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Don’t Be Fooled by the Great Pandemic Denial

Leaders pretend lifting restrictions is fine. But vaccines alone can’t protect us from spread and harm.

Andrew Nikiforuk 4 Apr

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

Last July U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who partied freely during two COVID lockdowns caused by his own inaction, decreed “Freedom Day” from the pandemic.

Like most modern politicians, Johnson couldn’t be bothered with dealing with the complications of an evolving virus that comes in controllable waves.

So he lifted all protections including masks and told his people to move on and live with a nasty novel virus — a policy that favours the rich, dooms the poor and makes a mockery of reality.

Here’s what that kind of “freedom” from COVID actually looks like — because it is coming to a province near you. Canada, too, is in political retreat from reality, feeding and strengthening a sixth wave of COVID propelled by the highly infectious variant: BA2.

How infectious is BA2? Forty per cent more than its relative Omicron, already one of the world’s most contagious viruses.

Since Johnson’s gleeful declaration of freedom last year more than 35,000 U.K. citizens have died. Last week alone more than 1,000 people there perished from a pandemic that most Conservative politicians officially pretend is over. One in 13 people are now infected. Approximately 16,000 people occupy the nation’s exhausted hospitals. Every day U.K. health-care workers struggle to perform treatments for other diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

The rates of long COVID among U.K. health-care workers and teachers have reached their highest number, which means fewer qualified people working in their hospitals and schools.

The number of U.K. children with long COVID, now 120,000, has tripled since Freedom Day.

False notions, fatal decisions

Unfortunately, Johnson’s incompetence and willful disregard for science has been replicated around the world.

After two years of COVID we know some inconvenient truths that should make us alert and prudent.

The careless abandonment of masking and testing creates bust and boom viral cycles.

Herd immunity looks to be an impossibility given the arrival of variants, the character of coronaviruses and waning vaccine effectiveness. In fact, the risk of being reinfected with Omicron was actually 16 times higher in England than when Delta was the dominant variant.

The dangerous assumption that vaccines combined with lots of natural infection will stop the pandemic has just delivered the second worst wave in the U.K.

So when Denmark removed all protections earlier this year, its hospitalization and death rates predictably surged in March.

South Korea let go of its much vaunted protections, including contact tracing and social distancing, just before an election. The government did so during a COVID surge. Now millions are infected. The nation’s crematoriums can’t handle the dead.

Saskatchewan’s Premier Scott Moe, another denier of reality, declared the pandemic over three months ago. Since getting rid of indoor masking and other precautions, more than 256 citizens of his province have died. That’s one-fifth of Saskatchewan’s total COVID deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also ignored the science, capitulated to the anti-maskers and removed all protections. In the last three months, 700 Albertans have died while thousands more will likely come down with long COVID. Across Canada, 7,000 have died from COVID over the same period. For context, Canada’s 2018-19 flu season — before the pandemic — killed 224 people a year.

The grim facts above all speak to the evils of political expediency. What we need now are leaders who understand exponential growth, viral evolution and the physics of masking and ventilation. Science (but not pollsters) will tell you that viral evolution likely leads to new variants with unpredictable severity and better abilities to evade vaccine or natural immunity.

This means that Boris Johnson and his ilk made these fatal decisions:

They put their faith in one tool: vaccines.

They abandoned all other public health measures that worked.

They pretended the virus was getting “milder.”

They minimized COVID with unsupported tales of herd immunity and demoted a pandemic into something it is not: an endemic disease.

And then, having delivered these misbegotten rationales, they have the gall to declare it is time to “move on.” This retreat has partly appeased the COVID flagellants — the plague fanatics who consider masks and other tools restrictive. These believers whip themselves with flags as they seemingly attempt to overthrow governments in order to end our woes.

Denying reality may solve the politician’s immediate problem by calming the fanatics but letting COVID rip again in exponential waves with no safeguards, masks or even testing will kill thousands of citizens, and injure millions more with long COVID.

The Great Pandemic Denial will also disrupt economies and actively prolong this unique biological disturbance. When politicians pretend a raging pandemic is over, their collective behaviours guarantee more and more viral waves.

What they are telling citizens is that they have no plan for the future and no strategy for dealing with variants worse than Omicron.

Let’s parse our leader’s illusions with a little more detail because it is getting harder to rescue the truth from the sheer weight of COVID disinformation, which in turn breeds our own growing complacency.

Vaccines can’t do it alone

First, contrary to the best science, our political leaders bought the line that vaccines could single-handedly control the pandemic. Vaccines are a crucially valuable component for suppressing some of the damage done by COVID, but they cannot end a pandemic by themselves.

Start with the fact that immunity boosted by vaccines or infection wanes over a six-month period. In Canada, third dose protection disappears for Omicron by two per cent a week in the vaccinated population. And two-thirds of Omicron deaths are now due to breakthrough infections in the vaccinated.

In the absence of any coherent public health measures designed to keep viral transmission low, more people will become susceptible to infection, illness and death every time another wave comes along.

Vaccines also can’t stop transmission of an evolving virus that gets better at evading our immune system over time. And immunologists are warning that different variants combined with different vaccines can alter immune responses in unpredictable ways.

Although vaccines have done a fantastic job of reducing hospitalizations and disease to date, Omicron threatens to punch big holes in that defense. Nor can these vaccines actually stop infection and the spread of the virus. And that’s a major issue.

The more the virus transmits from person to person, the more it acquires better ways to evade vaccine effectiveness by reducing the capacity of the immune system to prevent reinfection and disease.

Through neglect or design, governments that openly welcome or allow for unchecked community transmission by removing mask mandates, testing and isolation protocols are accelerating viral evolution. In so doing their policies ensure more vaccine-evading variants. They are choosing, in effect, to sabotage work done by their vaccination programs.

There is another problem. Vaccines can put a dent in long COVID but do not eliminate the risk. New variants such as Omicron invite more breakthrough infections in vaccinated populations leading to more long-term illness. As the science journal Nature recently noted, “Vaccines reduce the risk of long COVID by lowering the chances of contracting COVID-19 in the first place. But for those who do experience a breakthrough infection, studies suggest that vaccination might only halve the risk of long COVID — or have no effect on it at all.”

Tara Moriarty, the director of an infectious disease lab at the University of Toronto, recently illustrated the folly of betting solely on vaccines in a must-read thread of tweets that starts here. Important numbers tell a cautionary tale.

More than 80 per cent of Canadian hospitalizations have occurred since vaccines became available. Ditto for ICU admissions. Sixty-four per cent of deaths in Canada from COVID occurred after the introduction of vaccines.

Given the abandonment of testing and masking in the country, Moriarty expects Omicron to become within months the nation’s third highest killer after cancer and heart disease.

She asks a good question: “What the FUCK is the matter with us?”

Mask up, ventilate, test and trace

Indeed, why are we unable to simply accept that a combination of smart public health measures protects everybody and supports the work of vaccines by reducing transmission to a minimum?

Just as a family needs a tribe to raise healthy children, a vaccine needs the support of public health measures to sustain any gains made against a virulent vascular disease.

The scientific evidence has shown repeatedly that the best way to blunt the volatility of COVID’s exponential growth is to mask up, ventilate buildings, test like crazy, contact trace, isolate the sick and avoid crowded spaces. A vaccine should support those roles, not erase them.

Whatever fanciful bullshit public health authorities might now be peddling, the dynamics of COVID have not changed. Superspreading events still occur at large crowded gatherings.

It bears endless repeating: During a pandemic driven by an airborne pathogen, masking and ventilation can mean the difference between life, chronic infection and death. Most people catch the virus indoors where an infected person has infused the air with the equivalent of viral smoke. One in 100 infected adults and one in 500 infected children will end up in the hospital. Or worse.

The new data on ventilation is stark. A recent Italian study looked at 10,000 classrooms in central Italy and found that ventilation reduced infection rates in schools by 82 per cent. Mechanical air systems that replaced the air six times every hour reduced infections the most (and that only happened in 300 classrooms). Systems that changed the air only twice every hour reduced infections only by 40 per cent.

In other words ventilation matters massively, and Canadian premiers continue to ignore its role in seeding and sustaining viral waves, especially in schools.

The ugly truths about COVID

Now let’s deal with those who say the severity of COVID is bound to wane and already is fading as is nature’s way. That assumption has no basis in scientific fact. Viruses can dial up or dial down, and which way they go is unpredictable.

Consider Hong Kong where only half of the population was vaccinated with poor Chinese vaccines, and where officials had not planned for an outbreak. This high-density city recently provided a brutal experiment to see whether Omicron was indeed significantly more mild than preceding COVID variants. When Omicron exploded in Hong Kong, that city recorded the highest death rate in the world.

Unvaccinated children didn’t fare much better with BA2 — they showed a seven-fold higher death rate than the flu. Fifteen per cent of hospitalized children also experienced seizures and acute brain inflammation.

Now let’s deal with some more biological realities. Because our leaders are shy to use their megaphones to tell you hard truths about what COVID can do to the body, I will. Not to increase anxiety, but rather to provide concrete reasons to mask up, and avoid the three C’s: closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.

Here then is a reality check on what one infection can do to your heart, brain, pancreas or immune system.

1. Way worse than the flu. Minimizers of COVID still like to compare the virus to the flu. But this novel pathogen really behaves like a virulent vascular disease.

It may spread like the flu and even behave like a respiratory disease, but once the virus enters your body the infection and the body’s inflammatory response unsettles the inner lining of arteries, veins and capillaries. Every week doctors are learning something horrifying about COVID’s capacity to destroy vascular tissue.

2. It batters the immune system. Any COVID infection, whether asymptomatic or not, damages and ages the immune system.

Repeated infections increase that burden like a hailstorm on an asphalt roof. They not only compound the damage but “may manifest more severe disease as T cell repertoires age.”

A third infection, for example, is associated with a 25 per cent chance of hospitalization.

According to U.S. immunologist Anthony Leonardi, “The system the virus challenges and manipulates pushes the cells to be more susceptible to dysfunction. This virus appears perfect at serially challenging and insidiously aging the immune system.” In plain English, there is no such thing as an idle infection.

3. It can trigger diabetes. Regardless of your age, health or other risk factors, infection in adults can lead to a later diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes or another form of the disease. A COVID infection in children can lead to Type 1 diabetes in which the immune system attacks the pancreas.

Researchers don’t know the mechanism but suspect the virus may disable the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin. If one per cent of all COVID infections go on to develop diabetes, that’s more than 10 million people.

4. It damages the heart. A mild COVID infection can put a substantial number of people at risk for stroke, heart failure, irregular heartbeats and acute coronary disease one year after the infection.

One U.S. 2022 study found that the risk of heart complications was more than 63 per cent higher in people who had gotten COVID compared with a control group of uninfected individuals. People with “mild” infections had a 39 per cent higher risk of heart complications compared to the non-infected.

5. It shrinks and can harm the brain. An infection can reduce the volume of gray matter equivalent to one year of aging. A Nature study that scanned the brains of 401 infected citizens between the ages of 51 and 81 found that all — even those with mild symptoms — showed notable shrinkage: 0.2 to two per cent loss of gray matter particularly in the area associated with the sense of smell. The older the patient, the greater the loss. It is not known if vaccines can mitigate these risks.

COVID infection can kill brain cells and starve them of oxygen. All ages including mild cases with no co-morbidities have reported “neurological manifestations.”

6. It can damage the male reproductive system. A COVID infection can result in inflamed testes, lower testosterone levels and a reduced sperm count. Decreased male fertility may last months.

7. It can harm development in the womb. “Mild” cases of COVID in pregnant women shrink the lungs of fetuses.

8. It can diminish vision. COVID can infect and replicate in the retina. A new German study suggests that “long-COVD symptoms may include degenerative retinal disease."

9. It attacks many organs. Long COVID, which can affect anywhere from 10 to 30 per cent of infected adults and one-quarter of all infected children, can impair multiple organs including the heart, the lungs, the pancreas, the kidney, the liver and the brain. Six months after infection nearly 60 per cent of long COVID patients suffer from some kind of organ damage or inflammation.

The above is not a complete list, just a recent sampling of medical findings. Scientists and patients are just learning what COVID can do to the body over time.

The pandemic is not over. Act accordingly

So this much is known: a simple COVID infection, whether mild or severe, should be regarded as an infection with biological consequences for the immune system.

Citizens that still give a damn about their community will protect themselves and others by ignoring the self-serving message that COVID has ended and that all its politically inconvenient requirements for public health measures have no utility.

They will mask up in crowded spaces with N95s. They will get their third booster shot. Or their fourth.

They will insist on more public testing, not less as is happening across Canada.

They will demand transparent data and a multi-tooled public health response to a predictable and preventable sixth wave.

They will insist on isolation protocols.

They will push for clear goals to keep transmission and deaths at a minimum.

They will advocate for better ventilation in public buildings.

And they will tell their MP or MLA that abandoning public health tools during an evolving pandemic makes no moral sense.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Coronavirus

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