Sunday, July 18, 2021

July Covid Update

                                                                                                            written 11 July 2021

                                                                                                        published 18 July 2021


            Any horror movie aficionado knows the story doesn't end when the "monster" is vanquished the first time.  It rises again, either a few minutes later, when everyone is relaxed and celebrating, or in the sequel to the movie, when everyone has completely forgotten about the danger. 

            The flu pandemic of 1917 started small and exploded across the world, helped by the massive movement of troops during World War I.  A second wave, more lethal than the first, hit the next year.  The virus had mutated, becoming more infectious.  Once a person was infected, the virus quickly spread throughout their body.  It was particularly lethal for healthy young people with strong immune systems.  Their body's immune response was so massive, it tore their body apart hunting the virus. 

            Over the last 18 months, the Covid virus has infected almost 200M people worldwide, which is probably an undercount.  As it spreads, it mutates, and hundreds of variations have been discovered.  Fortunately, most are minor changes, without much affect, but several are significant.  Right now, the "Delta" variant is of most concern.  It is twice as infectious as the original strain, makes people sicker sooner, and displaces other variants.  In England, Delta makes up more than 90 percent of new cases, and in the US, it is 50 percent of new cases, up from 20 percent just three weeks ago. 

            In order to infect a human cell, Covid must first attach to the cell surface, using specific proteins at the tips of spikes on the surface of the virus.  Delta has many more of these spikes.  Recent reporting indicates that an infected person has about 1,000 time more virus in their throat than with the original strain, increasing the viral load that can be shed into the environment and infect other people.

            Even with effective vaccines, and better therapeutic treatments for the infected, the last 18 months have revealed that in addition to those who die (still less than 2 percent of those infected), many survivors experience serious health effects from Covid.  "Long Covid", affecting about 1 in 4, describes damage that can last for months, even in a person who was never sick enough to be hospitalized.  The virus can reduce functioning in every part of the body.  Recent studies show measurable reduction in brain mass in about 1/2 the Covid cases studied.  This disease should be avoided if possible!

            In the US, the vaccination program initially focused on the elderly population, because they were dying in disproportionate numbers, but as vaccine availability increased, all adults were included.  Consequently, US case rates, hospitalization rates, and death rates have fallen dramatically in the last six months. 

            With millions of people vaccinated, the data shows that, so far, the various vaccines provide very good protection against all the variants, including Delta, reducing the chance of getting infected, and almost eliminating the need for hospitalization.  However, even though the US is one of the countries with the highest percentage vaccinated, 150M Americans have not had even one dose, which is a very large pool of vulnerable folks.  

            While the case numbers have declined, Covid still killed 1500 Americans last week.  As the Delta variant expands across the country, case rates have jumped 75 percent in the last two weeks, with the highest percentage of cases in the 18 to 36 year old population.  As cases increase, deaths will soon increase as well.  99 percent of the people dying are unvaccinated.  

            There are many reasons a person might not get vaccinated, and some are based on reasonable health concerns.  However, a graph of counties plotting vaccination percentages against the magnitude of Trump support shows the redder counties tend to have lower vaccination rates, no matter the overall state average.  

            Making public health a partisan issue should qualify for the Darwin Awards.  That is an annual award given to people who have done such profoundly stupid things that they die, removing themselves from the gene pool, thus strengthening the species.  With effective vaccines freely available, the unvaccinated are primarily putting themselves and their own families at risk.  For a political party to risk killing their own supporters as a test of loyalty is callous, and politically foolish, no matter the short-term PR gain.   

            Covid isn't over, it is just preparing for the blockbuster sequel this fall.