Jen Gerson: Alberta goes Leeroy Jenkins on Summer
Odds in our favour are 32.33 per cent repeating, of course, or better.
Would it be confessing too much to admit that one of my generation's formative moments happened in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft?
The year was 2005, and a diverse collection of mages and warriors were about to storm a mythical castle swarming with flying dragon-like creatures, particularly deadly to their guild. Like true and proper nerds, they met beforehand to discuss their strategy, and with all the detached analysis of a corporate board discussing the latest results of a focus group convened to discuss a brand refresh.
"Christ. OK. Well what we'll do I'll run in first, gather up all the eggs," the leader begins. "I will use Intimidating Shout to kind of scatter them so they don't have to fight a whole bunch of them at once. When my shout is done, I'll need Anthony to come in and drop his shout too so we can keep them scattered.
“We're going to need Divine Intervention on our mages ... it is a pretty good plan. We should be able to pull it off this time. What do you think, Abdul? Can you do a number crunch real quick?"
The resident numbers guy responds: "Uh, yeah, give me a second. I'm coming up 32.33 — repeating, of course — percentage of survival."
"Ah, that's a lot better than what we usually do..."
Then one of the guild's resident numbnuts breaks into this dull planning.
"Thumbs up. Let's do this.
"Oh my God, he just ran in."
His team dutifully follows … and proceeds to get slaughtered by the dragon things.
"Goddamnit, Leeroy. You moron."
Whether or not the scene was staged is irrelevant. The guild, “Pals for Life,” may have died in that fight, but glory lives forever. Or, at least, meme glory does. It was a perfect encapsulation of what happens when the best-laid plans come to nothing, when life goes pear shaped, when the odds are bad so, fuck it, you storm the castle anyways.
And the scene was the first thing I thought of when I watched Jason Kenney announce Alberta's re-opening plan, which he has promised will be the province's "best Alberta summer ever." The strategy is aggressively pinned to vaccination and hospitalization rates, and Kenney appeared visibly buoyant as he announced it. The resumption of outdoor social gatherings is imminent. Indoor dining is slated to begin by the middle of June, and, incredibly, all COVID-19 restrictions may be lifted by the end of the month. Kenney is even suggesting Stampede will happen this year.
Leeroy Jenkins, baby.
If my use of the meme implies that I expect this to end with a bunch of mythical dragons eating our corpses by August, I'm giving the wrong impression. I'd be willing to bet $100 — although perhaps not $1,000 — that as the province re-opens, our current state of exponential decay in case rates will continue until it stabilizes at a low level. I don't anticipate a fourth wave.
(Although I seem to be in a minority among the chattering classes with this level of optimism, so the smart money would demand odds.)
I can't boast any particular mathematical insight, here. All I can note is that this seems to be the pattern just about everywhere else. Once a jurisdiction reaches a critical mass of vaccinated individuals, it tends to lift restrictions and case rates collapse, allowing further easing. If Alberta deviated from this trend, the province would be an international outlier. And if you want to argue that we're likely to be, I'd like to see an explanation as to why that doesn't lean on either rank superstition, or partisan brain worms.
The one I can think of is this; while Alberta does have a high percentage of the population with its first dose, we've reached those targets by stretching a limited vaccine supply. As a result, only a very small proportion of the population has received its second dose, which confers the highest level of COVID-19 immunity that we currently have available to us.
Indeed, this niggling unknown is probably why I'd put $100 on a positive outcome, but not 10 times that amount.
Most of the fear on this front appears to be rooted in this study, which noted that one dose of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines appears to be only 33 per cent (repeating, of course) effective against the Indian variant of COVID-19. More promising numbers are reached after the second dose, which we are not likely to receive en masse until much later in the summer, if not fall.
Those alarmed by this study should read it in full. Public Health England came to this conclusion by examining a population that tested positive for COVID-19 and then estimating how many of them received which shot, and how much of it.
This study did not measure the severity of symptoms. In short, one dose is less effective than two at preventing all symptoms of COVID-19, and particularly its most dangerous variant — a fact we already knew.
However, 33-per-cent effective emphatically does not mean that one dose is 67 per cent ineffective at preventing serious illness. Any analysis of this study worth reading has gone to great lengths to make this point explicitly.
"This does not necessarily mean we will see a surge in cases and, crucially, hospital admissions — the protection vaccines give us against serious illness will be much much higher than their ability to block mild infections."
The study indicates that we can't mess around with second doses. We must procure and administer shots to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But the danger signal is not "effectiveness" by this measure; rather, the thing we need to watch is breakthrough cases — examples of people becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 after being fully or partially vaccinated. A high number of breakthrough cases would indicate that either our vaccines are not providing enough protection, or that we are dealing with a variant our current stock of vaccines cannot handle.
So far, this does not appear to be happening.
Data released by the U.S. C.D.C. in mid-April noted only 5,800 cases of fully vaccinated individuals getting infected; of them, seven per cent required hospitalization, and 74 died. Considering approximately 77 million had been vaccinated in the U.S. at that point, these numbers are exceptionally positive. These vaccines are very, very good.
The other indicator we have to watch is how many people who cannot be vaccinated — such as children — are getting seriously ill. We're not just talking case rates, here. A sudden surge in children landing in hospital would, and ought to be, enough to put an end to Kenney's re-opening plans. However, even as the variants appear to be popping up at a higher rate among younger people, incidences of serious negative outcomes among those too young to get the vaccine remain exceptionally rare in North America.
(There are some who will argue that we ought to stay locked down to protect even those individuals who have chosen not to be vaccinated. I'm not sure what to say to that except I don't think the population is with you. We have to get enough people vaccinated to prevent exponential growth in case rates that could potentially overwhelm hospitals. If we've met that bar, well ... personal responsibility is making a comeback.)
Human psychology hides a nasty tick worth noting, here.
We tend to forget inaccurate predictions, and hold to the ones that prove true. We omit our misses and cherish our hits. It's a habit routinely exploited by carnival psychics, pundits, and, increasingly epidemiologists and doctors who get quoted in media.
I understand why optimism on the COVID-19 file has been so hard to come by. Our pandemic communications ecosystem has incentivized apocalyptic visions. Nobody is held to account when the disease models don't shake out, the health-care systems don't collapse, or the slow-motion mass casualty events fail to materialize. Accountability only goes the other way, when governments respond inadequately, and fail to heed sage warnings.
If the worst-case scenario does occur, prognosticators can play Cassandra; their noble warnings unheeded.
If it does not, and they are asked about it later — and they almost never are — well, then they can claim their gloomy predictions spurred necessary reforms. If not for them, outcomes might have been worse. Or, they can fall back on the claim that they operated out of an abundance of good will and caution, oblivious to the notion that spreading panic and hysteria is also a form of harm.
If you're a psychic, you'll never go out of business warning of bad news. Death is always imminent.
I will therefore try to avoid making any hard predictions, here. I can't be sure of what will happen. No one will ever be sure. And I'll admit the thought of a drunken rout of a Stampede makes me gulp a little.
What I can offer are a few observations that explain why Alberta seems keen to buck up and swallow its dread.
While there's certainly a significant percentage of the population that would like us to be stricter on the file, the debate is mostly absent the hysteria I see in other provinces. I think most people have tuned out. So it's not a mystery that a chunk of the United Conservative Party is in near-open revolt with Jason Kenney because they want the lockdowns lifted. Kenney is now less popular in Alberta than Justin Trudeau. Ponder that. He's caught between a centre-left coalition who claim he's out to kill the province's grandmothers, and a hard-right faction that reads him as a tyrant.
His only way out is this aggressive re-opening strategy. If it works, Kenney will calm his restive right-wing flank while showing up all the skeptics who warned he was moving too quickly. The louder his critics crow now, the more glorious the moment of his political comeback.
In the end, all anyone will remember is that Albertans didn't lose the summer of 2021. We had sunny BBQs and got drunk at Stampede while the rest of this dour, miserable, risk-averse Protestant virtue of a country spent its few fleeting good months indoors, again, unnecessarily. All sins forgiven.
Added bonus points: Kenney will have told the feds and their overly cautious re-opening vagaries to punt it.
This will not go over poorly in Alberta.
That is, if he's right.
If Kenney is wrong, and we do wind up in some kind of fourth wave-and-lockdown by August, it's hard to imagine that he will survive much longer as the head of the UCP. I'm quite serious.
Alberta will be Canada's test case because Kenney needs it to be. If we come out the other side intact, other provinces will have to follow our lead.
That said, it is a gamble. Jason Kenney is going all-in. Can someone do a number crunch, real quick. Nah? Leeroy Jenkins, baby.
If Kenney wins, he takes the castle. If he loses, there will be no reset. I'm no Kenney apologist, but looking at the play, I am not betting against him.
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