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School year hangs in the balance as COVID-19 cases spike in the U.K.

August 26, 2021, 2:15 PM UTC

COVID-19 cases are making an unwelcome comeback in the U.K.

The number of average daily symptomatic cases in the U.K. jumped by 19% from last week to 51,961, according to the Zoe COVID-19 Study app, worrying parents who are a week out from sending their kids back to school.

The COVID-19 symptom study app, designed by scientists at King’s College London in collaboration with health science company Zoe, found that fully vaccinated people made up 29.4% of the new daily cases, with an average of 15,309 infected people sporting both jabs.

Younger people are predominantly behind the rise, with the highest number of new cases reported in the 18-to-35 age group, followed closely by the 0-to-18 age group.

Although the Zoe COVID-19 app does not collect the data of every U.K. person, the news reflects data published by the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics yesterday, which found COVID-19 cases in England rose by 9.6% in the week ending Aug. 13, the worst numbers seen since the last peak in cases, which occurred in late March. A total of 652 COVID-19 deaths were recorded in hospitals across the U.K. in the mid-August week.

Hospitalizations are also getting worse. Over the previous seven days the number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 rose 9.1%, according to data up to Aug. 20.

The news is worrying for parents looking to send their kids back to school. There was optimism in June, when fewer than one in 100 school students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 despite a general rise in cases across England.

But now, with the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson planning to ease all in-school restrictions and allow kids to mix and mingle as they did before the pandemic, the situation does not look as comforting. In Scotland, where students are already back in classrooms, cases have tripled, hitting the highest daily number recorded during the pandemic thus far; restrictions may be reimposed if the surge continues, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.

What the scientists are saying

This is troubling news for a country that was just recently touting a decline in cases of the Delta variant as it dropped all restrictions.

“Unfortunately, we’re back in a position where cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all going up and the U.K. has the highest rates of COVID in Europe, despite our superior vaccination rates,” said professor Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe COVID Study app.

He adds the main difference between the U.K. and Europe is in the restrictions in place. The U.K. “eagerly declared ‘freedom’ from COVID and did away with even the most basic social measures,” he said, and COVID-19 found an opportunity to spread.

“As kids head back to the classrooms, there’s a good chance cases will continue to rise from here,” he said. National Health Service (NHS) organizations in England have been told this week to prepare to bring 12- to 15-year-olds into the vaccination program.

It is unclear how much of the increasing case load can be chalked up to waning immunity provided by vaccines over time and how much is due to the greater prevalence of the Delta variant, which is known to be more resistant, says Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia.

The case rise amid the Delta variant isn’t surprising to Dr. Julian Tang, clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, who notes that the vaccines were originally designed against the original Wuhan virus. He adds that while booster shots using current vaccines will boost antibody levels, they will necessarily be very effective against the Delta variant: “Once the antibody levels drop again, the Delta variant will break through.”

Kevin McConway, professor emeritus of applied statistics at the Open University, noted the data shows that “vaccination doesn’t miraculously fix everything. We certainly need the vaccines, but that’s not all we need.”

He added that he finds the number of young people getting infected, as well as the looming winter, especially worrisome.

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