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Delta variant: take the tough decisions now

George Aiken, a centrist Republican senator from Vermont in the 1960s, has long been credited with the quote that the "US should declare victory in Vietnam and leave".

The Vermont senator's actual statement was more nuanced than that, but the idea of declaring victory and going home has been since used whenever leaders confronting a deadlocked situation have looked for a way out.

Mr Aiken's misquote came to mind last week when the Premier, David Burt, was talking about the coronavirus and the Government's policy towards it.

It is undeniable that the pandemic has presented leaders around the world with difficult choices and no easy answers. Often they have had to make decisions without full information or a clear sense of what the future holds.

Early in the pandemic it was not clear that vaccines would become available as quickly as they did. More recently, no one could say with absolute certainty that the Delta variant would appear and be so much more virulent than its predecessors.

But some things are clear. The leaders who have listened to scientific advice and applied it have generally kept their countries safer than those leaders who have not.

Similarly, those leaders who have acted early and decisively to contain the spread of the coronavirus have been more successful at doing that than those who have delayed or have attempted to keep their economies operating longer in the hope that a spike will not happen. In the latter cases, those countries have ended up having to take more painful steps for longer.

Bermuda is now seeing a fourth coronavirus spike. The first spike sparked the most severe lockdown and, in terms of total cases, was the least damaging — although nine people died. The second spike, before Christmas, required a second lockdown and peaked at about 200 cases and comparatively few deaths. The third and most serious saw the spread of the so-called Kent virus. There were more than 900 active cases at its peak, more than 20 deaths and 42 people in hospital — and required a Stay at Home order to bring it under control.

So far, the fourth spike or outbreak has been less severe than that. There are now 92 cases but only three people in hospital. To date, no one has died and few of the cases affect those over 65 — the most vulnerable age group.

But the increase in cases has been dramatic. Just three weeks ago there were fewer than 20 cases. Now there are five times that. And there are five local clusters of cases and the number of cases with no known cause of transmission is rising.

This is similar to the situation Bermuda faced around March 22 this year when there were about 100 cases but no one in hospital. After that, cases skyrocketed and by April 3 there were 600 cases and 18 people in hospital.

Bermuda runs a very real risk of going down the same path again. Optimists may say the situation is different now. In particular, 65 per cent of the population is vaccinated and while there are breakthrough cases, the symptoms of vaccinated people who get the Delta variant are less severe than for the unvaccinated.

But there is still a real risk of the variant spreading rapidly and getting into the unvaccinated population. It only makes sense to take precautions now rather than wait for things to get worse.

But this is not the direction in which the Government is going. For the first time, the Government seems to be putting the needs of the economy and cultural events ahead of the science.

The science says that gatherings of more than 50 people at a time is risky. Asked if there were plans to reduce permissions for waivers for large gatherings, Mr Burt said: "We want to support economic activity and cultural activity, and for those things to continue."

He added that the Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sport was working with the Ministry of National Security and the police to ensure that these large events were adhering to the requirements for SafeKey and other protocols. On that basis, he indicated there was no reason to reduce or halt the waivers.

He then added: "The coronavirus may be with us for a while, and we are going to have to learn how we deal with the coronavirus being with us for a while, and that is the approach that the Government is taking."

Mr Burt said then argued the Government's approach had always been limited, saying: "The restrictions that were put in place were to ensure that the healthcare system did not become overwhelmed."

Noting that when the third spike occurred and Bermuda was a few days away from the hospital being overwhelmed, only about 20 per cent of the population was vaccinated, Mr Burt indicated the risk was less now that 65 per cent of the population had had two shots.

Despite insisting the coronavirus policy was not now "laissez faire", Mr Burt seemed determined not to change any policies now, instead appealing for people to "stick to basics", to wash their hands, use hand sanitisers and to wear their masks while indoors or in proximity to other people.

Mr Burt's decision not to hold any more ministerial-level press conferences seems to be in line with this, as was his switch several times in the press conference to refer to three in four of eligible people being vaccinated as opposed to 65 per cent of the total population, which is still short of the original 70 per cent target for herd immunity.

Indeed, the Government appears to have given up on encouraging people to get vaccinated, apparently believing that those who have not, will not.

This is exactly wrong. The spread of the Delta variant emphasises the need to get vaccinated now. While there may be breakthrough cases, the variant poses a much greater risk to the unvaccinated than it does to the vaccinated. All three of the people in hospital are non-immunised.

In the United States and elsewhere, the rise of the Delta variant has seen a resurgence in vaccinations.

In the meantime, it makes sense to discourage large gatherings. While the Government has not identified the causes of the five clusters that are behind the present surge in cases, it is surely no accident that there has been a rise in cases two weeks after Cup Match and its associated events.

In a matter of weeks, students and teachers will return to school, this time in a situation where the number of people under the age 20 now make up about 20 per cent of all Covid-19 cases. Clearly this variant is easily transmissible among young people and, while they may not experience severe symptoms, they may give it to people who will.

Safety measures have to be in place before September. Health minister Kim Wilson signalled that the Government is determined to have in-class learning this year, and for good reason. But it must be safe as well.

Mr Burt and the Government are taking risks in not implementing steps to contain the spread of this virus now. Instead they are giving a dual impression: first that the battle is won in the sense that the limited goal of the hospital not being overwhelmed should be achieved; and second that we simply have to accept the coronavirus is not going away.

What Mr Aiken said in 1966 was that the US had achieved its military objectives, as at that point there was no physical enemy to fight. It should therefore declare that part of the war won, protect vital assets and let the political warfare between the rival parties in Vietnam ensue.

He was not taken up on his proposal, but even if he had been, it is likely that the US would have lost that war, in much the same way its failure to contain the Taleban in Afghanistan is playing out right now.

Mr Burt, in declaring that the healthcare system is being protected and that the coronavirus is here to stay, is risking that the virus will stay put and will not spread. That is a big gamble.

The Government could take several steps now to restrict the spread even if fully eliminating it is not feasible.

It could refuse permission for all events of more than 50 people, except in the most compelling of cases.

It could relaunch a major effort to get more people vaccinated, including teenagers and people in their twenties and thirties before the school term resumes.

It could make sure that the risks of transmission in schools is minimal.

It could return to restricting the number of people who can be in indoors facilities.

If the Government took these steps now, it could prevent this present spike turning into a wave.

If it does not, it risks having to take much more severe steps later. This not an easy decision, but it is the right one.

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Published August 16, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated August 17, 2021 at 11:15 am)

Delta variant: take the tough decisions now

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