//Masks for Dummies pt. XVIII

Masks for Dummies pt. XVIII

By I. smiley G. Calderón | smileygcalderon@gmail.com

Happy New Year, dear reader! Glad you made it thus far through this persisting global Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, it’s been a long, tough road, and so much has happened since the coronavirus first emerged some two years ago in China. We start this new year with 290 million global cases and 5.4 million untimely related deaths – a 1.9% global mortality rate. SARS-CoV-2 (and its rapidly evolving variants) has infected over 55 million Americans. And, as a result, we’ve lost over 826 thousand Americans – a national mortality rate of 1.5%. And, here in Fresno County, with over 149,320 total Covid cases, we’ve had more than 2,365 family members, friends, and coworkers leave us prematurely because of this cruel virion. Our Central Californian mortality rate has consistently been at about 1.6%. Fresno, we need to do better. 

All three mortality rates – global, national, and county – tell us the same sullen statistic:

  • For every 100 people who get infected with the coronavirus, two will die.
  • For every 1,000 infections, 20 will die.
  • For every million cases, we should expect 20,000 deaths.

These have been the facts. And the cases are dangerously rising as you read this. 

Dr. James Phillips, Chief of Disaster Medicine at George Washington University Hospital, is extremely worried. 

“We’re seeing a surge in patients again, unprecedented in this pandemic,” he warns. “What’s coming for the rest of the country could be very serious. And they need to be prepared….” Yes, indeed. When the Chief of Disaster talks, you listen.

Of course, the big concern is that the new variant we discussed in our last issue is currently the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S. The variant was identified by its Pango lineage name B.1.1.529, aka Omicron, named after the circular-shaped 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. Several key mutations make it much more transmissible and contagious than all previous strains – even more than the infamously destructive Delta variant. As a result, B.1.1.529 is spreading everywhere fast – it’s even infecting fully vaccinated people and those who have already been previously infected by earlier Covid strains. This is why, in just a little over a month, Omicron has taken over America.

When Omicron first emerged on the world platform on the 26th of November as a so-called “Variant of Concern” (VOC), it did so in South Africa. Well, kind of. Let me explain. 

Whenever the World Health Organization (WHO) announces a new “Variant of Interest” (VOI) or a VOC, there is always a country associated with the new emergent mutant strain. For example, when the Alpha strain was designated a VOC in December 2020, the associated nation of origin was the U.K. When the WHO announced the Gamma strain in Jan 2021, it was associated with Brazil. Again, when the Delta strain was designated a VOC last May, the WHO listed India as its affiliated nation. But, when it comes to Omicron, even though the news announced that it was from South Africa (as I mentioned last month), the reality is that it wasn’t from there at all.  

What happened was that Botswanan scientists identified this new variant from four specific international European travelers who had just entered the country and tested positive for Covid. When the scientists analyzed the travelers’ test samples, they were shocked at their genomic makeup – a new coronavirus variant never seen anywhere in Africa. 

Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, laboratory director at the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership and researcher with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, led a team of scientists who first discovered B.1.1.529. This is what he had to say about this new variant that would soon spread like wildfire: “When we looked at it, we compared it with other sequences circulating in Botswana, and we realized this is an unusual pattern of mutations. The number of mutations that it had was just unbelievable…and we realized it was not [previously] seen in Africa….”

At around the same time, South Africa also began to see the same kind of variant in their samples. So both countries shared this vital data with each other and in regional databases. A couple of days later, in a sincere act of global solidarity against the coronavirus, South Africa shared this crucial information and alerted the WHO. And a couple of days after that, on the 26th of November, Omicron was officially born as a bonafide VOC.

And, what was the world’s response?

These southern African countries were put on the international red list travel ban. In essence, a punishment for alerting the whole world to a potentially dangerous pathogen. Flights and vacations were canceled, business halted – millions of dollars were lost. Local economies suffered. You could imagine how small businesses felt. Locals began hurling insults at the scientists, calling them “bigmouths” and accusing them of canceling the Christmas season industry.

Really, it was unfair. Omicron did not come from South Africans – it was brought to South Africa by Europeans! Thankfully, the WHO realized this, which is why B.1.1.529 is the only VOC that does not have a specific country of origin associated with it. Instead, Omicron is listed as “Multiple Countries.” But, somehow, for some reason, the world saw things differently, and when the travel bans were imposed – were European countries put on a travel ban? Dr. Moyo shares his frustration: “I would call it an unfair treatment of African countries. The Alpha variant was raging in the U.K. [months ago], and none of the countries put the U.K. on the red list. Because we understand that it’s a global village. Of course, we enhanced border screening, enhanced requirements for entering into the country, including maybe a quarantine and testing. But it was never shutting our door because we understand that these viruses don’t respect our natural borders.”

He’s absolutely right. Viruses don’t respect us. 

They just don’t care – especially SARS-CoV-2 and all of its mutated variations. All they want is to replicate in us and find better and faster ways to do so. But that’s why we need to protect ourselves from them physically. 

Vaccination is the foolproof way to protect yourself, for sure. And, we’re pretty lucky to live in this modern epoch of cool medical technology where this kind of specialized internal armor exists. But before vaccinations were even possible or available, the first way to protect yourself and others has always been by properly wearing your mask. We’ve been saying this from the very beginning. And, we recommend that you only use an N-95 or KN-95 (or similar) respirator mask when in public – we’ve been saying this since way before it was popular. If not, then you’re just inviting SARS-CoV-2 into your body through your mouth and nose. And, once inside, this coronavirus likes to replicate in us a lot. Covid is a rapidly consuming beast.  

Now, whether Omicron will prove to be as deadly or more deadly – or less deadly – than its Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta earlier versions is yet to be determined. So far, even though it is incredibly contagious, it seems like Omicron is a lot milder in symptoms than the previous variants. Meaning it may not be as lethal. But maybe what we’re seeing right now is the impact of effective vaccines? Yet, sadly, only about 62% of Americans are fully vaccinated. Nowadays, it’s the unvaccinated who make up the majority of Covid hospitalizations – and that makes sense.  

Get vaccinated, be vigilant, and wear your mask. More than 1,000 people a day are still dying across our nation because of Covid. Protect yourself.  

God Bless America. Here’s to hoping that 2022 is a better year for all.