I bookmarked the John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard on January 25 2020, when there were 2k cases in China. I should have started a thoughtstream at that time as well, but I have been out of the habit.
Here I’m trying to capture the kinds of things that can get hard to recall after the fact: impressions of the present, and evolving guesses about the future impact of this virus on any area of life.
My (at the time) half-serious Twitter thread started Jan 23. I felt comfortable tweeting about it because we weren’t yet inundated with the subject.
The USA’s neatly fractured view of the pandemic (along political lines) is something to behold, and will be fascinating to watch as the year progresses.
An interesting controlled epidemiological experiment is about to unfold. https://t.co/4KM6gT71bm— Fritz Swanson (@fritzswanson) March 15, 2020
“Recall how, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the White House signaled preferred policy outcome so heavily that it skewed the analysis and advice it received. Can see similar alignment b/w preferences Trump and his team were signaling, and strategic posture of his crisis managers.” —Jeremy Konyndyk
Second one above seems to have played out among the public at large, not just among administration team members and support staff.
As with so many aspects of society, the US public’s model has done a “hard fork.”
It seems to me that one
xor the other is going to run smack up against the painful difference between its model and reality. Maybe such a disillusioning event would be a silver lining for our society.
I'm not so sure about the exclusive-or though. Might we emerge from this with each side of the fork just as or more convinced than they were before? Or might both experience a smack-up? Maybe the forks themselves will fork?
Personal Prognostication Snapshot:
You can see I’m on the side of the fork that says that the virus is real and serious, meaning there will be many thousands of deaths due to an overwhelmed healthcare system, and many thousands with permanent lung damage. I expect that my wife and I will get the virus, and am cautiously optimistic that we will not require medical attention to live through it.
The outcome that would pose an something of an ideological smack-up for me would be if less than 50 thousand people die from COVID-19 (i.e. fewer people than do from influenza in a typical flu season) or have permanent lung damage (and assuming SARS-CoV-2 spread doesn’t become a new seasonal event like H1N1). As dumb as it would make me feel, this would be my preferred outcome.
Today I found out that a co-worker's son wired a house for someone who has now tested positive for COVID-19, and subsequently fell sick, missing a week of work. My co-worker, who is now working remotely, spent time at his son’s house while he was sick.
Seems apparent that the lack of testing capacity is going to require blunt, blind quarantining measures, which have a heavy heavy economic toll, rather than targeted quarantining measures which would have a lighter economic touch.
Grocery store workers included in definition of “emergency workers” in MN, qualifying them for free healthcare.
Some more malls closing, following MoA’s closure yesterday.
Trump has invoked an act that gives him the authority to direct private production in times of war (ventilators? testing?) but is dithering about whether he will use it.
I only signed the Defense Production Act to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future. Hopefully there will be no need, but we are all in this TOGETHER!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2020
Gov. Walz is, I think, two steps behind the curve of what we actually need to happen right now. By his own account to WCCO this morning: A) today's numbers are going to jump way up, and B) the rate of growth is going to accelerate! Besides this, he knows that the ratio of tested cases to the actual number out there is abysmal. And yet: a shelter in place order is “not the situation we believe we're at.”
Yesterday the Governor announced a “stay at home” order will be in place in Minnesota for 2 weeks starting Friday at midnight.
Many people are confusing this with a “shelter in place” order, which would be much more stringent. The stay-at-home order allows us to leave home for a number of reasons, such as to get groceries, exercise outside, work jobs in exempted/critical sectors, etc.
The last one is interesting. The guidance on exempt industries is very broad. According to MN’s Dept of Employment commissioner:
About 78 percent of the jobs in Minnesota are in critical industries as defined by the executive order, so it's just 22 percent that are not. (source)
There is also no enforcement, so companies can declare themselves exempt and require their workers to come in as usual. My own employer has taken this route. We sell desks and monitor walls, but since some of our customers are in exempt agencies they have decided we are exempt as well.
On another note: a lot of celebrities seem to believe they can help us during these trying times by …being famous online from home. It’s getting old.
Felt impacts in Minneapolis so far:
It’s been a couple of weeks now since the John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard was at all useful in the US. It was handy for tracking the global spread during the early stages, but at this point we all know cases are everywhere and skyrocketing. The useful dashboards and tracking sites are those that operate on a more local level.
It will probably become interesting to look at again in a couple of months, when we might start to see a plateau or decline in the global number of cases.
Today a co-worker tested positive and was hospitalized, the first one in our company and the first such person personally known to me. This person has worked remotely for a long time, so there is no reason to think they carried it to others here in the office.
My employer announced that amid a falloff in sales they are cutting most employees’ pay by 20% and converting some salaried/exempt employees’ status to hourly/non-exempt. The stated goal is to keep everyone employed amid uncertainty as to how long the downturn will last.
I started wearing a mask to work today, the first in my company to do so. This may be in part because I have some decent masks leftover from a trip, and they are quite hard to buy at the moment. But it also definitely feels like I am swimming against the social current here, and I am getting a lot of looks.
This will be the first full week I’ve worked from home.
IRS stimulus check deposited to my checking account today, 17 days after passage of the CARES act. The amount correctly reflected our income, marriage status and the fact that we have two dependent children. Our immediate needs are already taken care of for now, so our plan for this money is to stick it in our emergency fund and re-evaluate at the end of the year.
I found out last week that my employer did manage to secure a (presumably) forgiveable loan/advance under the Payroll Protection Program.
The big impact everyone is discussing today is that oil futures contracts for May 2020 (and only May) are below $1/barrel or even negative. This apparently has to do with today being some kind of due date; if you hold the contract beyond today you’ll be required to take physical delivery of the oil, and (for now) no one wants it.
However, this is not much of a felt impact for me and a lot of people, for the same reason that is causing the plummeting oil prices: we don’t drive much anymore. Also, neither I nor anyone I know works in the oil industry.
Have I had it already? The question lots of people are asking themselves, especially after recent autopsies and other work point to several weeks of previously undetected cryptic transmission in US cities.
Seems to bear out this tweet from two months ago (Feb 29):
This strongly suggests that there has been cryptic transmission in Washington State for the past 6 weeks. 3/9— Trevor Bedford (@trvrb) March 1, 2020
I’ve looked at the details of Apple and Google’s joint contact-tracing effort and I have to say, I think it is going to fail to make much, if any, difference.
They are going to absolutely nail the fundamentals, except for the part about actually verifying when someone has tested positive. There is going to be no standard for that.
In fact any piece that relies on the private health system make correct design choices and provide clear data and standards will fall flat on its face. People will spuriously self-report as positive, whether by accident or through idle malice.
The system will end up being useless.
My brother (lives in the same state) has been sick for a week; now that Minnesota’s testing ramp is underway, he was able to get tested for COVID-19, and his results came back positive today.
He has been working from home for more than a month. We suppose he caught it from his wife who is an essential worker dealing with hundreds of people in public every day, though she has no symptoms so far.
Last week, after reading a recent piece in the NYT a few of us in my family have ordered or borrowed pulse oximeters (including my brother above, who has since tested positive). It appears that when COVID-19 complications occur, blood oxygen levels often drop to dangerous levels days in advance of any breathing difficulty, and this $50 device can provide you an early warning sign:
There is a way we could identify more patients who have Covid pneumonia sooner and treat them more effectively — and it would not require waiting for a coronavirus test at a hospital or doctor’s office. It requires detecting silent hypoxia early through a common medical device that can be purchased without a prescription at most pharmacies: a pulse oximeter.
Pulse oximeters helped save the lives of two emergency physicians I know, alerting them early on to the need for treatment. When they noticed their oxygen levels declining, both went to the hospital and recovered (though one waited longer and required more treatment). Detection of hypoxia, early treatment and close monitoring apparently also worked for Boris Johnson, the British prime minister.
Last week during days when I’ve had to drive to the office, I counted three people besides myself who wore masks. This is at a location that on a pre-COVID normal day would have had around 30 people.
My employer is reversing the 20% pay cut they announced at the beginning of April (noted above). It is due to the terms of the PPP loan they received at the beginning of the month (also noted above).
Apparently the forgivable portion of that loan is reduced by the amount of any payroll reductions made due to COVID-19. So they either pay the amount to employees or they repay it back to the government.
In this case at least, the “Payroll Protection” part of “PPP” seems to be working as designed.
We’re through another month.
Masks: I am again, lately, the only person at work who wears a mask. Mask wearing at stores has become common, even though not everywhere required.
The Mode: In a hundred little ways, our mode or approach to pandemic reality has morphed into: do whatever, maybe wear a mask. People have given up on quarantine and even social distancing except in locations where rules are posted and enforced.
Partisan divide: With the death of George Floyd here in Minneapolis two weeks ago, and the subsequent protests all over the world, the most intense partisan fault lines are totally realigned now now around police brutality and systemic racism issues.
We’ve now seen that no one is procedurally against mass protests in the midst of a pandemic. Language like “sacrificing the elderly” aimed at those who want to reopen the economy ASAP is now conspicuously absent from any discourse about large gatherings.
From my March 17 guesses:
I went back and forth on this, but think Congress will pass some additional relief. GOP senators have already shown they have no real problem with big deficit spending to help out a republican president, and Democrats have shown that spiking the economy to spite Trump is not, thankfully, in their playbook.
However, the negotiations around the price tag will be different this time around. The relief will probably not be enough to mitigate most of the economic pain that is coming, and this pain will really be on the rise in the Aug–Sep time frame.
Since the pandemic is now the setting and not the story, it will not even be close to the largest factor on the public mood between now and November. Right now the BLM protests are big on everyone’s mind, against the backdrop of the pandemic and the economy.
I would guess that between now and November, in addition to these things we will see at least one more kind of crisis get added to the mix before the election itself expands into every last corner of our consciousness. If I were writing the show, I would think we were due for something in the nature of foreign policy.
I’m no longer predicting who will win the US presidential election. Polls look good for Biden, but he’s a very old idiot who can still land himself in a lot of trouble by saying stupid things. He could perform very poorly in debates. He might also die.
I do predict a slow setting-in of big economic pain in the months leading up to the election.
We are having a birthday party for my daughter this weekend. Following the “Stay Safe MN” order means no more than 10 people if we have to have it inside, 25 if outdoors.
Last week, something of a minor turnaround on masks at work. Amid a larger morale/retention crisis, my IT co-worker and I began to raise the need for others to at least wear masks if we are in their workspace helping with a computer issue. Especially since there is almost no social distancing in the office. The CEO acquiesced to a review of the current COVID policies with a possibility of adding some (!) guidance on mask use.
This week, my co-worker and at least two others have worn masks in the office. One of those because her daughter was exposed to someone who had tested positive.
Yesterday, a statewide mask mandate was announced for Minnesota. Governor Walz ended up doing it as a unilateral executive order.
Booked an expensive dinner at a local restaurant rooftop for the first week of August. This will be my first time eating at a restaurant since February (my wife went to a patio with a friend in June). Hopefully the weather cooperates. We’re looking forward to pretending things are sort of normal for a couple of hours.
Today Trump is saying that the election should be delayed until after the pandemic, which lines up with my expectations of March 19 above.
Whatever Trump says or whatever some states do, if the Electoral College doesn’t convene for whatever reason, the current House votes for President and the current Senate votes for VP. Added wrinkle: the vote in the House only is one vote per state, not per representative. There is no way that process goes smoothly or decisively.
Ideological Split: There seems to be a trend in the reporting: there actually isn’t much of a partisan split in attitudes about the virus itself. One recent poll found support for mask mandates was at 72% overall. 86% of Democrats in the poll supported them, 58% of Republicans.
But anecdotally, the actual point of disagreement I see among Trump-aligned ideologues has changed. They no longer deny that the virus exists or that it can cause major health problems or that it has a high fatality rate compared to the flu. Most frequently the claim is that there is a simple cure to the virus but that doctors who know about it are being censored through some kind of conspiracy.
The unemployment relief in the CARES act has expired. The House passed a second relief bill a month ago. The Senate waited until the beginning of August to start negotiations with the House, and now the Senate has adjourned until Labor Day without any agreement.
Trump has said he will extend an additional $300/week unemployment by executive orders, among other things. But it is widely understood among policymakers that this set of executive orders has many problems and that they will not have any meaningful effect.
Worth noting: I know of no one with whom I have a personal connection that has tested positive since April 30.
I've been thinking about how narrow and limited my lived-experience view of “local pandemic life” is. I have so far been insulated from financial fallout, in fact we’re doing a bit better than normal thanks to reduced spending and the stimulus check. I rarely go out to buy anything anywhere other than the grocery store or the gas station, but those places appear as busy as they ever did, the main difference being that almost everyone has a mask on. It’s a huge contrast to the desolate abandoned Soviet-esque wasteland of mid-March.
And yet you know the unemployment numbers are still sky high, higher than they were at their worst in the last recession. Most of those people have had their income slashed by more than half with the expiration of the CARES act. Food shelf demand is extremely high. Mortgage delinquency has doubled. Federal eviction protections for many renters expired two days ago.
There have been a lot of changes in the past couple of months, but until recently my personal experience of the pandemic has not changed much: we continue to live the isolated in-limbo life.
My daughter, who is in first grade this year, is still doing distance learning as she was last spring. My son is in a private preschool, however.
Everyone at work has been “wearing masks” since the executive order in July. Not everyone is very good at it though; they're only required to do so when leaving their desks, lots of masks on chins etc.
We did have/attend a few outdoor gatherings over the summer. But now that it’s cold out again that’s not going to really happen much anymore. It’s widely understood that this virus spreads via aerosols and can linger in the air for hours, so unventilated spaces are a no-go for the prudent.
Changes since August on a national scale:
My view “from the ground”:
My first test results came back today — negative. I had ordered an at-home saliva test simply because I could. I plan to order and take a new one every week as long as I’m required to work in the office (and until a vaccine becomes widely available).