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Gleb Tsipursky

Health Care

Should Quality Professionals Be Worried About the New Covid Strains?

A vaccine is on the way, but so is a new strain of the virus

Published: Monday, January 18, 2021 - 12:03

Should quality professionals be worried about the new Covid strains originating in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and elsewhere, and recently identified in the United States?

Authorities have focused on downplaying concerns about vaccine effectiveness against these new variants. While some legitimate concerns exist that our vaccines might be 10–20 percent less effective against the new strains, this small difference shouldn’t make you too worried.

However, another aspect of these new variants should make you very worried indeed: They’re much more contagious. Unfortunately, the implications of their contagiousness has received little news coverage.

In fact, officials claim there’s no cause for alarm about the new strains. Such complacency reflects our sleepwalking during the pandemic’s early stages, despite numerous warnings from myself and other risk management experts, leading us to fail to plan and adapt successfully.

Are the new strains really more contagious?

Researchers describe the UK strain as anywhere from 56 percent to 70 percent more contagious, and the South African strain even more contagious. The new UK variant quickly came to dominate the old strain of Covid in Southeast England, going from less than 1 percent of all tested samples at the start of November 2020 to more than two-thirds by mid-December. To corroborate this research, we can compare new daily Covid cases per million people during the last several weeks in the United Kingdom, South Africa, United States, Canada, Italy, and France.


Image courtesy of Our World in Data.

Although many parts of the world have seen a steady growth in cases, only the United Kingdom and South Africa saw a major spike in December 2020. Many scientists believe this spike is due to the higher transmissibility of the new variant. The UK’s numbers doubled over two weeks, from 240 on December 10, 2020, to 506 on December 24; South Africa’s case numbers similarly doubled during that period, from 86 to 182. While holiday celebrations and relaxation of social distancing could explain some of this spike, many scientists believe the new Covid variants are likely to blame. Moreover, given that South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, and it’s summer there from December to February, Covid cases should decrease, not increase.

Why we ignore slow-moving train wrecks

Our minds aren’t well adapted to processing the implications of these seemingly abstract numbers. We suffer from the tendency to focus on the short term and minimize the importance of longer-term outcomes. Known as “hyperbolic discounting,” this cognitive bias causes us to underestimate the eventual impacts of clear trends, such as a more contagious strain of Covid.

The normalcy bias results in us feeling that things will generally keep going as they have been—i.e., normally. As a result, we underestimate drastically both the likelihood of a serious disruption occurring and the impact of one if it does occur, such as a novel variant.

When we develop plans, we feel that the future will follow our plan. That mental blind spot, the planning fallacy, threatens our ability to prepare effectively for and to pivot quickly when facing risks and problems, such as the new strains.

The implications of much higher contagiousness

The new strains likely arrived in the United States by mid-November 2020, with hundreds of probable cases by now. Based on the timeline in the United Kingdom and South Africa, the new variants will become predominant here by March or April.

The United States has maintained a daily new case count of just over 200,000, from December 10, 2020, to December 24. Imagine what happens when this starts shooting up rapidly as the new strains start to overtake the old strains, eventually doubling every two weeks when the new variants become predominant.

Hospital systems in California, Texas, and other states are already overwhelmed. The terrible March 2020 outbreak in New York will seem like a summer shower compared to the upcoming tsunami that may flood our medical systems. Moreover, the surge will undoubtedly cause major supply shortages and hammer industries such as travel and hospitality.

Might vaccines help? Not until the summer, due to the timing of the rollout.

What about government lockdowns? Not likely. The extreme politicization, widespread protests, and severe economic pain from lockdowns make politicians very reluctant to impose the kind of severe lockdown necessary to fight the new strains. Even if some do, mass public noncompliance will make lockdowns ineffective.

What can you do?

For yourself and your household as a private citizen, change your plans:
• Prepare for lack of access to emergency medical care by minimizing risky activities such as skiing or substantial household repairs.
• Take steps right now to get into strict pandemic lockdown for your household until you all get vaccines.
• To the extent possible, insist on working from home, or invest in a career transition to permit work from home.
• Communicate to your friends and family about the new strains and encourage them to take steps to protect themselves until they have vaccines.
• Protect the more vulnerable, such as by taking extra precautions around friends and family members over 60 years old or those with illnesses such as diabetes that make them more vulnerable to Covid.
• Be ready to deal with other people making poor decisions, and take whatever steps you need to address such problems.
• Prepare psychologically for the tragedy of increased deaths as our hospitals are overwhelmed.

At the workplace, prepare your organization:
• Convince the leadership team of your organization to take serious steps to address this situation.
• Communicate to all employees about the new strains and encourage them to take the steps above to protect their households.
• Strongly encourage them to take advantage of any mental health resources the organization offers to prepare for the trauma of death and serious illness.
• Coordinate with your HR department on how to compensate for the much higher likely caseload of Covid in your team, and burnout due to trauma caused by death and illness; ensure cross-training for key positions.
• Transition your team now to working from home as much as possible.
• Revisit your business continuity plan to prepare for mass disruptions in the spring and summer.
• Address any supply chain, vendor, and investor risks, as well as potential cash flow issues
• Prepare for travel disruptions and event cancellations
• By taking all of these steps early, you will have a major competitive advantage, so get ready to use the consequences of this competitive advantage to seize market share from your competitors who fail to prepare.

Conclusion

We’re in for a world of pain this spring and early summer. It may feel unreal, but that’s simply our cognitive biases telling us that, just like they did early in the pandemic. Don’t be caught off guard, again, by ignoring this warning.

Discuss

About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect quality leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (2019). His expertise comes from 20+ years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipursky, LinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course.