Hospitals are Overflowing with Sick Children and We Still Won't Mask

I'm just not emotionally prepared for the knowledge that we live in a society in which our leaders and huge numbers of fellow citizens simply refuse to take even the most minimal steps to protect children from harm.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted November 17, 2022 in Blog (Last Updated November 17, 2022)

I thought I was a fairly astute observer of the society I live in. I thought I was sufficiently cynical about our leaders and the limits of what I could expect from them.

I realize now I was hopelessly naive.

Early this year, governments and public health agencies across the developed world executed an orchestrated pivot from protecting public health to letting people get sick en masse. This sudden change in policy was not based on any new information.

Every single layer of protection was systematically stripped away: isolation rules, mask mandates, vaccination policy, capacity limits, air quality monitoring, even testing - all shut down in a matter of weeks.

What followed was a policy of deliberate mass infection, based on a manifestly false premise: the idea that widespread vaccination + infection would result in "herd immunity".

Not gonna lie: I was hopeful about herd immunity. But it turns out herd immunity is just not possible in the case of a highly infectious virus that mutates rapidly and is under constant selective pressure to adopt mutations that evade our immune defences.

So we have adopted a situation in which we do absolutely nothing at the population level to try and reduce transmission, and people are just expected to get infected and reinfected again and again.

Almost never discussed is the chilling fact that every single COVID infection comes with a non-trivial risk of long-term damage: chronic fatigue, neurological damage, blood clots, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, and damage to the immune system.

Each time you get infected with COVID, you are rolling the dice that you may end up with one or more new chronic illnesses. And each repeat infection also repeats the same dice roll.

Getting vaccinated and boosted modestly reduces the risk of infection, but it significantly reduces the risk of severe infection and of getting long COVID. Reduces, but does not eliminate.

There is good reason to believe that immune damage from COVID infection may be responsible for the extraordinarily high rate of severe illness in children from other viruses, particularly adenovirus, RSV, and influenza.

As epidemiologist Colin Furness recently put it:

The leading hypothesis now is that COVID is harming the immune system. To what extent and how permanently, these are things we don’t know. But that's what the data seem to be telling us and it’s something we should be really concerned about.

Pediatric ICUs are so staggeringly overwhelmed with very sick children that surgeries are being postponed and older children are being sent to adult hospitals for necessary surgeries.

Of course, the cottage industry of cranks and contrarians and fossil fuel industry grifters who have been minimizing COVID from the beginning have a different explanation: something they call "immunity debt".

The dumber version of "immunity debt" is that children's immune systems got weak because emergency pandemic measures shielded them from exposure to common viruses.

But this is just a fundamentally false understanding of how the immune system works.

The less ridiculous version of "immunity debt" is the idea that a 'double cohort' of young children are getting their first exposure to these viruses at once, leading to higher numbers of sick children at the same time.

There is likely some truth to the second theory, but it still does not explain why such a high proportion of infected children are so sick that they need to be hospitalized.

Where they are available, the wastewater signals for community circulation of RSV are no higher now than they were last winter, when the number of seriously ill children was much lower.

But between last winter and now, our governments and public health agencies decided to allow COVID to circulate freely and infect millions of people.

We have known since early in the pandemic that COVID infection can damage the immune system.

So it is entirely plausible that we have so many very sick children today because the adults in charge allowed their immune systems to be damaged.

Let that sit with you for a minute.

And yet even today, with pediatric hospitals overwhelmed and teetering on the edge of collapse, the Ontario Premier and the Chief Medical Officer of Health absolutely refuse to bring back any of the multiple layers of community-level protection we could adopt.

There is no policy requiring vaccine boosters, even though immunity wanes over time. No policy requiring the kind of high-quality masks that we know are highly effective at preventing transmission between people, no matter what some random person's YouTube video claims.

No upgraded air quality requirement. No monitoring of air quality in high-risk mixed spaces - like schools. Certainly no isolation mandate for people infected, or, God forbid, a guarantee of paid sick leave for at-risk workers.

And in the absence of leadership from our leaders, there are far too many adults who see the crisis we are in and continue to rail against the idea of mask-wearing, let alone a mask policy, on the basis that some kind of freedom is being violated.

And so it kind of snuck up on me, but I realize that I'm just not emotionally prepared for the knowledge that we live in a society in which our leaders and huge numbers of fellow citizens simply refuse to take even the most minimal steps to protect children from harm.

I'm aware that my privilege is showing right now. As an economically comfortable, cisgender, heterosexual white man, I am accustomed to the conceit that the system is designed to keep us safe - because it has generally kept me safe.

For women, for Black and Indigenous and racialized folks, for people in Two Spirit and LGBTQIA+ communities, for people with disabilities, our society has never been particularly safe or inclusive.

I knew this, but I told myself things were (slowly, begrudgingly) getting better.

And then we find ourselves in a situation in which children's hospitals are overflowing and the adults are screaming at each other over whether wearing a face mask constitutes some kind of infringement of our liberties.

And I don't really have a solution to offer, except: in the absence of direction, we each need to model the behaviour we want to see.

Wear a mask, even if you're the only one doing it. Someone might see you and feel safe to join you.

If two or more people are wearing a mask, others who may be afraid to stand out will also be encouraged to stand in.

Also, keep talking about how important it is for us to add back in the layers of protection that we know work.

After all, the people claiming that two years of pandemic measures kept us too protected from viruses are also trying to tell us that those measures don't actually protect us from viruses so we shouldn't keep doing them.

It's nonsense and they know it. Call them out.

If you stopped wearing a mask, you're not alone. A couple of months ago, I even found myself getting a bit sloppy, despite being generally obsessed with the pandemic.

But you can start again. You can start today. You can start right now. It's okay to change your mind.

One of the great strengths and survival traits of humanity is our ability to learn and adapt. It has never in history been easier to figure out the right things to do to keep everyone safe from a highly infectious and often deadly disease.

What on earth are we waiting for?

Caption from a Calvin and Hobbes comic. Calvin says, 'OK, so we didn't learn any big lesson. Sue me.' Hobbes replies, 'Live and don't learn, that's us.'
Caption from a Calvin and Hobbes comic. Calvin says, 'OK, so we didn't learn any big lesson. Sue me.' Hobbes replies, 'Live and don't learn, that's us.'