[Dr. Dina News] “Variants of Concern” and why these matter!
This is my 16th weekly COVID-19 update. Subscribe to Dr. Dina
Well, hello friends!
Welcome back to week 16 of our COVID-19 update newsletters.
I hope you had a wonderful (Family Day) weekend, and you and your loved ones are healthy and safe!
In usual fashion, we will chat about the bad news for the week, followed by the good news, and I will end on my silver lining of the week. I do enjoy ending on a high note!
Many of you reach out to me to thank me each week for putting this update together. I am delighted to help. There continues to be so much nonsense, pseudoscience, myth propagation out there, and I know the pandemic landscape can be confusing. I will continue to put together these newsletters as long as I can muster the time and appreciate your support.
If you have friends or family who would benefit from receiving this, you are welcome to forward it, or they can register themselves here.
How is the world doing?
I always dread this part: there have now been over 108 MILLION cases of COVID-19 reported worldwide. Over 2.3 million people have died. These COVID-19 statistics never seem real to me. But there you go.
Dr. Fauci said this week, “By the time we get to April,” it will be “open season, namely virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated.” So many people at high risk have not yet received the vaccine in Canada. COVID vaccines prevent severe illness and death. Kids rarely get very sick or die from COVID. Therefore, we really should be vaccinating the world’s most high-risk populations first. The vaccine is not yet approved for use in kids. The U.S. has administered over 47 MILLION doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
Here in Canada, we have had over 820,000 cases of COVID-19, and over 21,000 people have died.
Dr. Dina, what’s up with these COVID-19 ‘Variants of Concern’?
Several countries around the world have identified strains of COVID-19 with mutations. Some are referred to as ‘variants of concern’ or VOCs. Why do they concern us? Because there is evidence that they have or will have a significant impact on the public. At the moment, we are aware of three VOCs circulating in the world.
The biggest concern at the moment is that these VOCs are more ‘transmissible’ or contagious. Another consideration, in the case of variant B.1.1.7 (the ‘U.K. variant), is that illness caused by this strain is more severe, and in the case of the variants B.1.351 (the ‘South African’ variant) and P.1 (the ‘Brazil’ variant), that some existing vaccines are not as effective.
As we see with the many versions of influenza that exist, it is usual for viruses to mutate. What is worrisome is if these viruses mutate and become more easily transmissible, more deadly, or current vaccines are no longer able to prevent them. Luckily, as reviewed in a previous newsletter, mRNA vaccine technology (as in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) can be tweaked to account for new mutations.
Luckily, there is no evidence that the standard infection control measures, such as hand washing, masking, distancing, and staying home if you are sick, need to be modified in any way to prevent these strains. We know what to do to prevent illness, and we should continue to practice these public health measures.
Many public health labs are now testing specimens positive for COVID-19 to identify which strain it is. That way, we get a better idea of what is circulating in the community. We want to keep COVID-19 cases low, and in particular, would like to see no, or low numbers of these more problematic variants.
What do the new COVID-19 modeling projections show?
Ontario released their newest projections last week, and they demonstrated our current successes. We have seen a decline in cases of COVID, fewer people are testing positive, and hospitalizations are declining. This is especially true in older populations (who are at higher risk of dying). Increased attention paid to ensuring residents and staff in long-term-care-homes remain safe, and further vaccination has been paying off.
We reviewed the reproduction rate for COVID-19. The reproduction rate represents the number of people infected by one person with COVID. This number needs to remain below 0.7 to control the pandemic and to control the VOC in particular. The reproduction rate is currently between 0.8-0.9.
The models do have a scary prediction, though; VOCs are predicted to rise dramatically in the coming weeks, leading to more admissions, ICU requirement, and death.
As a result of this news, March break will be moved to April 12. While this certainly will lead to many families having to re-gig their work schedules and school plans, the goal is to allow kids to return to in-school learning for more than a few weeks and prevent a rise in cases of COVID-19. We all have our fingers crossed that kids can stay in school till the end of the school year!
This will not come as a surprise. I STRONGLY suggest you not consider traveling this winter. We need to minimize people’s movement, even across provinces, to contain these variants. If we’re going to prevent another significant wave, necessitating another lockdown and more time out of school, we need to stay close to home. There will be mandatory COVID-19 testing for all international travelers arriving at Pearson starting this week to minimize incoming variants’ risk. As I mentioned last week, travelers will be quarantined in COVID hotels while awaiting testing results and then isolating for 14 days at home.
What’s the good news?
The biggest and most obvious one has parents around Ontario cheering: kids are going back to in-class learning this week! Whoohoo! I know kids and parents are super excited.
As mentioned above, cases are down, deaths are down, and ICUs are not currently overwhelmed in Canada.
We will now start to see a gradual reopening of businesses as the government returns to the color-coded system (remember: green-orange-red-grey-lockdown?). Regions will open more when COVID-19 cases are lower, and they are in green, and be more restrictive when cases are higher, and they are in red and grey. Toronto, Peel, and York will continue the stay-at-home order until February 22 and hopefully start to open up at this point, pending increased positivity and cases.
Are vaccines working?
Some inspiring positive news is that, yes, vaccines do seem to work well. The current COVID-19 vaccines have been deemed safe and are:
1. Protecting infected individuals from getting very sick
2. Protecting infected individuals from getting even a bit sick
3. Likely protecting against infection in the first place
4. Likely protecting against transmission from one vaccinated but infected person to another.
If I am vaccinated and get exposed to COVID-19, I will likely not die, I will probably not get very sick, and I will likely not get sick at all. Until recently, we did not know whether vaccinated, and COVID-19 exposed people could still become infected with COVID-19, and if infected, could they still pass it on to someone else.
This is a critical point. If I get the vaccine and I won’t get sick from COVID-19, that’s great. BUT I would still need to wear a mask and distance from others as we don’t know for sure whether or not vaccinated people can still carry and pass on COVID-19 to others. Emerging evidence suggests that the current vaccines can limit the spread. Things are looking up! (Thanks to Dr. Andrew Morris for sharing this helpful graphic from the Economist)
My silver lining for the week
Each week I turn my attention to the many blessings in my life.
I am very thankful to live in Canada, to have an incredible family, great friends, health, and a job I love.
I have been enjoying developing deeper connections with my friends and family. While I have always valued my loved ones greatly, I now have more meaningful conversations with my kids, husband, and friends. We talk more about topics that matter to us during these challenging times. I find myself chatting less about things we purchased, trips we planned and about others, and more about what we value right now. I feel more connected than I ever did before, and I am grateful for that.
I hope you found value in this week’s update.
Please stay healthy and safe, ongoingly vigilant, and mindful.
Take a few moments to think about what you most value in your life and identify one silver lining for you. It may seem silly, but focusing on just one small blessing can provide great happiness and satisfaction, and who doesn’t need a bit of a boost right now?
Have a fantastic week!
Love, your friend,
Dr. Dina Kulik
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