Kids, Covid, and the Delta Variant

An article from the U.S. reports a sharp rise in the number of children hospitalized with Covid, especially in states with low vaccination rates. The article’s from September, although it’s still relevant. The U.S.–just to be clear–continues to exist even though September’s come and gone.  

The danger isn’t just that they’re at risk of dying, but that they’re also at risk of long Covid–the sometimes serious symptoms that drag on for no one knows how long after a percentage of people recover from Covid.. 

“These are children whose development and futures may be compromised,” said Dr. James Versalovic of Texas Children’s Hospital. “The collective impact when we look ahead is significant.”

In case anyone missed the point, he also said, “Children are our future adults.”

I’ve suspected that for a long time but I’m glad to have it confirmed by a medical professional. 

Irrelevant photo: Cut flowers at the village produce stall.

Are the numbers up because the Delta variant’s more dangerous to children? That’s not clear yet. Children are still less likely than adults to get severe Covid, even with Delta. But whatever we eventually learn about the percentages, the Delta variant is more contagious, so we’re dealing with a larger number of infections and from that a larger number of kids who draw the short straw in the great Covid lottery.  The doctors interviewed for the article called for more people to get vaccinated and for people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

“What really protects children are the interventions directed at the rest of society,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai of the health policy department at Harvard University. 

If asked, I’m sure he would have confirmed that children are society’s future adults, but no one did him the courtesy of asking.

 

Long Covid and vaccination

The latest news on vaccination and long Covid–or at least the latest I’ve found–is that being doubly vaccinated slashes hell out of your odds of developing long Covid. 

First, vaccination makes you less likely to get infected. In a study of 2 million vaccinated people, 0.2% tested positive. What’s the comparison number for unvaccinated people? Um, yeah, I should have that, but the article I’m working from was making a different point, so it didn’t hand me a comparison group. But in a different study of a different group, vaccinated people were three times less likely to get infected than the unvaccinated. 

To point out the obvious, that means only that they test positive, not necessarily that they get sick. 

Second, if you take that first group of infected vaccinated people and compare it with a group of infected unvaccinated people, the vaccinated group are only half as likely to develop long Covid.

The vaccinated group is also 31% less likely to get acute Covid symptoms, 73% to end up in the hospital, and 16% less likely to have had liver for supper. 

Sorry. I wanted to see if anyone was still awake. That won’t be on the test.

The bad news is that older people and people from poorer areas (also known as poor people, but the study didn’t have income data for individuals so it extrapolated from where they lived)– 

Should we start that over? Those two groups aren’t as well protected by the vaccines, which argues that they should be priorities for booster shots. It also argues that raising people’s incomes would be a great public health measure. I’d recommend lowering peoples ages as well, but no one’s worked out the mechanics of that. 

If I hear that anyone’s making progress on that, I’ll let you know. Right after I inform my knees, which will be very excited about it. 

 

Scientists are being threatened

A poll of 321 scientists found that 15% had gotten death threats after speaking publicly about Covid, and 22% had been threatened with physical or sexual violence. 

Not that sexual violence isn’t physical, mind you, but I guess it’s best to be specific about how ugly things are getting.

The most common issues that triggered the threats were vaccination, masks, and the effectiveness of specific treatments.

It’s heartening that we’re handling a worldwide crisis like adults.

 

And speaking of specific treatments…

The Thai government gave an herb, green chiretta, known as the king of bitters, to 11,800 inmates with mild and asymptomatic Covid and claims that 99% of them recovered. 

Which sounds great, but the problem is that it doesn’t seem to have been a controlled study–you know, the kind with a control group that doesn’t get the treatment, so you can compare them.. 

If they reported how many of them were asymptomatic, I haven’t seen it. An asymptomatic person making a full recovery is hardly headline news.

The herb’s widely used in Thailand to treat colds and flu, 

Just to complicate the picture, it’s hard to calculate Covid recovery rates. Don’t ask–the article I’m working from just tossed that in and moved on, so let’s do the same. 

By way of comparison,” the article says, “the recovery rates announced by Thai officials are somewhat higher than overall Covid recovery rates in India (32%-83%) or Australia (96% recovered after 120 days).”

That doesn’t explain why they’re hard to calculate, but if we’re looking at a range from 32% to 83%, we might want to agree that it’s not an easy number to come up with.

Two controlled studies of green chiretta are underway, one in Thailand and the other in Georgia. That’s Georgia as in the country where you’ll find Tbilisi, not as in the state where you’ll find Atlanta. 

 

And a quick glance at Britain…

…since that’s what I allegedly write about here. Sorry. The pandemic’s taken me on a long side trip.

It’s done that to all of us, hasn’t it?

Covid infections in Britain went up by 60% in a month. Or to come at the numbers in a different way, we had almost 50,000 new cases in one recent day. That’s some 19,000 short of our all-time peak. 

Britain’s infection rates are higher than those of other European nations. Yay us! We’re winning!

No, wait. I got carried away. We don’t want to win this race. 

Why are we ahead? It’s not clear yet. The puzzle has a lot of pieces and it’ll take a while before anyone figures out where they go. How does testing compare to other countries? What about mask wearing, ventilation, vaccination, school rooms, work, transportation? But we can give a few of the pieces a good hard stare: Some of these bullet points will apply to Britain as a whole and some only to England. Apologies for putting them in the same bag and shaking them together before baking. It’s been that kind of week. 

  • The kids are back in school and not wearing masks.
  • Lots of people who were working from home are going back into–well, wherever it is they once worked. Whether they want to or not.
  • Not unrelated to that, the government has reopened everything it could get its hands on. 
  • Mask mandates have ended, although they’re recommended in public indoor spaces.
  • Kids between 12 and 15 are eligible for vaccination but it’s not happening quickly.
  • Booster shots for vulnerable adults aren’t happening quickly either.
  • Immunity from vaccines may be waning. Because Britain started its vaccination program earlier than most countries, waning immunity would show up earlier.
  • A new sub-variant of Delta has been spotted. That may well not be significant, but I thought I’d mention it. 

On top of that, one article I’ve seen brings the news that the unvaccinated could get reinfected an average of every 16 months, although reinfection doesn’t necessarily wait that long. It can happen soon after the first bout. So it’s not just the vaccines that (apparently) wane, so does natural immunity. Reports are coming in of people getting reinfected not just once but twice. 

People who’ve been vaccinated are also reporting reinfections. How often? I haven’t seen a number, and I’d be surprised if decisive numbers are in yet. What we can say is that the vaccinated will, at least, have some protection against the severest forms of the disease.

“We still don’t know much about the risk factors for reinfection,” Nisreen Alwan, associate professor of public health, said, “but the theoretical assumption that once all the young get it the pandemic will be over is becoming increasingly unlikely.” 

So much for herd immunity. 

Widespread vaccination has meant hospitalizations aren’t going up as quickly as infection rates, but even so we’ve got something like 869 admissions to hospital every day and some 8,000 people in hospital with Covid–around 10% of them on ventilators. So this increase in cases isn’t cost free. Leaders in the National Health Service are calling for mask mandates, working from home, and other restrictions to be brought back before we all find ourselves neck-deep in unpleasant brown stuff. And the health secretary, while refusing to do anything that useful, is at least asking Members of Parliament to set an example by wearing masks in crowded public places.

Should Christmas parties be canceled? Oh, hell no. Just take a lateral flow test first. 

The UK’s fairly highly vaccinated, and that’s keeping deaths and hospitalization rates from rising as quickly as they did in the early days of the pandemic, but they are rising and an already underfunded health care system is struggling. 

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To underline how complicated the picture is, Japan’s had an unexpected downturn in the number of cases, and it’s not clear why that’s happened either. No one’s complaining, but understanding it would be useful.

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A joint report from the House of Commons’ science and health committees rips into the British government’s early response to Covid, which amounted to, “Let’s all get sick, then we’ll have herd immunity. Yeah, som people will die, but doesn’t everyone die sooner or later?” 

The government caused thousands of deaths by delaying a lockdown, the report says.

“Decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic–and the advice that led to them–rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” it says. 

Britain has had more than 137,000 recorded coronavirus deaths. That’s the second highest number in Europe. Only Russia has more–and it’s a hell of a lot bigger. 

We won’t get into how many unrecorded Covid deaths there were and are, or the varying ways a Covid death is defined, but let’s acknowledge that it’s not a number anyone can be accurate about. Still, the numbers we have give us a rough sketch of where things stand. 

 

The smoker’s paradox

Early in the pandemic, a small handful of studies reported that smokers seemed to be protected against Covid’s worst effects. Since that ran counter to everything we’d expect, it was reported widely as a man-bites-dog story.

You know about man-bites-dog stories? If a dog bites a man, it’s not news. If a man bites a dog, it is. This bit of wisdom came from the time before women were invented, hence their absence. 

I might as well admit that I don’t remember seeing articles about smokers being protected from Covid, but my memory’s more decorative than functional, so I may have known about it at the time.

Never mind. What was behind the stories? Less than meets the eye. A larger study has now shown more or less what we’d expect: that smokers are 80% more likely to be hospitalized with Covid than nonsmokers. 

If you’d like an interesting lesson on probability, do click through and read the article. It’s a great explanation of why science continually updates its conclusions. But I’m going to skip all that and tell you this instead: 

First, the initial studies were small and the more recent one is large, meaning it has a better chance of being accurate.

Second, some of the initial studies were funded by tobacco companies, which–oops–are still trying to sell cigarettes. So we might want to look for an element of bias. Which lead us to the next paragraph.

Third, the studies asked the wrong question. They looked at the number of people hospitalized with Covid and asked how many of them smoked.

It’d be more useful–if you want a scientifically useful answer, that is–to compare smokers and nonsmokers and ask how many in each group are hospitalized with Covid. 

If you approach the question the first way, you don’t take account of the people who die before being admitted or who are transferred to a hospice. 

My math’s terrible, but I suspect that if you have one category of people who die quickly and one of people who linger, the lingerers pile up, so there will be more of them when you count heads, making it look like the dead are protected. 

The larger, later study included a fuller range of the population, asked a better question, and got a more predictable result.

if COVID teaches us nothing else,” the article says, “it should teach us to hold extraordinary claims–about smoking, vitamin D, zinc, bleach, gargling iodine, or nebulising hydrogen peroxide–to high standards.”