Update #31 from Bruce McDonald

Everyone,

It has been a while since my last update. It is not that I consciously decided to skip February. It just turned out that way. I prefer to strike a hopeful tone in my updates and, after the setbacks of late January and a very wintry winter stretch over the past few weeks, I suppose I needed a little extra time to harvest the good news. In spite of tiresome barrage of pessimistic messages that we still all face at every turn, I believe there is finally a lot to be optimistic about.

Don’t get me wrong, I am as tired of all of this as the next person. I find it hard to believe that it has been a year of this shit. Shut in and hunkered down is no way to live. In some ways, today seems as familiar as the first day of this pandemic. In other ways it seems like a lifetime ago. It is a strange feeling. One that I hope we will slowly fade away as we progress through 2021.

It has been a tough slog so far in 2021. We’ve been under a stay-at-home recommendation since Christmas here in Toronto with some of the similar restrictions to the early days of this COVID-19 era. Fortunately it hasn’t had a significant impact on local operations nor our access to work. The pandemic remains a dominant issue in our workplaces but I sense that its prominence has diminished and it has taken its place alongside the many other risks we collectively manage. We have learned how to deal with it and B&M is at full strength again.

Across North America, the COVID-19 case counts have been falling since mid-January. So too have the number of infected people in hospitals and ICU’s. Our internal experience at B&M has followed a similar pattern. We experienced 13 new infections in the past six weeks and currently have 3 active cases. Recall that we had 44 infections in the preceding six week period. Encouragingly, we have had only one new infection in the past two weeks.

This is not the beginning of the end just yet. This virus is good at its job and it remains a pervasive and formidable adversary. It is difficult to control for even the most skillful and disciplined communities. The provinces of Atlantic Canada are the only places in North America that have successfully corralled the coronavirus and yet it continues to re-emerge the moment the protections are relaxed.

But we are better prepared than ever. Think back to March 2020. Remember when airborne transmission was dismissed? Or when masks were considered ineffective? Or when Anthony Fauci was laughed out of the room for suggesting we might have vaccines in 18 months? Our understanding of COVID-19 and the tools at our disposal in March 2020 seems positively stone-age in comparison to where we sit today.

We know so much more and we know what to do. We understand how the virus and all its variants transmit. Mainly through the air via relatively large infected droplets that don’t stay in the air for long and tiny ones that do. That’s why masks are so useful and why we judiciously avoid closed spaces, crowded spaces and close contact. New, more transmissible variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, are definitely concerning. They are growing in frequency in our communities and are likely to compound the challenges we are already facing. But it is important to recognize that virus mutations are common, expected and rarely have a dramatic impact on an outbreak. The current variants are being closely monitored by health authorities and the scientific community. Vaccine producers are already evaluating the necessity of boosters to augment protection. In the meantime, we already know how to protect ourselves from any airborne virus. We know our protocols work , look no further than the absence of seasonal flu in our lives this past year. The more diligent we remain against transmitting coronavirus, the less relevant the variants will be. So please stay the course everybody.

There is no doubt that the vaccine rollout has been disappointing but I think the balance of the vaccine news regarding efficacy, safety, production, and new options is uniformly positive and sometimes astonishing. The clinical success of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Astra-Zeneca (A-Z) has been validated by the study of hundreds of thousands of people inoculated in Israel, England and Scotland where the rollouts are already widespread. Serious illnesses and hospitalizations among the vaccinated citizens in these places has plummeted and transmission greatly reduced. This is real world proof that these vaccines are safe and effective. Now, we have another highly effective vaccine from Johnson & Johnson (J&J), already “battle-tested” in trial environments that included variants. It only requires a single dose and can be conventionally refrigerated, two factors that will greatly expand its reach and speed of distribution.

My layman’s understanding of how these vaccines work is this. All of the vaccines are designed to deliver a gene to a human cell that stimulates an immune response to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The gene possesses a series of instructions. Upon arrival, the gene teaches the cell to produce a harmless spike protein that looks like the one on the surface of SARS-Cov-2. By now, we can all readily recognize the “pin cushion” appearance of the virus. The pins are the spike proteins. So after a person gets the jab, their cells are taught to mimic the appearance of the virus in the body and trigger the production of appropriate antibodies long before any infection actually occurs. This is significantly different than conventional vaccines that introduce a weakened or inactive version of an actual virus to trigger the immune system. What differs between the new COVID-19 vaccines is the mode of gene delivery. Pfizer and Moderna use a messenger RNA (mRNA) as the vehicle. Our bodies are full of mRNA, actively passing on protein-building instructions of all kinds “issued” by our DNA. The J&J and A-Z use a “viral vector”, a different virus entirely and in this case a version of the common cold, to deliver the gene. These delivery vehicles or “platforms” are not new. They have been in development in for decades. What is new is the targeted virus and the speed with which the platforms were adapted to address it.

These vaccines will change our lives. It will happen much more rapidly than we think. Beginning with the relief of knowing our parents or vulnerable loved ones have protection. Then the expansion of our private bubbles to include others who’ve been inoculated. The comfort of personal safety. Eventually the restoration of our public lives. It will take a while but we will get it all back. Dinners out. Gatherings with family and friends. Concerts. Weddings. Ball games and shinny hockey. Graduations. Pints at your local. Vacations. Hugs. Smiles for all to see. All of that stuff that seems so peculiar when you now see it enacted on television. Everything from those golden old days of 2019. It will be ours again. We just have to wait our turn and keep the virus at bay until we are invited to partake in a little dose of the miraculous.

In spite of all this good news, I do not anticipate a glorious moment of COVID conquest. No declaration of victory. No parade. We will just gradually return to things we used to do. We will never be quite the same after all this is over. There has been such loss and anguish. Even for the healthiest among us, there will be scars and lasting damage. It will be weird and scary to step back out in the world. We will do so with an unfortunate reticence and suspicion. It will take time to repair ourselves but we will. Before long, our collective relief will subside and we will experience life the way we used to. We will have those carefree moments again. Some day, we will look back at what we’ve done and acknowledge how unique and transformative it was. We will recognize the connection, the empathy and the understanding that we have actively and collectively accumulated. We will see that we are not just back to normal, we are better.

Bruce