Postcards from England – March 18, 2022

Data and Metrics

Flag: England Emoji on Google Android and Chromebooks Postcards from England…. here we go again?!

Like many things in this pandemic, this feeling of déjà vu all over again is getting OLD. As an 🇺🇸American living in the 🇬🇧U.K., I’ve seen the pattern of cases here foreshadowing surges in the U.S. a few weeks later at least five different times now.

That means the recent upward turn in cases here has me nervous for both my adopted and native homelands. It could be a coincidence, but two years into the pandemic, TODAY is the day I personally know the most people currently infected (including two of my teenage kids). Fortunately, none of these cases have been severe. All were vaccinated and relatively young people. But this flurry of new infections does tell us the virus is not done with us yet, as much we hoped to only see the back side of the epidemic curve.

But WHY are cases going up again in Europe, in countries that have high levels of immunity from both vaccination AND previous waves of infection?

Some point to the relaxation of preventive measures (e.g. masks and legal requirement to self-isolate if positive in England). Indeed, the number of people working remotely, avoiding large indoor gatherings etc., is at or near an all-pandemic low across western Europe. But attributing these changes to policy versus voluntary behaviors due to falling cases is hard.

How about seasonality? As someone cleverly pointed out on twitter, this is our 7th winter in two years.

Once again, I must be honest that experts are mostly at a loss for why cases are not continuing to fall given our high levels of population immunity. But the coordination of this uptick across many different countries points to the virus simply “virusing” once again—this time in the form BA.2. The virus has humbled us and our predictions again and again.

John Burn-Murdoch from the Financial Times has shown clearly that the strange lumpy curves make more sense when broken down as two distinct BA. 1 and BA.2 waves:

It looks like BA.2 has a growth advantage over BA.1, contributing to the turnaround in these case curves.

Now for some good news: Data from the UK show that infection with BA.2 is no more likely to result in hospitalisation than BA.1, and no more likely to evade vaccine protection (especially 3 doses).

How worried should we be? This is where things get fuzzy, including for those of us (ME) glued to COVID data for two years straight. Mostly this BA.2 surge tells me that the idea of being “done” with COVID-19 and rewinding back to 2019 is a pipe dream.

The reality is we face an increased risk of infectious disease than we did before—specifically a super infectious version of a human coronavirus. Future waves WILL happen. But while seeing these new waves is a bit of a gut punch for those of us dreaming of a return to “normality”, we are in a completely different place from two years ago.

The sacrifices we made DID buy time for vaccination and effective new treatments. But those vaccines need to be in ARMS, especially in the arms of the most vulnerable older people to make those sacrifices worth it.

The power of the vaccines is demonstrated starkly by the contrast between Hong Kong and New Zealand’s current Omicron waves. Hong Kong has very low vaccination rates among its older population. (link for image)

Where does that leave the U.S.? The U.S. should know that another wave is coming, likely from BA.2 (though like all pandemic predictions, this could easily be wrong!). The U.S. has much lower vaccine and booster coverage than European countries seeing current surges, and is still sustaining much higher mortality than peer countries in Europe even with low official cases:

So, while we all acclimate to our “next” normal, I urge my friends and family in the U.S. to be aware of what’s coming. If you haven’t been boosted, now is the time. If there is anyone in your life still vulnerable and unvaccinated, continue to communicate and encourage them. If someone vulnerable in your life tests positive, be proactive about seeking early treatments like Paxlovid (Hopefully this will be getting easier soon). Don’t feel shy about continuing to wear your mask in crowded indoor spaces. Precautions need not be all or nothing, despite the seeming overnight shift in norms.

The virus is gonna virus, but the Nerds are gonna keep Nerding.

Stay Safe and Stay Sane!

Nerdy Girl Jenn from 🇬🇧

Links: Post inspired by twitter thread from John Burn-Murdoch.

Link to Original FB Post