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.

Covid, the brain, and the toffs: The pandemic update from Britain

The Covid targets targets that we hear most about are the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, and the blood vessels, but some Covid patients also have neurological symptoms, ranging from headaches to confusion to full-out delirium, and evidence is mounting that Covid can attack the brain. 

That’s according to a study posted online and–like most Covid studies in this crisis–not yet peer reviewed. 

Covid isn’t the only virus that does some breaking and entering inside the brain. Zika did, but the body mounted an immune response. Covid, though, is a sneaky little s.o.b., and the body doesn’t seem to notice what it’s doing up there, which is making copies of itself and leaving a trail of destruction. The study found no evidence of an immune response to its presence in the brain.

“Days after infection, and we already see a dramatic reduction in the amount of synapses,” Dr. Alysson Muotri of the University of California said. “We don’t know yet if that is reversible or not.”

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Researchers will need to analyze brain samples from autopsies to see if it’s present in people with milder versions of the disease and in the people who are being called long-haulers, the people whose symptoms hang on and on. A lot of them have a range of neurological symptoms. 

Some 40% to 60% of hospitalized patients have neurological and psychiatric symptoms, but they may not all come from brain infections. Some may come from inflammations throughout the body. So: autopsies.

The problem, though, is that autopsies need people to die first, so this all depends on the right categories of people conveniently keeling over.

Everybody seems to be saying this, but it bears repeating: So much about this disease is still unknown.

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So what do you do about a disease like that? Well, at a town hall event hosted by the ABC network (that’s a TV channel), Donald Trump told the world that Covid will disappear when everyone develops a herd mentality. 

Conform, people. It’ll save us all.

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At least in the absence of a vaccine and a herd mentality, testing is the most likely thing to save us, and a new Covid test that’s still in the development stage sounds promising enough to lift even my gloomy spirits. 

Gloomy spirits? Well, I keep telling people that it’s going to be a long winter, then I have an impulse to slap myself silly. I’m sure the other people in question feel the same way. To date, everyone’s good manners have kept the situation from spinning out of control.

But back to the Covid test: Researchers wanted to come up with a quick, accurate test that would be cheap enough for people to test themselves at home every day, and it’s looking promising. 

The test is called STOPCovid, which probably stands for something, since half of it is in caps, and the researchers come from enough U.S. universities that I won’t bother to list them all.

The details of the test involve RNA, magnetic beads, and a high sensitivity, meaning it correctly identifies a lots o’ positive cases. The details are also over my head and I’m going to arbitrarily decide that they’re over yours too, but hey, I’m giving you a link so you can go prove me wrong. 

Actually, it didn’t seem that complicated until I realized that I understood the sentences but not their content. A lot of my life is like that. What I did understand is that it’s promising and that it’s designed to be cheap, fast, and usable. 

Also that it’s not ready yet.

Stay tuned. 

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The STOPCovid test can’t come fast enough for Britain, because the government’s taken what was already an expensive privatized mess of a testing program and made it worse.

It’s good that in these dark days we’re led by damn fools. 

What’s wrong with the testing program? People are being sent hundreds of miles from home for tests. People with symptoms can’t find tests, meaning they’re left not knowing if they can safely go back to work or if their kids can safely go back to school. 

The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding (whose background is in business, not public health), explained the disaster by saying that nobody “was expecting to see the really sizable increase in demand.”

Of course not. No one knew schools were reopening or thought that might mean more people being exposed ans needing tests. No one noticed when Boris Johnson nagged everyone who was working from home to go back into the office, which would mean more people getting exposed and needing–yeah, you can see where this is going.

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, is hailing the testing program as a phenomenal success and telling us all to stop carping about it. 

Me, I’m not carping. I’m a vegetarian. But I will say that the demand for tests is four times greater than the testing capacity.  

All hail the wondrous testing program.

You have to love these people. They have absolutely no shame and minimal contact with reality. Or any desire to contact reality. They caught a glimpse of it once. It involved a lot of people with accents they didn’t like and clothes that cost less than theirs. Not to mention with infinitely less money than they have. It was all very unpleasant and why go through that again?

Anyway, the problems with testing seem to involve a shortage of lab capacity. The labs are also privatized, not that I’m trying to make a point here or anything. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-54163226

Meanwhile the number of cases is rising in parts of Britain and people are facing increased localized restrictions. 

Contact tracing’s going well too. Some people working in the system report–anonymously–that by the time they contact people who’ve been exposed to Covid and tell them to isolate themselves for two weeks, more than two weeks have gone by since they were exposed. And this past week, the tracing firm’s software was too embarrassed to go on and some tracers had to be told not to refresh their screens too often. Some of the people they called got so frustrated with how long the calls took that they hung up. 

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Shall we be completely fair here? The full quote from Jacob Rees-Mogg is, “The issue of testing is one where we have gone from a disease that nobody knew about a few months ago to one where nearly a quarter of a million people a day can be tested, and the prime minister is expecting that to go up to half a million people a day by the end of October.

“And instead of this endless capring, saying it’s difficult to get them, we should actually celebrate this phenomenal success of the British nation.”

All hail the British aristocracy. They either manage to believe this shit or don’t care what they say. 

And somehow or other, they stay in office. No, I can’t explain it either.