So many Covid questions

So back when shutting down the schools was only being suggested, I dove into this in the hopes that there was reason to keep my kids in school.  Turns out the balance of the evidence does seem to be to close the schools.  Though it is not quite the open-and-shut case the “close the schools now!” people were suggesting.  But, hey, we’re doing fine here in Steve and Kim’s homeschool (kids may think differently) so I’ve come to accept the epidemiological wisdom of the approach.

So, I was taken aback when I read the following in a recent New Yorker article about living in China under quarantine:

Fisher, the infectious-disease specialist from Singapore who accompanied the W.H.O. mission, told me that he opposes school closings. From the early case studies, Fisher predicts that children get infected at the same rate as adults yet tend to show mild symptoms or be asymptomatic. And although there is evidence of asymptomatic transmission, such events seem unusual and, in the analysis of the W.H.O., have not played a major role in the spread of the disease.

But a more difficult issue is presymptomatic transmission. There seems to be a brief window—perhaps two or three days—when people are infectious but not yet showing symptoms. Gabriel Leung, the dean of medicine at the University of Hong Kong, told me that he believes between twenty and forty per cent of infections come from people who don’t yet seem sick. “They could be spreading it through droplets, say during eating or speaking,” he said. “These droplets could contaminate surfaces, and this is how it spreads.”

The role that children play in this process remains unclear. Fisher pointed out that there’s no evidence that they have helped spread the disease in China or elsewhere. The W.H.O. report noted that, during the mission’s nine-day trip, none of the Chinese medical personnel who were interviewed could recall a case in which transmission occurred from a child to an adult.

“My view on schools is that children aren’t at risk of severe disease,” Fisher said. “They don’t amplify the spread, they don’t amplify the transmission. They are kind of bystanders while it goes on. There’s no good reason to keep them out of school, unless the society is in total lockdown. I’d rather see just a modification of school activities.” [emphasis mine]

Whoa!  I don’t recall seeing quite that take anywhere before.  How much of an outlier take is this?  What do we actually know about transmission from children?!  There’s been nearly half a million documented cases and a lot of contact tracing.  You’d think we’d have better and more clear answers by now.  Especially something so relevant to how we deal with this and live our lives.

Okay, next question.  Starting today at 5 I’m not allowed to interact with anybody who is not a family member or where there’s a caregiving role (except for the occasional grocery store clerk).  My plan for extrovert sanity had been to take walks with friends while being 6 feet apart.  It’s not actually particularly hard to communicate that way.  From what my recent crash course on infectious diseases suggest is that two people, outdoors, moving, keeping 6 feet apart have almost zero chance of spreading the disease to the other.  Likewise, it would be great to kick a soccer ball with a friend.  I do get the point of all these rules and understand the emphasis on family/living groups, but is there really a risk of spread from people exercising together outdoors if they are appropriately distant?

Lastly, how come we cannot figure out why seasonal colds and flu are seasonal.  I know you don’t want to experiment with colds, but you could actually experiment to test some of these theories on the common cold (and I know that they do actual studies where they let people contract a cold).  As of know, scientists just don’t know.  A Harvard summary:

Here are the most popular theories about why the flu strikes in winter:

1) During the winter, people spend more time indoors with the windows sealed, so they are more likely to breathe the same air as someone who has the flu and thus contract the virus (3).

2) Days are shorter during the winter, and lack of sunlight leads to  low levels of vitamin D and melatonin, both of which require sunlight for their generation. This compromises our immune systems, which in turn decreases ability to fight the virus (3).

3) The influenza virus may survive better in colder, drier climates, and therefore be able to infect more people (3).

Although other factors probably contribute as well, the main reason we have a flu season may simply be that the influenza virus is happier in cold, dry weather and thus better able to invade our bodies. So, as the temperature and humidity keep dropping, your best bet for warding off this nasty bug is to get your flu shot ASAP, stay warm, and invest in a humidifier. [emphasis mine]

Also a good very recent review in Science.  But, again, test some of these things.  Experiment with the relatively harmless common cold coronaviruses and put the viruses and humans in environments where you vary the humidity and the amount of daylight.  Let’s figure this out!

One article I read (cannot find now) earlier this week suggested that the dry air of winter thins out our mucus layers thus weakening an important first-defense of our immune system.  I like that theory.  So, test it!  I’ve always been a fan of steam humidifiers in winter so, since I started reading some of these theories, the humidifier is running in my bedroom at night.  And next winter?  All humidifiers all the time (if nothing else, my skin will love me for it).

Anyway, really interested in the takes on these questions from the smart people who read this blog.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to So many Covid questions

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Isn’t silly to reopen the schools because children don’t have severe cases of Covid-19?
    I’ve never seen a school that operated with no adults. There are lots of adults in every school. Will they survive working in an environment of lots of little virus distributors?

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