Relative to the past school year, the picture of school reopening this year is dramatically improved. Virtually all children in the U.S. have access to full-time, in-person school, and, while we’ve seen some closures, cases of entire schools closing have been fairly limited.
However: we are still seeing significant and, in some cases, confusing quarantines. For example, last week a father wrote to me with the following story. His child had been in contact with another child, and the other child had a positive rapid test for COVID-19. His child was, therefore, home as a close contact. Shortly after, the other child had a negative PCR test, suggesting that, as can happen, the rapid test was a false positive. But his child still had to quarantine for the full period. There was no way to test out of it, and no way to adjust for the reality that the other child did not have COVID.
This is a particularly bizarre example, but the fact is, we are doing a huge amount of quarantining based on contact tracing in school. In L.A., over this current school year, more than 30,000 students and staff have been in quarantine. School-based quarantines are a problem for students, who miss school, and for their parents, who may have to miss work. There is speculation that some parents have been unwilling to re-enter the labor force as a result of the unpredictability of school.
Imagine if the government had taken notice of the assorted scientists who, a couple of weeks ago, were imploring them to immediately enact ‘Plan B’ and reintroduce measures such as compulsory mask-wearing, working from home and limits on gatherings. The current dip in new Covid cases would be heralded as a sign of the success of the policy, and there would be calls for new lockdowns, or semi-lockdowns to control Covid infection numbers in the winter.
Something similar happened back in July when some scientific opinion was in favour of delaying the full reopening of the economy and society. At the time, professor Neil Ferguson warned that infection numbers would certainly hit 100,000 a day and could even reach 200,000. The government went ahead and reopened society anyway – and infection numbers began to fall almost immediately. It is perfectly reasonable to wonder whether the fall in infections which followed the lockdowns was also the result of government policy, or if it would have happened spontaneously. The Covid modelling always suggested there would be a number of sharp spikes, where infections would peak and then fall equally quickly. We will never know for sure the exact role played by lockdowns because we don’t have a control scenario: a parallel universe where lockdowns were not introduced.
The MRU’s latest estimate for Covid’s Infection Fatality Rate – across all age groups – is 0.19 per cent. Only among the over-75s – who have an IFR of 3 per cent – does it exceed 1 per cent. By contrast, the Imperial College modelling of March, which suggested that up to 500,000 people could die of Covid in an unvaccinated Britain, assumed an IFR of 0.9 per cent. It seems we are finally learning to live with this virus.
Now that vaccines have become available, governments are pivoting from mass suppression of mobility to mass vaccination. Both strategies assumed that only universal methods would succeed. Both are driven by a wildly exaggerated and disproportionate view of the risks posed by Covid-19. Over one in five US adults believe that the risk of hospitalisation is 50% according to a Gallup survey, whereas it is actually less than 1% for most of the population. Governments should know better but they don’t.
And one of the most prominent distinguishing features of this pandemic is that risk (of severe illness and death) is heavily concentrated in the top two quartiles by age. Covid risk increases exponentially by age, as David Spiegelhalter has explained. Levin et al came to the same conclusion, and calculated infection fatality rates (IFR) for the different ages:
The estimated age-specific IFR is very low for children and younger adults (e.g., 0.002% at age 10 and 0.01% at age 25) but increases progressively to 0.4% at age 55, 1.4% at age 65, 4.6% at age 75, and 15% at age 85.
Now, however, there is a new phase. Victoria is allegedly opening up. But in doing so the Premier is introducing new legislation that will give him, the Premier, the ability to declare a new state of emergency at any time. The image of all-powerful Zeus becomes stronger.
The new law would provide for two-year jail terms for breaching health orders. This is on top of mandated vaccinations for huge numbers of workers that has pushed many into joblessness. This ‘safe’ theme includes fines in excess of $100,000 for shopkeepers and restaurants that have (knowingly or unknowingly) unvaccinated people on their premises. This is supposed to be administered through vaccine passports.