Nervtag–the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group–says there’s a “realistic possibility” that it’s more deadly, but it’s by no means a sure thing, and the government’s chief science advisor, Patrick Vallance (known as Sir to his friends and family), said the data on this is “not yet strong.” 

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are both expected to work against the new variant, but they may be less effective against the variants from South Africa and Brazil. Not completely ineffective, just less effective. 

So it is time to be careful but it’s not time to panic. We can always do that later.

Irrelevant photo: A winter tree.

 

If we don’t panic, what should we do?

Susan Michie, an adviser on the government’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours says Britain’s lockdown rules aren’t strong enough, so she’d recommend strengthening them. 

There’s been a lot of focus on people who break the rules, and government ads urge people to stay home, “But actually,” she said, “all the data show that the overwhelming number of people are sticking to the rules with one exception which is self-isolation.

“In fact I would say that it’s not so much people not sticking to the rules, but it’s the rules themselves that are the problem.”

Compared to the first lockdown, twice as many people are going to work and using public transportation, and more kids are in school because the definition of key worker has been broadened.

“The better the lockdown is now the shorter it will be,” she said.

And the problem with self-isolation doesn’t seem to be that people don’t care but that so many of them can’t afford to miss work.

 

Your feel-bad stories for the day

Just when you think the government might be taking the pandemic seriously and understanding how important the people who work in the National Health Service are–

Nah, I won’t go on. It’s too silly. Foreign and minority group NHS workers in England might be disproportionately ineligible for Covid vaccines because guidelines on who hospitals should vaccinate rule out anyone without an NHS number.

Who’s that going to affect? Disproportionately, foreign-born workers and people from Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic backgrounds. They’re all less likely to have registered with a doctor’s practice, which means they haven’t gotten a number.

Some hospitals are working around the guidelines and vaccinating them anyway. 

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In case you’ve wondered how Britain’s £22 billion test and trace system manages to spend so much money while barely functioning–and I have–its bottom line gets a boost from a consulting company, Deloitte, which has 900 consultants on the test-and-trace books, each earning £1,000 a day.

Maybe that’s an average. Do we care? Nah, not really.

That’s a savings from last year, when the number of contractors was over 1,000. I can’t find the hourly wage for people working the test and trace phone system, but memory insists it’s minimum wage.

 

Your feel-good story for the day

On January 14, Dzhemal Senturk was hospitalized with Covid in Trabazon, Turkey, and his dog, Boncuk, ran after the ambulance all the way to the hospital and waited for him.

Senturk’s family took her home.

The next day, she came back, and she came back every day, waiting from 9 a.m. until dark. 

On January 20th, the man was released and she went home with him. And they lived happily ever after. Except that some papers spell the man’s name Cemal. It’s okay, though. Boncuk can’t spell.

 

And your information-packed snippet for the day

And now down to serious business: A British survey reports a lot of uncertainty about what key pandemic words and phrases mean, and as ever I’m here to help. 

Epidemiologist: These are doctors who treat the epidermis–your skin. Why is the news making such a fuss over them when the skin is one of the few things Covid isn’t interested in? Because so many people observing the current lockdown have gained weight and are desperate to get skinnier.

Flattening the curve: See above. 

Antibody: This is how people feel after failing to flatten the curve.

R number: This is the plural of the Is number, but abbreviated.

Is number: This is a secret metric kept by the deep state. You won’t hear about it anywhere but here. Doesn’t metric sound more worrying than measurement

Support bubble: This is the collection of imaginary friends you’ve gathered around you during the pandemic. They offer emotional support from within the confines of  your four walls.

Stay alert: This is a government slogan–or at least it was. It may have been retired by now and it’s okay not to know what it means because it never did mean anything, it just filled space while the government dithered.

The interesting thing about the survey–at least as far as I could tell from the article about it (my research didn’t take me as far as reading the survey itself)–is that it seems to have asked people if they could confidently explain the terms. It doesn’t seem to have cross-referenced their explanations with reality. In other words, were they even remotely right or only confident? It’s the perfect survey for our fact-free world.