The cluster effect: how social gatherings fueled the coronavirus | News from the world

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Rather than simply multiplying the number of daily cases by some factor, Popper’s example attempts to capture what he calls the starting point for “local epidemic networks”.

“If you have 100 or 200 people who spend enough time in a room with a person carrying the virus, then for example 20 people could leave with the new infection and, after a few days of incubation, transmit it to their families and colleagues , let’s assume 10 more people each. In a few days, the virus can multiply 200 times with a single new incident – and then continue. “

“We shared cups”

Major parties have played a key role in the rapid spread of the pandemic not only in Central Europe, but also in the United States and Australia. New York may now be the center of the epidemic in the United States, but the traditional Mardi Gras festivities would have been the catalyst for a great epidemic in New Orleans.

On February 25, the entire city, with nearly 400,000 residents and an estimated tourist crowd of 1.4 million people from around the world, was engulfed in a tide of music, tanks, extravagant costumes, cocktails and rejoicing for the pinnacle of carnival.




People in the French Quarter on the last day of Mardi Gras in New Orleans on February 25.

People in the French Quarter on the last day of Mardi Gras in New Orleans on February 25. Photography: Dan Anderson / EPA

As is customary in this city of Louisiana on the Mississippi, the rallies and parades had started weeks before, starting on January 6. Many people opened the doors of their homes and crowded with friends, family, neighbors, strangers – all jostling, dancing, hugging, eating and drinking together.

There were no social restrictions during the carnival. A few weeks later, on March 20, the mayor of New Orleans issued a home stay order for the city, with Louisiana ordering statewide restrictions two days later, closing schools and all non-core businesses.

The city’s first death occurred on March 13 and, on March 22, Louisiana had 837 cases, 70% of which were concentrated in New Orleans. On April 1, the state’s death toll reached 273.


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“Mardi Gras was the perfect storm, it provided the perfect conditions for the spread of this virus,” said Rebekah Gee, head of the health services division at Louisiana State University.

“We shared cups. We shared each other’s space in the crowd. People were in close contact to catch [strings of] pearls. It is now clear that people have also caught a coronavirus, ”she added.

For health authorities who were still trying to track and contain individual infections at this stage of the pandemic, party groups posed a particular challenge as revelers often traveled and returned to other regions, countries or even cities. ‘other continents.

In Australia, for example, at least 30 people, including backpackers, were infected after attending a crowded dance party at the Bucket List pavilion in Bondi Beach on March 15.

The party took place the night before restrictions on gatherings of more than 500 people took effect, during a weekend of mixed messages from authorities. The Australian Prime Minister urged people not to gather in large numbers, but also said he would go to a football match.

Many of those who attended the “Back to Boogie Wonderland – Tropicana” event, which told people to release their “inner Caribbean dancer”, then retreated to local backpacker hostels with dorms and facilities shared.

The Waverley board area, which encompasses Bondi and his backpacker community, has now become a hotspot for Covid-19, with many of its 140 cases linked to bars, clubs and restaurants, including the Bucket List.




A Bondi resident leaves a Covid-19 screening clinic near Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia.

A Bondi resident leaves a Covid-19 screening clinic near Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. Photography: Dean Lewins / EPA

Prayers and funerals

In many countries, revelers and organizers were out of breath. In Australia, the Bucket List Facebook page is full of livid comments condemning the “idiots” who have gathered to party. In Germany, cars with Heinsberg license plates had their windows broken and were considered “corona spreaders”.

But the new coronavirus did not require social gatherings to be overtly hedonistic in order to flourish. During the week of February 17 to 21, around 2,500 faithful gathered at the Porte Ouverte Christian church in the Bourtzwiller district of Mulhouse, in Alsace, in eastern France, for one of the most important events. expected from the Gospel calendar.

They came from far and wide, including French overseas territories and Corsica, for a week of fasting and prayer – organized every year for 25 years.

“During the five days, the faithful greeted each other, pecked on the cheeks and held hands, sometimes praying during services,” said Nathalie Schnoebelen, spokesman for the church.

At the time, nobody thought about it anymore; it will take almost a month before France finds itself in a national lockout. A small group of cases of coronavirus had broken out in the ski resort of Contamines unfortunately named in the Alps, but most of the cases of coronavirus were still limited to China.

“Contrary to what some politicians have said, we did not ignore the ground rules because at the time there were none,” said Schnoebelen.

It was only after the congregation of the Open Door dispersed and several devotees tested positive for the coronavirus that concerns were expressed. Among those who tested positive was the church’s senior pastor, Samuel Peterschmitt (son of Jean Peterschmitt, who founded the Open Door church in 1966).

A total of 18 people from the Peterschmitt family tested positive for Covid-19. Samuel Peterschmitt’s son Jonathan admitted that the faithful had been confined for a week in “relatively ideal conditions if a virus wants to develop”.

When it was identified as the cradle of the virus, church members unintentionally passed it on to others. A nurse at the Porte Ouverte is believed to be behind a cluster that infected 250 colleagues at the Strasbourg CHU where she worked.

Two faithful retirees returned home to the Ajaccio region on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. There are now at least 263 positive cases and 21 deaths on the island.

A delegation of five faithful from Guyana, led by their evangelical pastor Gilles Sax, returned on February 25 to French overseas territory on the northeast coast of South America. Sax said he felt bad and “trembled like a leaf” when he returned.

Other faithful returned to the towns and villages of France – Orléans, Besançon, Saint-Lô, Belfort, Dijon, Mâcon, Briançon, Paris. As of March 8, approximately 100 cases of coronavirus were linked to the church’s week of prayer.

Today, Mulhouse is one of the most affected regions in France with local hospitals overflowing with coronavirus patients.

Christophe Lannelongue, until yesterday director general of the regional health authority, said: “It was a kind of atomic bomb which fell on us at the end of February and we did not notice it. “

In Italy, which registered the highest number of deaths from the virus, a Champions League football match between Bergamo and the Spanish team from Valencia on February 19 was described as the “biological bomb” that transformed the north from the country to the center of the country’s epidemic.




Fans celebrate Atalanta's score in the match in Bergamo, Italy, on February 19.

Fans celebrate Atalanta’s score in the match in Bergamo, Italy, on February 19. Photography: Kieran McManus / BPI / Rex / Shutterstock

But scientists like Massimo Galli, head of the infectious diseases unit at Sacco Hospital in Milan, believe that the spread has probably accelerated in smaller groups in the valleys around Bergamo.

“We know that Covid-19 is particularly effective at transmitting within family groups,” Galli told the Guardian. “In the crowded osterias of elderly people, he would have found a perfect environment. “

A similar gathering that brought together older and younger citizens preceded an epidemic of virus in south-eastern Italy. On March 3, hundreds of people gathered to pay tribute to the funeral of San Marco in Lamis, a small town of 13,000 people. The 74-year-old buried man died of what appeared to be a case of seasonal flu.

So far, there have been seven cases of coronavirus infection in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot. Pictures of patients in the red areas of northern Italy, and the first deaths in Lombardy, seemed unimaginable, as did the national lock which was rolled out across the country a few days later.

However, shortly after the funeral, the man’s wife, who had just started to mourn the death of her husband, received a call informing her that her husband had tested positive for coronavirus.

According to Ludovico Vaccaro, head of the Foggia public prosecutor’s office, “a post-mortem revealed that the man was infected with Covid-19, but the result was not released until his body was returned to the family for the funeral . They should have waited for the test result before handing over the man’s body. “

Authorities said that a few days earlier, the man had gone to Cremona, in northern Italy, to visit his daughter. Upon his return, he began to experience flu-like symptoms.

According to doctors and investigators, the man had infected his daughter and his wife before his death. At the funeral, they then contacted dozens of relatives and friends who expressed condolences to the family with handshakes and hugs, opening the door for one of the first groups in the south of Italy. As a result, 110 people were quarantined, dozens of which tested positive for the coronavirus. Two died.

The Foggia prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into what the governor of Apulia called a “catastrophic error”. Behind one of the most dramatic cases of the spread of the virus is human error: if the doctors had waited for the test results before handing the body over to family members, dozens of people might have could avoid infection.

A loop not a curve

Regarding the coronavirus pandemic as a process that can accelerate dramatically through human clusters also affects the considerations of policymakers who chart a course outside the current lockdown. When governments begin to relax current social distancing measures, can they also afford to allow large social, cultural or religious gatherings to continue?

“The image of the Covid-19 epidemic in the form of a curve has taken root in the collective imagination, but my fear is that we are dealing with a loop,” said mathematician Popper. “As soon as the restrictions are relaxed, there may be new clusters that would allow the spread to accelerate again.”

The story of the pandemic in Vietnam serves as a cautionary tale.

The Southeast Asian country registered its first cases of coronavirus on January 23, a development that prompted authorities to act quickly. Vietnam closed many schools after the traditional Lunar New Year holidays in late January and banned flights to and from China on February 1. It also became the first country outside China to introduce a mass quarantine, when, on February 12, authorities isolated villages about 40 kilometers from Hanoi that housed 10,000 people.

Vietnam has not detected any new cases for three weeks when a flight from London landed at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport on March 2. Among the hundreds of passengers on board, a 27-year-old Vietnamese woman was returning after a trip to attend exclusive fashion week events in Europe. With her sister, she sat among the guests of a Gucci fashion show in Milan and watched Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, documenting her trips on Instagram.

The woman later told the New York Times that she flew to Milan on February 18 and that “nobody was talking about the virus at the time.” She went to Paris on February 25, she added, and said that she felt good when she returned home that week.

A few days after her return to Vietnam, she developed a cough and tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the “patient 17” of the country. As of April 7, Vietnam had 245 confirmed infections. The effort to find and contain the virus has to start all over again.

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