COVID bivalent boosters

As you may recall, spouse B, daughter T, and I were all participants in the Phase III clinical trial for the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech. We then all participated in a follow-on third dose trial. B and I left the trial this spring because we were eligible to receive a fourth dose and wanted the extra protection before travelling. T stayed in the trial until its end earlier this summer.

Here in the United States, a new booster was recently approved which combines the original formulation with a new one designed to better combat the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants. BA.5 is the dominant variant currently in the US, accounting for about 88% of cases. About 11% are caused by BA.4. The new booster is expected to strengthen protection against serious illness/death and, one hopes, cut down on symptomatic infection somewhat, as well.

Given that I am still trying to remain COVID-free and that I have several trips coming this fall, I decided to receive one of the new boosters at my local pharmacy. I chose to receive the Pfizer formulation because all my others have been theirs, although there is a Moderna version which is also a fine choice. This was my first time receiving the vaccine in a pharmacy setting. My prior doses had all been in a medical office or a state vaccination site. I made an appointment online and everything was very fast and efficient.

Dr. Ashish Jha, who is the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said that it is possible that we may have reached a point where an annual booster will be enough to protect the vast majority of Americans from serious illness/death from COVID, similar to annual flu shots. Some people who are especially vulnerable due to age or medical condition might need more frequent boosters. The wild card, though, would be the emergence of a new strain that could evade our antibodies and current vaccines.

So, my message is to receive one of these new boosters as soon as they become available wherever you are. The US has been first to authorize them, but it seems they will become more widely available globally soon. Remember, though, that these are booster doses given to people who have already completed an initial vaccine series. If you haven’t completed an initial vaccine series, start NOW!

Meanwhile, here in Broome County, our community risk level is still medium. While I wait for the new booster to take full effect, I will still mask for indoor gatherings and shopping. I’ll be evaluating what to do after that, although these boosters are so new that data may be hard to come by.

I hope to stay well and hope that you do, too.

US education

In the United States, some school districts have already started the new school year and the rest will follow over the next couple of weeks.

In many places, the situation is fraught.

First, an organizational primer for those outside the US. The United States, unlike many countries, does not have a national education system. The various states exercise control over the curriculum and policies to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the state. The greatest degree of control usually rests with local school boards.

It’s a mixed blessing.

In some districts, the local school boards have bought into the notion that something as simple as having a book that includes a gay character in the library is akin to “grooming” students to be gay. Or that it isn’t permissible to discuss racism because it might make white students feel bad or guilty. This puts teachers in the uncomfortable position of being afraid to teach history, civics, literature, science, etc. in the way that they were trained to do as educators.

Some of these issues are even more pronounced when they become a state policy. The most prominent example of this at the moment is Florida. This school year marks the beginning of enforcement of the Parental Rights in Education Act, informally known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The most prominent provision of the law is that there must be no classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The reasoning is that these topics should be totally controlled by (heterosexual) parents.

But, here’s the thing. We use gendered language ALL THE TIME. Some of the first sight words that children learn – mother, father, boy, girl, man, woman, he, she – are all gendered terms. Are teachers supposed to use gender-neutral words at all times, referring to students, parents, and siblings rather than using such common terms as boys and girls, moms and dads, and brothers and sisters? What if a student asks why the family picture a classmate drew has two moms or two dads? Will the teacher be sued if they say anything beyond “ask your parents”?

Florida is also facing what has been termed a “critical teacher shortage.” It’s hard to say how much is due to curriculum concerns versus low pay, lack of administrative support, large class sizes, contract provisions, etc. Teacher shortages are fairly common in the United States, especially in math and science. To fill gaps, some states allow people to teach subjects in which they are not certified or even allow people to teach who are not certified at all.

Meanwhile, teachers and schools are under COVID-related pressures. Although almost all students, teachers, and staff are eligible, many remain unvaccinated, raising the risk of illness. During the pandemic, some students fell far behind academically during the period of remote instruction and need highly qualified teachers and extra tutoring to help them catch up to grade level. Teachers are also struggling with the mental health and developmental needs of students who faced fear, uncertainty, and isolation for months and now struggle with inattention, misbehavior, and lack of age-appropriate social skills. Some teachers are opting to retire as soon as they are eligible rather than continue under these stresses.

In some areas, schools are dealing with church/state issues, as well. Because of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the government may not establish a religion. However, a couple of recent decisions by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court have poked holes in what had been termed the wall of separation between church and state. Both cases benefit the expression of Christianity; I wonder if the decisions would have been the same if they had been about public prayer by Muslims, for example. In some localities or states, there are even instances of (white) Christian nationalism creeping into school curricula, such as teaching that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, which it was not, and downplaying the role of enslavement and indigenous land theft/genocide in our national history.

A lot of this is supposedly done in the name of parental rights, that is, that parents are the ones who should determine what their children learn in public school. I don’t agree with that. I look upon public education as a public good. I want free, high-quality education for every student so they can grow into responsible, mature members of our communities. They need to learn wide-ranging skills in communication, quantitative and scientific skills, technology, social studies and civics, and the arts. Having a broad base helps to develop critical and creative thinking and to identify where a student’s interests lie. Learning in community teaches how to work together and solve problems in a civil way. That was my expectation when I chose to send my children to public school. If my priority had been to control what they were exposed to, I would have opted to home school them. If I wanted them to have learn through a faith-based approach, I would have sent them to a religious school.

I don’t believe that a subgroup of parents should be able to dictate the learning environment of all children in our public schools. If a parent thinks that a certain assignment is inappropriate for their child, the vast majority of schools have a mechanism to assign an alternative. However, that parent should not have the power to say that the other students can’t undertake the original assignment. If those parents don’t understand that in terms of community values, they should at least understand that the parents of the other students have the same right to direct their child’s education as they do. If a parent thinks that all/most of the assignments are inappropriate for their child, it’s time to either homeschool or send their child to a private or religious school that meets their needs.

With my daughters in their thirties and my grandchildren abroad, I admit that I am grateful to have been spared the personal pressures of education during the pandemic. There is a lot of ground to make up for students in the US. Let’s concentrate on that for the good of their future and our country.

One-Liner Wednesday: still COVID

Another of my occasional reminders that COVID-19 is still with us.

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays, which I occasionally use to shamelessly promote another blog post. 😉 Learn more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/24/one-liner-wednesday-upon-the-throne/

still COVID

I’m sad to report that the total death toll in the United States from COVID-19 is now over 1.04 million with over 93 million confirmed cases. The actual case count is no doubt higher, as some states have stopped reporting and many cases that are detected by at-home testing are not reported to health agencies at all. New cases are still occurring at a rate of 93,000 a day with 457 deaths (7-day rolling average on August 22, 2022).

It’s still heart-breaking.

And still considered by most experts a pandemic, although perhaps heading in the direction of being considered endemic in the United States soon, as influenza is.

Most cases in the US now are Omicron variants BA.4 or BA.5. There is some hope that new boosters that contain components targeted at Omicron variants might give some additional protection going into the fall and winter, especially against hospitalizations and deaths, but we will have to see if a) people actually get vaccinated and b) the vaccines do boost protection for any length of time.

And/or c) a new strain could develop that evades all prior immunity, is even more wildly contagious, doesn’t respond to current treatments, and/or causes more severe illness.

At home, B, T, and I all still remain uninfected to the best of our knowledge. It’s possible that one or more of us have had an asymptomatic case but there is no real way to know. Any time that we have had symptoms, we have tested, as we have also for travel and after known exposures. We also have had extra tests as part of our participation in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trials. T remains a participant in the third shot trial; B and I exited the trial in order to receive a fourth dose before travelling to the UK this spring. I believe that our vaccination status has helped us to avoid infection and plan to receive one of the new booster shots this fall, if I’m eligible for what will be my fifth dose. T may be eligible for a booster after she finishes with her trial participation this fall if those boosters are available to people under 50.

Broome County, New York, managed to have only a few weeks in the Centers for Disease Control category of low community risk for transmission before going back up to medium. I’ve gone back to masking with a KF94 while shopping or in other indoor public places. I’m making determinations on small gatherings on a case by case basis. Other than church services, I’m avoiding large gatherings.

Some people think I’m being overly cautious at this point but I am still trying to avoid infection, if I can. At the very least, if I do become infected, I will know that I was doing everything I could to keep myself healthy so that I don’t suffer guilt on top of COVID. I am well aware that, even with multiple vaccine doses, masking, avoiding crowds, etc., Omicron, especially BA.5, has been quite successful at evading immunity and protections. I know from what the public health experts are saying and also anecdotally among my friends. There are very few left who have managed to stay COVID-free in recent months.

A large part of my motivation to keep from getting infected is fear of long COVID. While SARS-CoV -2 is too new a virus for researchers to fully understand, it’s possible that I may have some genetic risk factors that could come into play regarding long COVID. None of this is helped by the fact that the underlying medical conditions I have are themselves not well understood.

So, I’ll keep on doing the best I can to stay as healthy as possible.

Wish me luck.

I’m going to need it.

SoCS: JC’s Confessions #25

When I saw that Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week was “key,” I knew that this would be another intersection with JC’s Confessions, my occasional series in which I “confess” to things that aren’t really sins but that I feel vaguely guilty about. (I’ll paste the usual intro to JC’s Confessions at the end of this post.)

I sometimes wear my Phi Beta Kappa key when I am nervous about a challenging meeting as a confidence booster. It’s on a necklace chain, so it isn’t that noticeable and, if someone does notice it, they are likely to think that it’s just my sorority or my husband’s fraternity key. (This would only be possible if the person doesn’t know us. I went to Smith College, which does not have sororities. B’s university did have fraternities but he would never have considered joining one.)

I think the origin of my feeling guilty about it is that I’m wearing it as a secret reminder that I am intelligent in the best liberal-artsy way, that I can use those skills to delve into new terrain, and that I can contribute to solutions to complicated problems.

That I want my membership in Phi Beta Kappa to be a secret is the problem.

So, I was always a good student. I was valedictorian of my high school class. I graduated summa cum laude from Smith College, which, at that time, placed me in the top 1% of my class. I made first election to Phi Beta Kappa in the fall of my senior year.

There is somehow in the United States an undercurrent of suspicion of people who are “smart.” Having been a good student is taken to mean that you must hold yourself above others. This is not at all true of me but others may assume it is and react in a hostile way.

I nearly always kept my little secret undetected. The one time someone noticed and commented on my key was when I was serving as a parent volunteer on a school district committee doing curriculum work. It was daunting for me to be the one person who was not a professional educator. We did do training together for the work but I had to rely on my personal skills and intellect rather than on pertinent academic background in education. Thus, my need to boost my confidence with my key.

During a break, one of the teachers commented on my Phi Beta Kappa. I probably blushed! In retrospect, it shouldn’t have surprised me, as he earned a couple of degrees from Harvard himself and would certainly have known those Greek letters when he saw them.

It was nice to have someone in on my secret that day, someone who understood what it meant without thinking I was being a show-off.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve worn my Phi Beta Kappa key. My life has been much more contained, especially since COVID appeared.

Maybe I’ll wear it someday not as a confidence booster but as a celebration of my now long ago academic past.

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, then a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

*****
As previously mentioned, Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “key.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/19/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-aug-20-2022/

August 1st

When we were visiting in London last Christmas, daughter E gave us a calendar featuring photos of granddaughters ABC and JG. Most often, the photos were taken in that month the prior year, so turning the page for August brought a four generation photo with Paco from their visit last year.

The timing of that visit was a blessing, existing in the tiny window of their being able to get travel permission from the US and UK and before Paco’s final steep decline that led to his death in September.

I’ve been struggling this summer with the memories from last year, many of which have been difficult.

It’s good to have this photo with smiles that I can feel in my heart, even if my eyes fill with tears.

finally, but…

Broome County, New York, where I live, finally managed to get into the low community risk category on the CDC’s COVID map late last week, after many months in the high category with a few weeks of medium thrown in.

This is long hoped for news, but it is likely only a very temporary lull.

We had been high for so long due to our lower level of up-to-date vaccination and the fact that an Omicron subvariant that became dominant originated in central New York.

Unfortunately, another Omicron subvariant BA.5, is making its way into our area. BA.5 is already the most dominant strain in the US and carries the dubious distinction of being more contagious than other forms of Omicron. It may also have a tendency to more often affect the lower part of the respiratory tract, although this is still being researched; Omicron in general has been more likely to remain in the upper respiratory tract. It also appear to more easily infect people who are up-to-date on vaccination and those who have already had Omicron, even if the prior infection was only a few weeks ago. It’s difficult, though, to tease out which effects in the population are from the variant itself and which are from decreasing immunity that occurs over time.

It is also unfortunate that repeat infections increase the post-infection risk of stroke, heart attack, and other serious illnesses and bring the risk of long COVID.

Even with BA.5, though, being vaccinated and boosted is helpful. It lowers rates of severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Pfizer and Moderna are each developing vaccines/boosters that are more effective against Omicron that will be available in the fall. Of course, masking, avoiding crowds, and other public health measures are also helpful if transmission is high in your area.

Remember: the pandemic is still with us. Another new variant is spreading in India and several other countries and could cause another global wave of infections if it can out-compete BA.5. Stay alert and do what you can to take care of yourself, your family, and your community.

I’ll be doing that here. Even though our current infection rate is low, it has begun to creep up. I’ll be watchful.

COVID update

Remember the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s still going on, even though most people here in the US are ignoring it. We crossed the one million death threshold in mid-May, although it is likely that the true number is higher as not all deaths caused by COVID are listed as such.

The good news in the US is that both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines have been approved for children beginning at six months. It remains to be seen how many parents/caregivers decide to vaccinate their babies/toddlers/preschoolers. If it were me, I’d be first in line, but I expect we won’t see very high numbers. Only about 30% of 5-11-year-olds are fully vaccinated, despite availability since November, 2021. This boggles my mind, given that these same parents have vaccinated their children against a host of other serious diseases, yet have chosen to leave them unprotected against a disease that has sickened and killed so many here and around the world. It’s true that the vaccines are not a guarantee against infection but they prevent some infections and usually keep those that do occur from causing hospitalizations or deaths. From a public health standpoint, the more people who are vaccinated, the more likely it is that the pandemic will end and COVID-19 becomes endemic.

We are still far from that point, especially as new variants and subvariants are better at evading immunity, whether from vaccination or infection. The US right now is still dealing with Omicron subvariants. BA.2.12.1 is still responsible for the majority of cases here at about 56% but BA.4 and BA.5 are up to 35% of cases which is a large increase and a sign that they may out-compete the already wildly contagious BA.2.12.1.

Our county, which has been struggling with high infection rates for months, mostly due to BA.2 sub-variants that originated in central New York before causing misery more widely, is finally back in the “medium” risk category according to the CDC. It’s a bit discouraging in that Broome and our neighbor Tioga are the only two counties in all of upstate New York that haven’t dropped down into the “low” category. Maybe soon. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to avoid crowds and mask in public places like stores and church.

As you may recall, spouse B and I left the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine trial this spring in order to receive a fourth shot to boost our immunity before we travelled, but daughter T is still participating. Next month will be the one-year anniversary of her third dose, so she will be having an in-person visit for blood tests and such.

Pfizer and Moderna have both developed newer forms of their vaccines to better battle Omicron. The Food and Drug Administration scientists are meeting today to begin consideration of a new round of booster shots this fall to try to increase protection. It would be great if we can do so. I will definitely get another booster if it is offered, as I am still trying to keep from getting infected because I don’t want to be sick, especially with long COVID.

In the UK, where our daughter E and her family live, BA.4 and 5 are causing another spike in cases. Last week, it is estimated that 1 in 40 people in England and 1 in 20 in Scotland were currently infected. While the UK was initially slow to immunize children, earlier this year they began routine availability for COVID vaccination at age five. ABC’s recent fifth birthday came with the opportunity for her first Pfizer dose, for which we are grateful in the midst of the current wave. While it remains true that children have much lower rates of severe illness than adults, by not immunizing them you are allowing a large pool of little people to congregate, pass around germs, and spread them to their homes and communities. It’s one thing when we are talking about colds or even flu, but COVID-19 is a much more serious public health threat.

As usual, I renew my plea. Vaccinate if you are eligible and have access. Pay attention to infection rates in your area. Mask in indoor public places unless transmission rates are low. Avoid large crowds. Increase ventilation. Stay home if you are sick. Test and talk to your health care provider if you have symptoms. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has already caused immense suffering. Do everything you can to keep it from affecting you, your loved ones, and your community.

birthdays and Jubilee

As I mentioned in this post, spouse B, daughter T, and I were recently in London, UK, visiting daughter E, her spouse L, and granddaughters ABC and JG, who live in East London with L’s parents.

The main reason for the timing of the visit was that it was half-term break for ABC and her fifth birthday. We were so happy to be there to celebrate with her. Due to a number of health issues – thankfully, not COVID – and other complicating logistical factors, we spent most of our time visiting between their house and our apartment hotel. ABC was thrilled to even have an overnight in our unit.

Because ABC lived with us in the US for her first couple of years, she is very comfortable with us. For JG, who was born in August 2020, we are virtual strangers or, at best, figures from a computer screen who inexplicably appear in person. Still, she was able to relate to us better this time than when we visited last December/January. Both ABC and JG relate more to Auntie T than to Nana and Grandpa. Aunties are obviously much better playmates!

It’s also nice that JG is finally able to be out and about more in public. As a pandemic baby, she wasn’t able to go visiting or go to stores, libraries, churches, etc. for a big chunk of her life, so people beyond her household can still be daunting, exacerbating the developmental stranger anxiety that waxes and wanes throughout infancy and toddlerhood. As she gets older, we expect that she will warm up to us more quickly when we visit.

The timing of our visit also meant that we were there for Queen Elizabeth’s seventieth Jubilee. As we are crowd averse even in non-pandemic times, we didn’t go to any celebrations in person but watched them on BBC One. I saw the trooping the colour, the lighting of beacons, the service of thanksgiving, the Derby, and the Jubilee concert. There were also various block parties. There was so much celebrating that there was a shortage of decorative bunting!

It was ironic that as soon as the Jubilee celebration concluded, there was a no-confidence vote among the Conservatives in Parliament on the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson survived the vote, but the narrow margin suggests that he may have to step aside as PM in the coming months. We’ll see.

It was nice to see people being so supportive of their aging monarch, even as she, understandably, needed to pass on some of the hosting duties to her heirs. It was also touching to see the Tree of Trees sculpture that celebrated the Queen’s request to plant a million trees in honor of her platinum Jubilee.

We had a bit more celebrating to do, as T’s birthday was the day we returned home. While we could not have a “tree of trees” to celebrate her, part of her birthday gift was a donation in her honor to a project that is working to preserve the ‘ōhi‘a trees of Hawai’i. The trees are being killed by a fungal disease for which there is no known remedy so there is an ongoing seed banking project in order to restore the population after the fungal disease has run its course.

I appreciate that these commemorations celebrate the past by looking to the future. There is so much to do to secure a future for the younger generations and the planet. Our history gives us both positive and negative examples of how to react to and make change. Instead of rosy nostalgia, we need to be clear-eyed about our past and present and use that knowledge to improve the situation. especially for those who are now children, teens, and young adults.

a trip to IKEA

I know it may seem as if I have fallen off the face of the earth lately because I’ve posted less often than usual but I am still here.

Well, not my usual “here” as I am in London visiting daughter E and her family. Yesterday, E and granddaughter JG took us to IKEA for the first time. While there are IKEAs in the US, none of them are near our home. E was explaining that in some places, like Germany, rentals tend to have just the four walls so stores like IKEA offer furnishings for whole rooms as a package.

We ate lunch there. Of course, I had to try the Swedish meatballs. They reminded me a bit of the Swedish meatballs my mom used to make using a recipe from her Swedish neighbor. None of this putting sour cream in the gravy nonsense!

I’m still struggling a bit with jet lag but slept almost normal hours last night. Today is the first day of the half-term break for granddaughter ABC and for son-in-law L. We are hoping to do a bit of sight-seeing next week, although we may try to do gardens and outdoor venues as much as possible. We need to stay COVID-free if at all possible!

I’ll try to get some posts out in the coming days. I had intended to write a post about the mass shooting in Buffalo but then the Texas school shooting happened so I need to expand somewhat.

Stay tuned…

%d bloggers like this: