It’s too late?

I want to start with a sobering thought. It’s too late to contain this pandemic. I’m watching the news as slowly more and more states in the US issue versions of “shelter in place” or “stay at home” orders. But I think in most cases, it’s too late. The virus has probably already spread so much that self-isolation won’t be nearly as effective as it would have been had the states issued the same orders a week or two earlier. That said, it’s most likely still better than doing nothing.

Human beings at times are lousy with risk analysis. If a risk is immediate, we can react well, but the longer it stretches out or the further away it is, the harder it is to get people to react. Almost any climate scientist who has studied anthropogenic global warming has known for a decade or more we have a problem and we have a very quickly narrowing window for solving it, and the longer we wait, the harder it will become.

Yet too many of us put off the problem for another day.

So it is with the Covid-19 virus. “Oh we don’t have to lock down just yet, let’s wait another day.” And I’ll admit, sitting in the state that is the center of the virus outbreak here in the US, I’m tempted to say, “25,000 isn’t TOO bad, we can manage that.”  But that’s the lizard part of my brain reacting. It’s the emotional part. Then I kick in the rational part. If we use one of the numbers bandied about, doubling every 4 days, that means by this weekend, in New York State alone, it will be 50,000. By April 1st, 100,000. By the end of April, it could be the entire state.  Those numbers are hard to comprehend.

That said, I’m also hopeful. Modelling pandemics is pretty much pure math, but reality is more complex and often luck can play a huge factor. Let me try to explain.

First, we need to heed the words of experts like Dr. Fauci and others who are basing their remarks and recommendations on the inexorable exponential rise in expected infections. They are giving basically the worst case scenario if their recommendations are followed. And that’s proper. That’s really what you have to plan for.

Let me take a little side trip and mention a cave rescue in Vermont several years ago. By the time I had gotten the call to show up and to call out other rescues, the injured party had been in the cave for several hours. I didn’t know much about the extent of their injuries other than it was a fall and that it was in a Vermont cave, which almost certainly meant operating in tight quarters. I grabbed a box of Freihofer cookies, a lawn chair (my fellow cave rescuers will understand the reference), a contact list of other potential rescuers, and my son. While I drove, he’d read off a name and I’d say “yes call” or “Nope, next name.”  On the hour plus drive to the rescue we managed to contact at least two other people who could get there. (It turns out, as I surmised, several of the folks I wanted to call were members of the original caving party.)

Once there, my son and I were driven partway to the cave entrance and trudged the rest of the way. I talked with the folks on the scene to gather information and then dressed to go into the cave to gather first hand information. I still hadn’t gained too much information other than to know it was potentially shaping up to be a serious rescue. The person had been climbing a cable ladder when they fell and injured themselves. This meant, based on the information at hand, a worst case scenario of an evac through tight passages with the patient in a SKED stretcher.  I was playing the role of Dr. Fauci at that point, preparing for the worse based on the information I had.

Fortunately, literally at the moment I was about to enter the cave, one of the members of the original caving party crawled out and said, “he’s right behind me, he’ll be out in a minute or so.”  It turns out his injuries were fairly minor and with the members of his own caving party, he was able to get out of the cave under his own power.

I got back to Incident Command about an hour later and was informed, “oh, by the way, you’ve got at least 3 cavers who showed up to help. We held them at the bottom of the road. What should we tell them?”  My answer was simply, “Thanks and to go home.”

I relate this story not so much to talk about cave rescue specifically but to point out that even when planning for the worst, you may get a lucky break. But you can’t rely on them. Let me give an alternate scenario. Let’s say I had not called out the other rescuers and had gotten to the cave and crawled in, realized the situation was a worst case scenario, crawled back out and then initiated a call-out. It would have at that point probably meant at least an extra 90 minutes before the extra resources would have been on the scene. It would have meant the patient was exposed to hypothermic condition for another 90 minutes. It would have meant 90 more minutes of pain. It would have meant fewer brains working to solve the problem.

Getting back to Covid-19. Will we get lucky? I don’t know. I actually suspect we might. One “advantage” of an increasing population of sick people is we can better model it and we can also perform more drug trials. We may discover certain populations react differently to the disease than others and be able to incorporate that into the treatment plan. I don’t know. But I do know, we need to plan for the worst, and hope for a bit of luck. In the meantime, hunker down and let’s flatten the curve.

And if you’ve read this far and want to know how to make some pita bread, I’ll let you in on the two secrets I’ve learned: VERY hot oven (I typically bake mine at about 500-550F for 2 minutes on 1 side, and 1 minute on the other) and roll it out thinner than you might think.

Life in a Time of Coronavirus

With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez.

Life in the past week has definitely take a turn. We’ve gone from, “this might be bad” to losing about 30% of the market value of the stock market, and basically the country is shutting down.

I’d like to quote R.E.M. and say “It’s end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine” but the truth is more complex. Physically, I feel fine. I don’t think I have the Coronavirus, but of course I can’t say for sure.  I’m not really worried about myself. I’ve been working from home for years and so already had reduced the vector of working in crowded offices. But, of course my wife has been working in an office (though tomorrow her job will become “work from home”) and my son just came home from college for a break of now unknown length and my daughter’s school started a mandatory closure with some sort of undefined “remote teaching”. It’s still unclear what teachers will do what, but I hope by the end of the week they’ll be able to have a more robust teaching rubric in place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about toilet paper lately. We picked up some more rolls, just in case, but we’re far from hoarding (unlike the story of one family of four I read about on Facebook that apparently was caught trying to bypass the rules at a supermarket and buying 16 packs of 24 rolls of toilet paper: yes, they were trying to buy a total of 384 rolls of toilet paper in one day!)

But I’d by lying if I didn’t say there was a certain about of dread on my mind. Things are going to get worse before they get better.  I’ve been monitoring a site out of Johns Hopkins that seems to have accurate and fairly up to date data on the spread of the Coronavirus. The numbers aren’t great.  If the spread continues according to some models, we could be looking at a death toll in the US of 500,000-1 million or more.  These are staggering numbers. Now, to be clear, with social distancing and other measures, I have reason to hope the numbers will be 1/10th of those numbers, but even that’s a good sized number.

And of course there’s the aforementioned drop in the value of the stock market, and I honestly think it will only get worse.  If the worse case death tolls come in, we’re looking at a fundamental shake-up of our economy. Couple that with some of the possible mid-term effects as people face bankruptcy due to income loss and longer term changes that may result as a result of social changes. For example I’ve seen one headline suggesting that cinemas may simply not make a comeback after people stop going and just watch them at home. This is all scary and worrisome. And it’s bigger than toilet paper.

But more importantly, I’ve been thinking about families. I’ve written about this before and I’ve mentioned #SQLFamily. With Social Distancing being the current buzzwords, it’s put a damper on getting together with people. I know it’s so tempting to call up some friends and say, “hey, let’s get together and play games” but that sort of negates the point of social distancing.

My families, virtual and my biological one give me hope and cause to celebrate. On the RPI based chat program I use, Lily, it’s been great to see how one whole discussion is pretty much focused on a fact-based exchange of ideas. Even those of us on separate ends of the political spectrum are basically exchanging facts and mostly keeping emotions in check. This has been a useful place to learn a lot.

And on Twitter and elsewhere, it’s been remarkable to see #SQLFamily come together. Last Friday, and coming again this Friday, one of our members hosted a Zoom Chat where #SQLFamily members could just hang out and chat. Yeah, we talked about TP, and power outages in Johannesburg, and other topics, but it was mostly fun small talk. It was a reminder, that there are real people behind the Twitter handles and tweets. I’ve seen my #SQLFamily members send tweets about the success of their own family members and of their own hopes and fears.

Having gone to a technical college, and usually surrounded by folks who are self-identified geeks, sometimes it can be tempting to think we’re all just emotionless people driven by facts and data, human version of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock or Data, but the reality is, the families I’ve surrounded myself with are an amazing, resilient, group of people. And I think that’s probably true of most of us. It’s tempting to think “my group is special” and in some ways every group is, but at the end of the day, I think what unites us is greater than what separates us. Yes, fortunately I think my virtual families tend to make decisions a bit more based on facts than some groups, but we still share the same humanity deep down.

So, is there a tinge of dread on the horizon of my mind, yes. But I also see the sun rays of hope peaking above the clouds and know that the next weeks, months and possibly year or more will be rough. Some of us may lose loved ones. And I hate to type that, but it’s true. But, life will go on and we’ll find a new normal and we will do so by maintaining our relationships, physical and virtual.

My advice, during these times, reach out, expand your virtual relationships. Find hope and happiness where you can and share your fear, sadness, and sorrow when you need to.

Do small acts of kindness.

And I make the following offer:

If you’re down and need to talk or even just a cheer-up hit me up on twitter @stridergdm or if you know me on Facebook, private message me. If you want to join me on Lily, let me know, I’ll set you up with an account and a client. It’s mostly RPI folks, but not exclusively. If you really need it, we can even to a Zoom chat to talk about anything, from the role of the little known Saturn IV stage to talking about the Hudson River Chain at West Point during the Revolutionary War to recipes for air fryers, I’m there.

I’m going to close with a bit of randomness, because, well I think we need it.

A random cow sighting at a local Walmart.

A random cow sighting at a local Walmart.