Underlying Conditions

In 2017 I wrote Why Do Our Bodies Attack Us? Like many of us, I wondered WHY did I have a chronic condition (otherwise often known as an underlying condition). Most of my working life has been about root cause analysis – naturally I apply that to myself! It is a bad move, I don’t recommend it, you can drive yourself nuts!

More recently, December 2021, I wrote Will Society Adapt? When? How? looking at society’s lack of acceptance of chronically ill people. I specifically noted I wasn’t looking at environmental impacts in that article, but we can’t ignore the impacts we ourselves, as a species, have created in the same span of the last 100 years or so. In that article I proposed society has yet to adapt to this new chronic state of health, and I referred to my generation as being the first generation of chronic people in any great number. I essentially attributed our survival to improvements in medical science keeping us alive, but why do we fall sick in the first place, in ever increasing numbers?

Regular readers will know I am a big supporter of the work of Julian Cribb, an Australian author and fantastic science communicator. He has recently released Earth Detox – How and Why We Must Clean Up Our Planet.

Every person on our home planet is affected by a worldwide deluge of man-made chemicals and pollutants – most of which have never been tested for safety. Our chemical emissions are six times larger than our total greenhouse gas emissions. They are in our food, our water, the air we breathe, our homes and workplaces, the things we use each day. This universal poisoning affects our minds, our bodies, our genes, our grandkids, and all life on Earth. 

https://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/earth-and-environmental-science/environmental-science/earth-detox-how-and-why-we-must-clean-our-planet?format=PB

I did refer to chemicals in my 2017 article cited above. I’ve also looked at plastics in Packaging Our Pills in Plastic which includes some videos – visit that article if you are interested.

So while some science is keeping us alive, our tendency as a species to misuse other science for selfish reasons is potentially, at the same time, making us sick. Why did I choose selfish in that sentence? Let’s take plastic as a classic example. When I was a child plastic was not really a thing. Shopping bags weren’t plastic. You didn’t put your fruit and vegetables in plastic at the shops. Glad Wrap? I do remember plastic bags for freezing meat. Pills were still in glass bottles.

But plastic was convenient and we started using it for EVERYTHING! Our wild life has been paying the price for years, but it seems we have too. We just didn’t want to acknowledge that fact because that would be inconvenient and if there is one thing the human species hates, it is being inconvenienced.

Of course, all of this ties in with our population growth: if there were less of us, we’d use less of all the “stuff”. Less MIGHT be manageable. That is a big “might”.

I’m going to turn 67 this year. In my first ten years of life I lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere, BUT I was still exposed to many chemicals. Sheep dip. Top dressing. Weed killers. All before the many safety tests and regulations of today were in place.

Later I moved to the city: car fumes, plastics.

“It would be naïve to believe there is plastic everywhere but just not in us,” said Rolf Halden at Arizona State University. “We are now providing a research platform that will allow us and others to look for what is invisible – these particles too small for the naked eye to see. The risk [to health] really resides in the small particles.”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/17/microplastic-particles-discovered-in-human-organs

Yes, I have psoriatic arthritis (PsA) and a wonky thyroid (plus a few other things) and yes, there is a genetic component to PsA. What triggered the expression of the condition? After all, genes or no genes, my disease hasn’t been active all my life. What triggers any number of the conditions now prevalent in the chronic illness community, even if there are genes playing a role (in many cases, not yet proven)?

We have to stop blaming our chronic illness patients for being chronically ill, when it is very likely it is the path humans have chosen that has created many of us in the first place.

In our current situation in 2022, chronic illness has suddenly risen to the surface as a “reason” people die of Covid-19, so more people are aware of our existence. I myself am in four Covid-19 risk categories, the most dangerous to me being that I have an underlying inflammatory condition (PsA). We know Covid-19 can cause lots of inflammation: I’ve already got that going on, so I have this image in my mind of Covid-19 entering my body, running into PsA and my PsA saying, “Mate! Great to see ya! Let’s party!”

According to Professor Jeremy Nicholson, there are only about 10% of people in Western society that are “really, genuinely healthy”. You can find that quotation at 31:40 in the second video on Better Health, Together: Living with COVID in 2022.

I’m not suggesting 90% of us are at high risk of imminent death from either our conditions alone or our conditions plus Covid-19. We DO need to know which underlying conditions place us at higher risk of severe Covid-19 in order to be able to adequately take whatever additional protections may be necessary. The fact we are at a higher risk cannot be ignored. I see many on social media particularly suggesting the underlying conditions are irrelevant. They are relevant. We can’t ignore reality because we find it unpalatable. I most certainly think the politicians could separate the sad news of deaths from the statistics relating to underlying conditions. This is where the 90% really comes in – as in, it is potentially most of us!

As I am known to do, I have digressed – or have I? Covid-19 is perhaps a wakeup call. As a species we have created a state of ill-health as “normal”. Because we want our pollution and our chemicals and our plastics – but as Julian writes, we are paying the price. We’ve been somewhat quietly paying the price for a while, now Covid-19 has highlighted our vulnerability.

I know I have a chronic illness – many people do not yet know they have one. Conditions can take a while to be evident enough for the person to seek medical help. I am quite sure my PsA was active at least two years before I was diagnosed. In other situations, many people struggle to get a diagnosis of various conditions for years.

I am NOT suggesting that had Covid-19 come along in 1819, or 1719 that we would have been in a overall healthier state as a species. There were other considerations back then. However, we have changed our world, our environment, our living conditions, massively in the last 100 years. We’ve solved old problems, but created new problems.

I am a massive fan of science generally and medical science in particular, however I am also very aware of the human tendency to misuse anything we can if we see a personal advantage in doing so. Covid-19 gave us a shock: we were the Gods brought to our knees by the invisible.

We are not just destroying the environment of the planet we inhabit. We are not just destroying other species. We are possibly also destroying ourselves.

As Covid-19 Overwhelms Health Systems, What of Non-Covid patients?

While the Omicron variant may be less severe than Delta, the sheer numbers are seeing hospitals and related health services overwhelmed. Health care staff themselves are in isolation/quarantine.

The wait time for a hip or knee replacement in the UK has blown out dramatically. The situation was bad before the pandemic – now it is worsening.

Patients are facing five-year waits for hip replacements as backlogs reach crisis point, according to an orthopaedic surgeon who quit the NHS.

https://www.scotsman.com/health/patients-face-five-year-wait-for-hip-op-says-ex-consultant-3457505

Almost 6 million people are on waiting lists for hospital treatment in England.

I booked a mammogram here in Melbourne in early August – the appointment was in November. In some jurisdictions in Australia, mammograms were not being done at all during parts of 2021, due to Covid-19. How many cases were not detected early enough and this has impacted the outcome for the patient? Will we ever know? While Covid-19 has no direct effect on the performance of mammograms, the changes required to minimise spread of the disease do.

The term “elective surgery” SOUNDS, well, elective – as in not really necessary. Having been through a total knee replacement and watched my boss wait for his hip replacement (he was only fifty, by the way) I can assure you there is nothing “not necessary” about joint replacement surgery. The pain and loss of quality of life can be horrific. The difference is an excruciating knee won’t kill me, so it is considered non-urgent.

“Our health system is at a very different place than we were in previous surges,” emergency medicine professor Dr. Esther Choo said. “This strain is so infectious that I think all of us know many, many colleagues who are currently infected or have symptoms and are under quarantine,” said Choo, associate professor at Oregon Health and Science University. “We’ve lost at least 20% of our health care workforce — probably more.”

https://edition.cnn.com/2022/01/02/health/us-coronavirus-sunday/index.html

The above is the USA. Here in Australia we have changed our isolation guidelines for health workers due to the shortage of staff.

Doctors say a decision to exempt health workers in New South Wales from self-isolating if they are close contacts reflects an “extremely desperate situation”, with warnings the policy change will increase the Covid risk to hospital patients.

NSW Health announced late on Friday night that in “exceptional circumstances”, frontline workers who are asymptomatic close contacts will be exempt from having to self-isolate for seven days, to avoid disruption to key services.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jan/01/decision-to-exempt-nsw-health-workers-from-covid-isolation-reflects-hospitals-desperate-situation

We have even suggested flying in nurses. Where from, I’ve got no idea as many countries are just as short of health care workers as we are. This is, after all, a GLOBAL pandemic: a point some of our politicians seem to conveniently overlook.

Critically understaffed public hospitals in New South Wales are planning to fly in nurses from overseas, a leaked memo reveals, as managers beg staff to cancel leave and take on extra shifts amid surging Covid cases.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jan/01/nsw-hospitals-resort-to-flying-nurses-in-from-overseas-as-staff-are-begged-to-take-extra-shifts-amid-covid-crisis

Early in the pandemic, when the scientific and medical communities were still learning much about how to handle this new challenge, I had my own health case disrupted and affected by Covid-19. In early 2020 I was booked for a total knee replacement. That was cancelled due to an early lockdown. Thankfully, I was rescheduled for late May. While I waited I lived on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and Tramadol. Despite ramping up my Pantoprazole under medical advice, the sustained use of NSAIDs still saw me in hospital some time later for gut issues.

When I did end up in the emergency department some months later with excruciating left upper quadrant abdominal pain, due to Covid-19 restrictions gastroscopies were not allowed unless there was evidence of internal bleeding. I joke I was diagnosed the old-fashioned way!

Sara shares she is currently waiting, in extreme pain, for some of that elective surgery.

Non-Covid patients in many hospitals can’t have visitors, with some exemptions permitted.

From a Melbourne hospital web site

Being unable to have visitors can be traumatic for patients, especially if they are in hospital for a considerable length of time. This can affect their recovery.

We talk mostly about the Covid-19 patients themselves: do we have enough ICU beds, enough nursing staff, enough tests and medications to cope with the explosion in numbers. Yet the impacts on non-Covid cases are not being widely reported in the mainstream media at all. This links in with my earlier article where I discussed health systems are FINITE.

We, the people, yes us, we cry out for more doctors, more nurses. Where, exactly, are these health care workers supposed to miraculously appear from? It is not possible. There are limited trained health care workers in the world – not just here, in the world. Not enough to care for WAY too many sick people. We have to accept that as a fact.

https://limberation.com/2021/12/30/pandemic-practicalities/

The Covid-19 patients take priority everywhere as their need is certainly super urgent, but that means non-Covid cases have to be sidelined and a backlog develops (or existing backlogs worsen).

There are long term costs. The cases worsen, are therefore more expensive to “fix”. In some cases, unfortunately, death may ultimately result from delayed treatment.

On New Year’s Day I was in a lot of pain. Just about every enthesis in my body (except hips and TMJ) decided to go haywire. I thought about taking myself to the emergency department, but the concern of exposing myself to a hospital environment made me stay home. Now, my entheses aren’t going to kill me: but what of other cases, such as a suspected stroke or heart attack, where the patient stays home for similar reasons (avoiding possible Covid-19 exposure)?

Here is a thread on Twitter about a man who collapsed in a carpark, Type 1 diabetes. The closest ambulance was at least one hour away. While the ambulance delay may not have been directly attributable to Covid-19 use of resources, it is indicative that the extra load on the system places non-Covid patients at risk.

I don’t have a solution. After all (again), health systems are finite. I do expect to see better media coverage of the risks to all of us. What, if anything, is being done to manage the global crisis facing non-Covid patients?

Pandemic Practicalities

The Covid-19 Pandemic is horrible, frightening, life-threatening. Ignoring the very real practicalities does not solve the problems we face.

Health Systems Are Finite

Early in the pandemic we witnessed China build a hospital in ten days. I’m not aware of any Western nation that has even attempted similar. Even so, a hospital is bricks and mortar. No hospital runs without staff. While we can perhaps employ a secondment strategy to provide cleaning, food preparation and laundry staff, we cannot manufacture doctors, nurses, lab technicians, radiologists, pathologists and other health care staff overnight. Or, for that matter in ten days. It takes a good ten years to train a doctor and even then that doctor is not a specialist in pandemic related disciplines.

We, the people, yes us, we cry out for more doctors, more nurses. Where, exactly, are these health care workers supposed to miraculously appear from? It is not possible. There are limited trained health care workers in the world – not just here, in the world. Not enough to care for WAY too many sick people. We have to accept that as a fact.

Rapid Antigen Tests Need to be Manufactured/Distributed

We want more rapid antigen tests made available. Those have to be able to be manufactured in sufficient numbers. We don’t wave a magic wand and the tests just appear in pharmacies nationwide for purchase. The tests have to be manufactured under strict controls, packed, distributed. Staff are needed to run the production – do we have enough staff to run a 24/7 operation? Even if a 24/7 manufacturing process is running in existing production facilities, do we have enough of those? How long to build more?

Should the tests be free? I personally think so given the circumstances, but how is that managed?

There have been cases of price-gouging. Now it appears there is even more confusion, detailed well this afternoon by Luke Henriques-Gnomes in this thread on Twitter:

PCR Tests to be Collected and Processed

Again staffing issues apply when the sheer number of people needing testing are greater than ever anticipated. SHOULD the number have been anticipated? That’s a whole other question I’ll deal with later. At least the training requirements are not as onerous as for doctors and nurses. We could potentially increase testing capacity, but there will always be the physical constraint of staff availability. That is a fact we can’t change quickly.

More Infectious but Less Severe

The numbers game. Each variant comes with unique characteristics. The general population can be confused if the messaging isn’t clear. As the scientists reiterate, a small percentage of a larger number may be larger than a large percentage of a smaller number. The below quote is Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, epidemiologist and former Detroit Health Department executive director speaking to CNN.

“Just because the per-individual risk of severe illness may be lower, that doesn’t mean on a societal level Omicron doesn’t pose a real risk,” he said. “Even a small proportion of a relatively large number can be a relatively large number.”

https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/28/health/is-it-cold-flu-or-covid-wellness/index.html

This is a simple example I whipped up to illustrate what this can mean. The percentages used therein are for ILLUSTRATIVE purposes only. As we can see, triple the cases with half the requirement for hospitalisation still results in MORE patients needing hospital care. The new case numbers jumped 30.78% from December 28 to December 29. Yes, there are reporting delays and all sorts of other variables to the reported numbers of cases on any given day, but they are indicative of what is happening. The most important variable is these are only the tested people: how many globally are not being tested? How many do we not know about at all?

I do note that as of December 30, 1.1% of active cases in Australia are hospitalised. I have been unable to confirm whether this includes Hospital In The Home numbers. Note the source below updates daily.

Edited January 8 to add: now some days later, compare the same data. We can see we now have three times the number of people in hospital, but that is a lower percentage of currently active cases.

The Science, NOT The Politics

Yes, the damn politics. The politics has got to stop and stop now. Right now. This is a global disaster and there is no place for politics. If you aren’t part of a SAFE solution, you’re part of the problem. Point scoring off the other side isn’t helpful: and that applies across the board. Personally, I’m not interested in what political colour you are, you are elected to represent us.

As for threats of war and similar “business as usual” inter-nation “disagreements”: THIS IS NOT THE TIME.

LISTEN TO THE SCIENCE. That’s all I ask you to do. Listen to the science.

There is also a simmering question of a particular religious ideology impacting political decision making. I am avoiding that topic today, other than noting yes, that question quite legitimately exists.

Like it or Not, it IS a Numbers Game

During the last pandemic, the 1918 Pandemic, the global population was less than 2 billion. Now it is 8 billion.

https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth

During the 1918 Pandemic one third of the world’s population was infected. It is estimated the population in 1918 was 1.8 billion. Everything is relative: in 1918 our population was much lower, but we also likely had less health care workers per head of population than we do now in 2021. It was also a different type of illness. Covid-19 puts people in hospital for long periods. People technically recovered from Covid-19 remain very unwell for long periods or are permanently disabled with Long Covid.

Back to the numbers. One third of our current population is 2.66 billion people. We already know people can catch Covid-19 more than once, that alone increases the numbers. Yes, we have vaccines and those vaccines have been shown to reduce the severity of the disease. On the other hand, Covid-19 has variants. Those variants may evade vaccines and be harder for current tests to detect.

Are we safe to assume that Covid-19 will not infect a greater proportion of the global population that the 1918 Pandemic did? I don’t think so. SO FAR we have been fortunate. In the two years of 2020 and 2021 our reported total cases are only 284,906,146 which for those into numbers is just over a quarter of 1 billion or 28.49% of 1 billion. That is a long way from 2.66 billion.

Oh, but we have better science now than in 1918? True, we do. Very much so. We managed to get vaccines up and running in basically 12 months, give or take. An astounding achievement. We have dramatically improved treatments of Covid-19 patients and continue to learn. However, there are far more of us, living far more densely and travelling far more widely than in 1918. Those factors work in Covid-19’s favour. Not to mention the anti-vaxxers who risk not only themselves, but society in general.

Then we loop back to the Health Systems are Finite aspect. The health care workers we do have cannot work 24/7, it is not possible, none of us can. If the number of cases requiring hospitalisation or Hospital In The Home or whatever care type might be developed in the future, exceed our health care system resources, we have a problem.

I’m not being alarmist but I see way too much lack of understanding of the numbers.

  • “Just get more health care workers!” – WHERE FROM?
  • “Triage the patients to another hospital.” – And when/if all the hospitals are in the same boat?
  • “Provide free tests now!” – Where is the supply coming from? It takes time…..
  • “Fix the overloaded PCR testing, stop the queues!” – How? Where are the staff coming from? Are there enough test kits?

What IS needed is an acknowledgement by politicians and understanding by the general public, globally, that in a worst case scenario we could be trying to treat an INORDINATE number of people. Australia’s population is 26 million in round numbers. One third of 26 million is 8.66 million people. Of that 8.66 million people, up to 37% could be left with some form of Long Covid. That equates to 3.2 million people.

I certainly hope we don’t reach the levels of the last pandemic – but I suggest it is a very dangerous assumption to assume we won’t.

Close Contact Definitions

I refer readers to the OzSage report linked below, where this point is discussed.

Today the Queensland Chief Health Officer stated the definition of close contacts had to change or the state would cease to function, everyone would be in quarantine.

Not much will function too well if too many people are sick, either. New South Wales discarding spread mitigations and protections when they did was grossly irresponsible.

Long Covid

Then there is Long Covid to consider. So much is as yet unknown, but the more I read, the more concerned I become. I’ve written other articles about chronic illness and society, so I’m not going to repeat myself here. Suffice to say the same problems will exist, but for more people. What are the politicians doing about modelling the social, health and economic costs?

A Guardian article today addresses the issue well: Long Covid is the elephant in the room, but it seems invisible to Australian politicians. The existing chronic illness cohort seem invisible to many politicians, so I’m not surprised they’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming to acknowledge what could be a major increase in numbers.

This UK Long Covid patient has detailed his struggles on Twitter. One of many.

The OzSage Report: 10 Key Points

I implore everyone to read the OzSage Report. Here is Point 5 to encourage you to click on the link below.

The rhetoric that case numbers ‘do not matter’ is incorrect – particularly in the face of the Omicron variant. Daily case numbers are now 10 times higher than during the Delta wave and may be 100 times higher in January. Even if hospitalisation rates are lower with Omicron compared to Delta, a halving of hospitalisation rates with a 10-fold or 100-fold increase in cases will still translate to a high burden on the health system. This is likely to overwhelm the health system, with regional services at particular risk.

The trajectory of observed data suggest that hospitalisation and ICU occupancy are on a steeply rising trend and anticipated to exceed earlier peaks quite soon. In other words, optimistic assumptions about the impact of the Omicron variant on hospital admissions are unrealistic.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/dec/30/the-ozsage-report-10-key-points-from-its-critique-of-australias-covid-response

Should We Have Seen This Coming?

The answer is yes, we should have. Humans got too wrapped up in The Economy and Growth (I wrote the below article in August, 2020) and forgot we are really just another species of animal on the planet.

Humans are Earth’s chronic condition. We destroy at will. We see our species as the pre-eminent beings on the planet. Although many believe in a God or Gods in the heavens, here on Earth the human species is all-powerful.

The Gods Brought to Their Knees by the Invisible

Scientists have been warning us for years, but we didn’t listen. We didn’t prepare. In fact, in some ways, we deliberately de-prepared: sold off the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, for example.

In many ways it would be impossible to plan for the sheer numbers. We can’t have excess trained health care workers sitting around idle for generations, or hospital buildings lying idle. Equipment becomes outdated, supplies pass their use-by dates. Vaccines and tests have to be developed specific to the pandemic. The logistics of it all are difficult to grasp.

But we should have seen it coming. For the politicians to act so surprised is ridiculous. We should, as a species, globally, have been prepared to some degree. Not perfectly prepared, for that would be impossible. Yes, in a pandemic there will be unavoidable loss of life, there will be economic losses, there will be disruptions to travel, education, trade, life as we knew it… Yet we could have been better prepared, not only by having plans at a macro level, also psychologically at an individual level, for the disaster that is still unfolding.

There are no miracles.