January 2021 update: It’s now been a year since a brave Chinese researcher released the genome of the COVID-19 virus, against the wishes of his government, which allowed vaccine makers to get to work on new mRNA or modified RNA vaccines even before the first case was identified in the United States. Two of those vaccines — from Moderna and Pfizer — started rolling out in November (see below), although the rollout in both the US and Canada has been slow, for a variety of reasons, one of which is the fact that both vaccines need to be kept at extremely cold temperatures and plenty of places don’t have those kinds of facilities. A new Johnson & Johnson vaccine is supposed to be available soon, and it is a traditional vaccine that uses part of the virus itself as the delivery vehicle, and therefore doesn’t need special storage requirements.
That’s the good news. The bad news (in addition to the recent riot in which armed goons stormed the US Capitol, breaching its security for the first time since the 1950s, in what seemed to be an attempt to reverse the results of the election) is that there are at least two new strains of the virus that are causing concern, one that was first identified in the UK and one first identified in South Africa. They are both believed by some researchers to be more infectious than the original strain — up to 70 percent more infectious. Epidemiologists and other researchers note that viruses like COVID always evolve over time, and sometimes rapidly — measles mutates very slowly, so shots are good for years, but the regular flu mutates quickly, so you need a different shot every year. It’s still not clear which of these COVID will be more like. There is some evidence that the current vaccines may be effective against the new variants.
More bad news: A number of countries are seeing outbreaks and uncontrolled spread as bad or worse as the original outbreak in March of 2020, either because of a lack of stringent controls, a lack of desire on the part of people to wear masks, etc. and/or cases of the newer, more infectious variants. In the UK, authorities confirmed more than 62,000 cases in just 24 hours; according to a number of observers, both Sweden and Japan are paying the price for having been too lenient with their lockdowns and other measures early on. The US, meanwhile, has been the victim of a combination of the Trump government’s incompetence and American “every man for himself” individualism: roughly 400,000 people have now died of COVID, and the country has about 25 percent of the cases worldwide, despite only having 4 percent of the world’s population. The death rate in the US is now the equivalent of six fully-loaded 747 jumbo jets crashing and killing everyone on board, every single day.
To complicate matters, many people still refuse to wear masks, either because they think it’s an infringement on their rights, or because they believe they don’t work or are actively bad for you. And on top of that, even some front-line health workers have said they don’t plan to get the vaccine — in several counties in California, more than 50 percent of the doctors and nurses and other hospital workers who were eligible for the vaccine said they weren’t planning to get it. Also, the Wall Street Journal says the actual death rate for COVID is closer to 3 million worldwide, not 2 million.
November 2020 update: The US continues to set new records for cases — 181,000 on November 13, up about 75 percent from two weeks earlier. Deaths rose by 34 percent, with 1,380 people dying on November 13 and 68,000 people hospitalized (up 41 percent). Looking at a graph of the number of new cases plotted as a seven-day moving average, it’s obvious the US is in the third wave of the pandemic. There are a total of more than 10 million people in the country that have had COVID-19. Despite the continuing climb in numbers, however, there are still those in the US who believe that COVID is “under control,” that we have to “learn to live with it” (as soon-to-be former president Donald Trump put it) and that wearing masks and other precautions are not necessary. Even in Canada there have been tensions between governments that have imposed mask rules, and those who believe that such laws are an infringement on their rights. This also happened during the 1918 flu.
As you can see from the above graph, the US is entering a third wave, much higher than the previous two. The 1918 flu followed a similar trajectory: a small initial wave, followed by a summer lull, and then a much higher wave in the fall and winter. Almost all 50 states are in what experts call an “unrestrained spread” category, with positivity rates climbing, and some are close to or at their limit in terms of ICU beds. On the upside, mortality rates seem to be advancing at a lower rate than in earlier waves — in part because doctors have gotten better at treating patients with COVID — but it’s also worth noting that deaths lag testing by about three weeks. And American Thanksgiving could be a very difficult time, with many people desperate to get together with family, combined with “pandemic fatigue,” where some people seem fed up with all of the quarantining and mask-wearing, and are either uninformed about the risks or willing to take them. Experts also say many people are dealing with mental health issues as a result of being quarantined, especially the elderly.
The graphic below comes from an interactive map designed by researchers at Georgia Tech, which displays the odds of you encountering someone with COVID, based on the number of people at an event and the testing results from counties across the US. So for example, if you are at an event with 25 or more people in much of the Midwest, there’s a better than 80 percent chance that someone at that event has COVID. And for much of the US, the odds are better than 50 percent that there will be an infected person at any event with more than about 25 people. Many countries in Europe are also going back into lockdown because their rates are climbing faster than they did during the first outbreak, and there seems to be a consensus that Sweden’s attempt to keep things open and pursue a “herd immunity” strategy is a failure.Continue reading