Freedom, survival, and flag waving: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A reporter asked Boris Johnson (although not in these words) whether the mess we call our Covid test and trace system might explain why Italy and Germany have lower infection rates. 

Britain’s a “freedom-loving country,” Johnson explained, “and if you look at the history of this country in the last 300 years, virtually every advance, from freedom of speech to democracy, has come from this.”

In other words, “I may not approve of the coronavirus, but I will defend to the death our right to respond with complete incompetence, as well as my right to give fat contracts to my friends and respond to pointed questions with irrelevant answers.”

Wave that flag, folks. Strike up the band. There’s money to be made.

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Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

England’s Covid tracing app, let’s call it App 2 point 0h-Yes-We-Will, is up and running. The older one, App 1 point 0h-No-You-Won’t crashed into the brick wall of reality when it was tested on the Isle of Wight, leaving barely enough shards to make fun of. But take heart: 2 point 0h-Yes-We-Will is off to a roaring start.

  • Android users were able to download the trial version, so of course some of them did. They hated it. 
  • iPhone users who left a hyphen out of the app’s name got the New Zealand version. None of them came within two meters–or several thousand miles–of anyone on the system. This may be the fastest way to stop the spread.
  • NHS workers who downloaded the app and brought their phones to work were told they’d been exposed, even though they were wearing protective gear. 
  • People with older phones were sent into the outer darkness–that place where apps are unavailable and contact with the rest of the human race has to be made in person. “Older” is defined as prior to 2018.
  • People who had symptoms but tested negative can’t enter that into the app. It only accepted positive. But since they’ve been tested, the isolate-yourself countdown began. And couldn’t be turned off.
  • People who took tests outside of the privatized testing system–through NHS England, for example–couldn’t enter them into the app. That was tens of thousands of results that were missed. Daily. 
  • Users could only mark themselves down as infectious if they’ve been tested. The idea–probably a reasonable one, given what the world’s like–was to keep a bunch of wiseasses from saying they were infectious for the sheer joy of sending people home to isolate needlessly and, basically, shutting the country down because it sounded like a fun thing to do on a Saturday night. But since the testing system’s broken and tests are hard to get, people who genuinely were infectious couldn’t prove it to the app. 

Other than that, though, it’s going well. Except for Downing Street at first saying the app couldn’t trace contacts and then having to explain that, well, yes, actually it can. And will. And sing “There’ll Always Be an England” while it does it. 

You have to love these people. I’m not sure what they thought the point of the app was if it couldn’t trace contacts, and whoever they threw out in front of the press apparently didn’t stop to wonder. By now, I expect everyone at the press conference was too punchy to think of the question until it was too late to ask it.

I’ve scrupulously listed the app’s problems in the past tense, although I’d bet a batch of very good brownies that most–possibly all–of them could be hurled into the present tense without damaging my credibility even a small amount.

My credibility’s limited, I know, but I still have more than the people running the country.

Britain, by the way, has more test capacity than Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, or South Korea. And in spite of that, people can’t get tested. 

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A study said the privatized network of Covid testing labs “bypassed accreditation and raises quality concerns.” It also criticized the system of having people do their own swabs, saying it can lead to useless samples. 

When you do the test, you’re told to swab either your tonsils or their last known address. My tonsils still live with me, as they have for 73 years now, so I know they’re somewhere in Cornwall. But we don’t have the kind of relationship where we do a lot of hand-holding, so when I took a test I couldn’t tell if I was mopping my own tonsils or someone else’s. 

I’m relieved to hear that’s a flaw in the system, not a personal failing.

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak told us that there’s no “risk-free solution” to Covid and we all have to “learn to live with” it. Human contact is important. Spending money is also important, although I don’t think he exactly said that, but all the same the economy needs us. “Lives can no longer be put on hold,” he said. Britons should learn to live “without fear.”

Personally, I’m more interested in still being alive by the time this ends–assuming it does end–than in being fearless. Preferably with my lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and other body parts still working at full capacity, and with my energy in the functional zone. Also with my sense of taste and smell intact. Fear can be crippling, but its gift is that it can also keep us from crippling or killing ourselves–from walking off cliffs, say. It’s like pain. No one likes it, but it offers us important information. 

I can live with a reasonable amount of fear, especially if it means continuing to live.

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I can’t speak to Sunak’s genuine competence, but he’s the one member of this government who at least projects the image of it, leading to rumors that he may turn out to be Boris Johnson’s replacement–assuming, of course, that the Tories break with recent tradition and select for competence when they choose their next leader. He may be signaling here that he leans toward the libertarian wing of the party–the let ’em wander free, the virus will take care of itself wing. 

Never say it can’t get any worse.

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Enough with the politicians. Let’s visit the scientists: 

A Centers for Disease Control study found a correlation between eating out and catching Covid. That’s not proof, it’s just correlation, as in the two seem to be lining up more than is statistically likely. But it’s worth noticing.

Eating out included eating indoors, on patios, and outdoors. 

What’s the difference between a patio and outdoors? Damned if I know. I thought they were both outdoors.

Which should warn you about how little I know.

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A new Covid test can be done at home and it takes only fifteen minutes. What’s more, it’s cheap, although the article I saw didn’t say how cheap. The problem? It only detects the virus in people with a high viral load. The team that developed it talks about it as complementing existing tests, not replacing them, and says the people with the largest viral load are the people most likely to transmit the virus.

For some time now, I’ve been reading about fifteen-minute tests, half-hour tests, and instant tests that can be done only by large, bearded men with divining rods, but they’re always in development, or about to be set loose in the world but not quite yet. Or that they’re available on the internet but their accuracy ranges from who knows to don’t ask me. 

Then they drop out of sight. The only one that’s resurfaced is the sniffer dogs. Fido’s working in a pilot project in an airport in Finland. Do not go through a Finnish airport with dog biscuits in your pocket.

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Speaking of viral load, a study in Detroit found the viral load decreasing in hospitalized patients between April and June, and that lined up neatly with a lower number of deaths. They’re not sure why the viral load was lower, but it might be a result of social distancing, lockdown, and face masks–especially when they’re worn over the parts of the face that we breathe through.

Does anyone know why we keep talking about face masks? Is there some other part of the anatomy a mask could cover? The eyes are a possibility, but they’re generally located on the face.

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The city of Manaus, in Brazil, may have reached herd immunity: 66% of the population may have Covid antibodies. (Yes, but do notice that the word may squeezed itself in there not once but twice.) Getting to that point involved mass graves, overwhelmed hospitals, and corpses piled in refrigerated trucks. People there are still dying of Covid, but the numbers are going down. 

As soon as that went public, experts jumped in to warn against thinking that herd immunity is a viable strategy. 

Florian Krammer, professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, tweeted, “Community immunity via natural infection is not a strategy, it’s a sign that a government failed to control an outbreak and is paying for that in lives lost.” 

And after all those deaths, immunity to Covid may be short-term. No one knows yet.

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I said earlier that I wanted to get out of this mess with my sense of smell intact. Why do I care? Not only because I like food and if you lose your sense of smell your sense of taste goes with it, but because its loss may indicate some serious long-term losses.

Yeah, sorry, yet another study. Those scientists. They will keep worrying about this thing. How are we supposed to live without fear when they keep scaring the shit out of us?

This study takes off from Covid’s demonstrated ability to get into the brain and insult the cells. That’s is childish, I know, but brain cells aren’t used to it and they’re sensitive. Insult them enough and they die. 

True, Covid knows how to do insults. One of its insults involves starving the cells of oxygen, and that would probably upset anyone, so maybe we can cut the brain cells a little slack here.

Covid does less drastic things as well. The loss of smell is one, and the study treats that as a neurological symptom and an indicator that Covid’s up to something in the brain and nervous system. The loss of smell, it says, is caused by an inflammation that could cause long-term neurological problems.

Inflammation, it turns out, causes a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s, and 90% of people who get Parkinson’s report a loss of the sense of smell in the early stages. After the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, survivors had two or three times the risk of developing Parkinson’s.

So yes, even those of us who don’t speak science are starting to see a pattern.

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From the Department of What’s It Going to Take, People? comes the story of a gospel choir in Spain that scheduled an outdoor concert in September and then rehearsed for it indoors.

Members did the recommended stuff–kept a distance, washed their hands, and wore masks for most of the rehearsal. They even did a temperature check as people arrived. What they didn’t do was open the windows–there were moths out there, and mosquitoes. So they turned on the air conditioning, because hey, it was hot.

When the article was written, thirty of the choir’s forty-one members had tested positive.

Exactly what a gospel choir in Spain sings I don’t know. I’m probably defining gospel in American. 

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And from the Department of Good News at the End of a Post comes this: A study estimates that England’s decision to house the homeless in unused hotel rooms during lockdown may have saved 266 lives and avoided 21,000 infections, 1,164 hospitalizations, and 338 intensive care admissions among the homeless alone. That doesn’t count the people they’d have gone on to infect.

I’ve been trying to find out if the program’s still going on. I think so, but I can’t swear to it.

Still disinfecting the groceries? News on how Covid’s spread, plus other sciency stuff

A new study reports that most Covid infections are spread by aerosols–in other words, by the awkward fact that we breathe, a process that leads us to trade both air and germs with those we love, not to mention those we don’t. Earlier studies measured how long the virus could survive on objects and speculated about that as a route of transmission, but this one didn’t find much evidence that transmission happens that way in the real world. 

So the good news is that you can stop boiling the toilet paper when you bring it home from the store. Also that those masks really do make a difference–possibly to you, but definitely to the people around you. And that keeping your distance from other people is good protection.

But anytime you say, “The good news is,” you have to follow it with parallel bad news. So the bad news, if we’re to believe the rumor I heard yesterday, is that people are expecting Britain to go into another lockdown and already they’re panic buying. Because the country’s semi-officially in the second wave of the pandemic. Cases are doubling every week. The test and trace system that was supposed to let us control the spread is demented, broken, and–forgive the technical language here–completely fucked. The people who purport to govern the country say they want to avoid a lockdown, and the more they say it, the more inevitable it looks. So stock up on toilet paper. Also flour. And if you’re British, baked beans. 

Everything else you can do without. Unless you have pet food. Stock up on pet food.

Irrelevant photo: Erigeron. Really. That’s what they’re called.

But forget rumor. Let’s go back to science and the study I was talking about. It also reports that Covid transmission is highest about a day before the symptoms show up, making complete nonsense of the idea that we should limit tests to people with symptoms. 

No transmission has been documented after a patient’s had symptoms for a week. That doesn’t completely rule it out, but it does kind of point us in that direction.

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A new study of Covid and singing–more bad news; sorry, everyone–pretty much contradicts the last study of aerosols and singing that I told you about. That earlier one measured the aerosols and droplets sprayed into the air by individual singers and by individual speakers and reported that quiet singing doesn’t spread aerosols much more than quiet speaking does. Turn up the volume on either and you up the Covid spread.

But.

This latest study looked at a superspreader event involving one choir rehearsal that caused over fifty cases of Covid and two deaths. It broke down people’s interactions at the rehearsal, concluding that the combination of poor ventilation, many people, a long rehearsal, and body heat led to a buildup of aerosols that circulated with the air in the room.

No one was wearing masks. This was well before masks were recommended, and although I haven’t tried singing through one I have trouble imagining that it’d work well. 

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A third study reports that most homemade masks work just fine, even when we sneeze. Emphasis on most. I still see the occasional online photo of or pattern for crocheted masks. What are people thinking? They might as well take chalk and draw a mask on their faces.

Or magic marker if they want a longer-lasting useless gesture.

Sorry about the lack of a link here. I cleverly linked it to this post. By the time I figured that out, I’d lost the actual article.

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One more study and then I’ll shut about about science and we can go back to the glorious and multicolored ignorance that marks public life these days. This one comes from Dublin, was presented at a conference involving many initials, and shows that about half the people who get ill with Covid have persistent fatigue ten weeks after they recover, even if they had mild cases. The fatigue hits women more often than men.

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A man coming back from traveling abroad was told to isolate himself for two weeks. Instead he went on a pub crawl with some friends. They hit a number of pubs, then two days later the returned traveler tested positive. 

The area went from 12 cases per 100,000 to 212 cases per 100,000 in less than three weeks. 

See? I told you we’d stop talking about science.

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Spain is developing a test that will allow people to test themselves and get a result in thirty minutes. It works like the gizmos that diabetics use to measure their blood sugar, meaning a person could use it and reuse it, and it gives no false positives.

Does it give any false negatives? Good question, and wasn’t I clever to ask it? I’m not sure. I could only find one reasonably up-to-date article on the thing and it didn’t say. 

The test is called the Convat and it’s “very advanced” and “almost at a pre-commercial level,” whatever that means. It sounds good unless you slow down, at which point you notice how little you understand it. 

It may be available to the public in December or January. Emphasis on may.

Now the fine print: They’re talking about the public in Spain. The project manager, Laura Lechuga, talked about the importance of having Spanish technology, since what’s available in one country may not become available in another. In other words, this is Spain trying to make sure they can handle their problems, not ours.

Sorry to tease you with that. We really need to all be in this together, but at the moment we don’t seem to be.