Lockdown in a hall of mirrors

If the Nobel committee ever gives a prize for incompetence, please, someone, can I nominate Britain’s current government?

It’s hard to know where to start, but let’s jump in with the government deciding to go off-label and give people their second dose of the Covid vaccines later than the manufacturers recommend. That set off a good bit of screaming by doctors and scientists, not because they know it’ll be a problem but because no one knows how it’ll work. 

But that’s serious stuff, so forget about it. What about the people who’d already gotten their first dose and were given appointments for the second one? 

Well, on the same day that the minister for Covid vaccine deployment (no, I didn’t know we had one either) said it was doctors could let patients keep their second-dose appointments, National Health Service England said the appointments needed to be “cancelled and rearranged.”

So that’s clear.

Irrelevant photo: skimmia japonica, I believe. 

Meanwhile, a Labour peer is suing the government over its decision to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Not the Oxford vaccine as well? 

Nope. Its clinical trials offer some evidence that getting the second dose later might not be a problem. Might. Some. Pfizer, though, has said there’s no evidence to support delaying its second dose. So that’s the stronger case.

Her argument is that the decision is unlawful and potentially unsafe.

Two notes before I go on: One, a Labour peer is, in normal language, a member of the House of Lords who’s a Labour Party member. If you live in the real world that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but if you follow British politics long enough it starts to sound frighteningly normal. 

Two, something I read the other day objected to calling the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine simply the Oxford vaccine. I’m sure they’re right, and it’s annoying as hell. I really should do it right.

 

Lockdown in a hall of mirrors

The government has changed the lockdown rules sixty-four times since the pandemic started, according to a human rights lawyer who sat down and counted them. That’s an average of one change every four and a half days–and that’s just the actual laws, not advice or guidelines. So basically no one knows what we’re supposed to be doing.

That’s led to cops, lawyers, and government ministers not knowing law from advice or their ass from an apple. 

A lot of the information on lockdown that filters out to the public doesn’t reflect the actual law, and the average cops on the beat get their information from the same not-necessarily-accurate sources as members of the public. They’re not lawyers and they don’t read the new laws every four and a half days. 

What the ministers’ excuses are, I don’t know, but Boris Johnson’s recent bike ride reminds us that they’re as muddled as we are.  

What I’m talking about is that Boris Johnson, allegedly our prime minister, although I’m not sure how much of his time or attention the job claims, took a bike ride and a member of the public spotted him seven miles from home. That was after two women were fined £200 (each) for meeting five miles from their homes to take a walk. Because, after all, we’re in lockdown.

They were supposed to stay local, the cop who fined them told said.

The fines–after lots of embarrassing publicity–were withdrawn, but the incident did set a context. Was Johnson staying local? What does local mean?

The policing minister (I didn’t know we had one of those either) said, helpfully, that whether seven miles is local “depends on where you are.” 

And while we were all chewing our way through that, syllable by unhelpful syllable, he added, “Seven miles will be local in different areas.”

I hope that clarifies the issue. 

 

Deaths and other serious stuff 

On January 13, the UK had 1,564 Covid deaths–more than we saw on any day of the first pandemic wave. The best estimates are that those were people who’d been infected before the great Christmas germ exchange, so we can expect the daily number of deaths to rise when the Christmas cases start rolling in.

The situation in some hospitals is serious enough that to free up beds for Covid patients they’ve started discharging some patients to their homes, where they can at least theoretically be cared for by family, and others to hotels, where they’ll be cared for by volunteer organizations, medical people from the military, and (less realistically, since they’re already overstretched) NHS personnel. 

These are patients who they’d otherwise keep in the hospital. 

The NHS has also asked care homes to start accepting Covid patients who don’t have a recent negative test as long as they’ve been in isolation for 14 days and have no new symptoms. I don’t know about you, but I see trouble coming there.

No one sounds happy about any of this. It’s a measure of how bad things look right now. 

 

The vaccine in Britain and around the world

London is getting fewer doses of vaccine per person than other parts of the country, and it’s not being quiet about it. But the country as a whole is getting fewer doses than it was promised. We were told we’d have 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in our eager (and very cold) little paws as soon as it was approved. By Christmas, half that amount had made its presence known.

For the Oxford vaccine that I now have to call the AstraZeneca vaccine, 30 million doses were supposed to materialize immediately. By Christmas, 4 million were available.

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That hapless minister in charge of vaccine deployment said the government would absolutely switch the mass vaccination centers to 24-hour-a-day operations if that became necessary or possible. Then the prime minister’s press secretary said there hadn’t been any clamor for the centers to stay open overnight. 

I hate to side with Johnson’s office, but people do need to sleep–especially overstretched medical people. 

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While many countries are vaccinating their oldest people first, Indonesia is prioritizing people who are between eighteen and fifty-nine. Professor Amin Soebandrio said, “We are targeting those that are likely to spread the virus”–people who “go out of the house and all over the place and then at night come back home to their families.”

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The first reports on the Sinovac vaccine (it’s called CoronaVac–Sinovac’s the maker) said it was 78% effective, but new reports say it’s more like 50% effective at preventing the disease but 78% effective at keeping people from needing medical treatment. That makes it a perfectly workable vaccine but the first vaccines reported such high numbers that we’ve started to expect fantastic instead of just workable. 

SinoVac was tested in Brazil, where it’s become a political football, with the president, Jair Bolsonaro, feeding into an antivaccination movement and the governor of Sao Paolo, João Doria (who hopes to run for president), championing the vaccine.

 

And a bit of research that doesn’t fit anywhere else

Researchers are reporting that double-masking–wearing one on top of another–can protect not just the person on the outside of the mask but you, the person on the inside, especially if the masks are thin. You don’t want to get so crazy with this that it’s hard to breathe, but two relatively flimsy masks can approach the effectiveness of the N95 masks that medical workers wear. 

The researchers also say you can get a better fit out of a mask with add-ons: ties from ear loop to ear loop or nose bridges to keep it in place. And you’ll be in the height of fashion. I felt like a bit of an idiot, but I did wear two masks yesterday and it wasn’t much different than wearing one. 

 

The Covid medical news roundup

First, a fragment of good news, since we’re all in need of one: The Pfizer vaccine has been declared safe for people with food and medication allergies. It’s only a hazard to people who are allergic to components of the vaccine itself–polyethylene glycol and polysorbate

People who have a history of anaphylaxis to an injectable drug or vaccine made with either of those, along with anyone who can pronounce the key words I’ve used so far, should talk to their allergists before getting a vaccination. Everyone else can relax. But people will still be monitored for fifteen minutes or so after they get vaccinated–just in case. So you can relax twice over.

Vaccines cause allergies in roughly 1.3 people out of a million, and the rate’s about the same for the Pfizer vaccine. 

Irrelevant photo: Snow on a camellia bud last February–or possibly the one before–when we had two or three inches. To celebrate, half of Cornwall jumped in their cars and ran off the road.

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Turkey reports that a vaccine developed by the Chinese firm Sinovac is 91.25% effective. 

Why is Turkey reporting on a Chinese vaccine? Because it was tested there. You have to test vaccines where the virus is plentiful and happy to infect people, and it’s not happy in China just now. 

Turkey’s signed a deal to buy 50 million doses.

 

Covid and the brain

Enough good news. It’ll only go to your head. 

Around the world, a handful of wild-ass psychiatric problems are turning up in post-Covid patients who have no history of mental illness. The numbers are small, but the problems aren’t and they can show up after weeks and even months in people who had only mild Covid symptoms.

The patients described in a New York Times article range from their thirties into their fifties–ages when people shouldn’t start having hallucinations, becoming paranoid, or, as an expert might put it, nutting out in these particular ways. And some of them had enough of a grasp on reality to know that something was wrong, which people with this kind of psychotic symptom usually don’t.

The best guess at the moment is that this is somehow linked to the body’s immune response to the virus–maybe to inflammation and maybe to vascular problems. There are records of psychosis and mania after the 1918 flu epidemic and after the SARS and MERS outbreaks. 

One psychiatrist, Dr. Hisam Goueli, said,  “We don’t know what the natural course of this is. Does this eventually go away? Do people get better? How long does that normally take? And are you then more prone to have other psychiatric issues as a result? There are just so many unanswered questions.”

I keep saying this, but younger people aren’t immune to Covid. They’re statistically less likely to have problems if they catch it, but that’s not the same as being immune. The problems it can cause are fucking terrifying. 

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The National Institutes of Health–they’re in the U.S., and I have yet to figure out why they’re plural–are seeing damage caused by thinning and leaky brain blood vessels in tissue samples from people who died shortly after contracting Covid. But they found no signs that Covid itself had invaded the brain, although earlier research did find small amounts of Covid in brain samples. 

The NIH findings may be caused by the body using inflammation to respond to the virus. And no, I don’t know what it means either. Eventually, I trust, someone will. In the meantime, it’s just one more piece of this giant jigsaw puzzle that’s all over the living room floor. If the cat would stop hiding pieces under the chair, we might complete it some day.

 

Controlling the spread–or not

A study of the effectiveness of measures to control Covid reports that you can’t drive the growth of the virus to below zero without paying a high social cost. Limiting gatherings, canceling public events, and suggesting that people stay at home? Nope, that won’t do it. You have to close schools, order people to stay at home, and close workplaces either fully or partially.

The British government will do most, and maybe all, of that eventually, but it wants to wait until the virus has a head start. That’s only sporting.

In fact, after Boris Johnson waffled over whether to reopen the schools on schedule and at the latest possible moment announced that he would, he now says there’s “no question” we’ll have to take tougher measures. But only in “due course.” 

On Sunday, Britain had more than 50,000 confirmed new cases for the sixth day running. But no, we’re not going to rush into this. 

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A Barcelona experiment held an indoor concert, complete with masks, dancing, and rapid Covid tests, to see if an event could be held safely in this pandemic age. Half the people who tried to go were tested and sent home to be a control group and half were tested and allowed in if they were negative. 

Preliminary reports are that eight days later no one in the group that attended had Covid and two people in the group that was sent home did. 

What does it all mean? I’m not sure. A photo from the concert shows dancers wearing masks but they weren’t all wearing them in the right places, so whether this speaks to the effectiveness of the testing, the inability to adult humans to identify the parts of their faces involved in breathing, or pure dumb luck I don’t know. 

 

The great vaccine rollout

Now that Britain has two vaccines going, how long will it take to get everyone vaccinated? 

A while. In the first three weeks, three-quarters of a million people were vaccinated, so (even I can work this out) that’s a quarter of a million people per week. At that rate, it’ll be the end of 2021 before the vaccine reaches everyone in the official list of vulnerable people (anyone over 50 plus a narrow definition of front-line workers and people with underlying medical conditions). Someone else worked that out, so you can probably trust it. 

The health secretary is aiming for 2 million people a week. And I’m still hoping to be a full 6 feet tall, but at 73 I suspect I’ve stopped growing. 

And that’s just the first shot. For the followup, we’re counting on King Arthur to rise from–remind me, where’s he supposed to return from when his country needs him? Avalon? Anyway, he’s traded his now rusty sword for a rust-proof needle and will be helping out with the vaccination effort as soon as he finishes the required online module in identifying and countering radicalization and gets his certificate. 

And the good news is . . . 

. . . that astronomers in Australia have found a radio wave that (important missing word: apparently) comes from a nearby star. It was picked up for thirty hours during April and May of, um, 2019 I think. They’ve been analyzing it ever since and so far haven’t found anything earth-based that would account for it.

What’s more, It’s apparently shifted frequency in a way that’s consistent with the movement of a planet, and the star it seems to come from, Proxima Centauri, has a rocky planet in the habitable zone, where water doesn’t freeze permanently or sizzle itself into something not helpful to the creation of life.

No one’s ruling out some really boring explanation for the signal, but at the moment it’s called the Wow! Signal because an astronomer wrote “Wow!” in the margin next to the data. 

Why is this good news and what’s it got to do with Covid? You know the concept of deus ex machina? That’s when a writer traps her- or himself in a corner and can’t resolve the plot problem in an even vaguely credible way, so–let’s shift to the plural; it’s not as clunky–they bring in some unexpected power or event to save the day, the play, and the paycheck. 

Well, I try to include something hopeful in these posts, but my shipment of hopeful material got stuck at the Brexit border with the wrong paperwork and will be delayed for several days. Or months. So this is a deus ex machina ending. These folks, whoever they are, are radioing us instructions that, as soon as we translate them, will save us from our silly selves.

And if you believe that, I heard about a bridge in Brooklyn that’s going at a knockdown price.

Deus ex machina literally means “god from the machine” and it comes from ancient Greek drama (even though the words are Latin; don’t ask). They’d use a crane to lower a god onto the stage at the end of the play and nothing would have to make sense after that. If god said the undeserving character got the full bowl of Cheerios, the deserving one got yesterday’s cold toast, and the important Greek phrase got to be in Latin, who could argue?