Sunday, January 16

We have a new variant of Covid. An epidemiologist explains what to do.


Variant B.1.1.529 of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 disease, will likely be blessed by the World Health Organization with a Greek letter name in no time, as befits any ‘Variant of ‘worth its salt. Worry’.

How serious is the new variant? We do not know yet. This variant may not give us another kind of “delta wave” type of experience – and that would be a huge relief – but the timing couldn’t be much worse, and the early signs are worrying.

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Already, less than 24 hours after the first major public briefing on the new variant, South Africa is back on the UK red list and many travel plans are quickly unraveling, not to mention hopes for a profitable end of the year. in the tourism industry. . Jobs will almost certainly be lost.

Then, what are we going to do? There are many questions that will take time to answer: does this variant really spread especially easily; if it tends to make people more or less sick than other variants; whether some level of immunity against previously known strains results in effective immunity against B.1.1.529; and so on. We will have to wait and see, and in the meantime we have to move on with our lives, so we must act without all this information.

There are some things that we know. This new variant is airborne and its transmission is highly dependent on people breathing the same air. Masks help reduce spread, but fundamentally we must be prepared to forego some social interactions; And those of us with the means to travel and entertain ourselves should be prepared to make some “sacrifices” without acting like it’s the end of the world.

The national government will already be reflecting on the blocking options, in anticipation of the real takeoff of the fourth wave; that it has begun is no longer seriously in doubt.

Nobody wants to order strict lockdown measures and nobody wants to cancel their social life and vacation plans. Not many enjoy the idea of ​​homeschooling their children indefinitely.

So whether one is thinking of a national ‘State of Disaster’ (“adjusted” level this or that), rules for office use, school attendance policies, travel, contact with vulnerable family members like grandparents , or just how cautious to be when shopping – there are some easy ways to frame our toughest decisions.

The national blockade will serve as an example.

Think about the most difficult level of restrictions one is willing to face, whatever it is. Also think about how long the strictest restrictions can be tolerated. The point here is to think of some level of restriction that is clearly effective in reducing risk, but is not sustainable for more than a short period of time; Let’s think in terms of two to four weeks.

The key point is that the most effective time to have restrictions is not at the beginning of a wave, when cases start to escalate alarmingly and panic can ensue. A short block, no matter how hard, will never prevent a wave from occurring. The most effective time to withstand restrictions is when the peak is almost upon us (see diagram). In this way, we block the transmission channels specifically when there are many infectious people around, and we deprive the virus in these people of opportunities to reach other people.

Fundamentally, we need to implement sustainable measures at all times. There is no point in implementing a lockdown that is not enforced, but we may need strong and bold measures that can be tolerated for a few weeks.

This doesn’t quite translate into a simple formula for magically doing exactly what’s best, but it does offer helpful insight into the very tough decisions we’re about to face.

Bottom line: once you know what your big sacrifice will be (be it closing schools or pausing visits to elderly parents who need contact) and how long you can tolerate it (say three weeks, for the sake of a concrete example) then you (” you “could be the government or literally anyone reading this) watch the rising peak as you train to stick to sustainable measures, and when there are signs that we are weeks away from the peak (easier said than done), then you bite That bullet and you just sit there sticking to your plan.

This chart demonstrates a general rule about the timing of the hardest level to lock. Once one is reasonably sure that the steepest part of the wave has happened (that the peak is near), implement the lockdown. This will push the curve down around the peak and will have a maximum impact on the total area of ​​the peak, which represents the total number of cases.

Welte is a research professor and former director of the South African Department of Science and Innovation (National Government) – National Research Foundation Center of Excellence (DSI-NRF) for Epidemiological Analysis and Modeling (also known as SACEMA), at the Stellenbosch University.

© 2021 GroundUp. This article was published for the first time here.


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