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The Question That Nobody’s Asking

I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately, and I need to stop before I wear through my scalp. (My natural armor has been mostly gone for thirty-five years.) It’s a natural, nay obvious question, which I’m putting in bold and giving its own paragraph:

If masks prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections, where did the current explosion of cases and deaths come from?

Take a look at the screenshot below. This is from the Arizona Department of Health Services’ COVID-19 dashboard. The graph is deaths by date of death for the entire state of Arizona. The curve starts heading toward the sky during the last week in October.

AZCovidDeathsGraph-500 wide.png

Maricopa County, where we live, issued a mask mandate on June 19, 2020. That was right about when the first near-vertical slope in the graph began. It took a few weeks for the mandate to catch on, but by August 1, it was pretty much universal. That’s about when the curve started to fall. There was a certain amount of crowing that the mask mandate had brought the pandemic under control in the state.

Then the end of October happened.

Now, I’ve been watching not only whether people are wearing masks in retail outlets and offices (they are) but also what kinds of masks and how they’re being worn. Over time, the masks are getting better. I’m actually seeing KN95 masks with some frequency, and it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen a useless “train robber” bandana mask anywhere. Mask adherence in the state is at 90%, which aligns with what I’ve seen, if perhaps on the low side. That’s a mighty high rate.

So again, my question: With mask adherence at 90%, why is the curve still so high? Note that the graph is of the days deaths happen, not when they are reported. Death reports are not all received by the state on the days deaths happen, and reports from rural areas can take a week or more to get to AzDHS. What looks like a falling curve at the right edge of the graph may simply be due to lag time in reporting.

There is certainly some inflation of death counts due to the problem of “with COVID but not of COVID.” Some. I don’t think that kind of confusion can cause the numbers we’re seeing here. And it’s inevitable that a certain amount of fraud happens; I’ve seen the news stories describing gunshot suicides, car accidents, and victims of alcohol poisoning described as COVID-19 deaths–some without a positive test for the virus. However, if there had been enough fraud to cause this explosion in deaths, somebody somewhere would have said something.

Wouldn’t they?

Ok. Although I’m open to other theories, I think it’s significant that something happened in the last week of October: Arizona temperatures crashed hard. We had a long, lingering summer here. Mid-October was still giving us 90+ degree days. That went down into the 60s and 70s in a big hurry.

It’s long been known that viral respiratory diseases become much more prevalent in cold weather. Why this should happen isn’t known with certainty. One theory is that influenza and corona viruses have a coating that becomes more rugged in colder temps, giving the virus a longer survival time in air and even in sun. Dry weather favors viruses for reasons that, again, are far from clear.

Well, in Arizona we have dry weather in spades, year-round. Cold, not so much. In fact, a typical winter’s day here is probably about the same temp as a typical summer’s day in North Dakota. Given the uncertainty about what causes viruses to infect more readily in winter, could it be a conjunction of cooler (than usual) temps and extreme dryness? Or (and I like this one better) is there something about the effect of a fall in temperatures (the delta, not the absolute temps) on the human body that gives the virus free rein?

That’s the only theory I have that I haven’t already shot down. It wasn’t Thanksgiving gatherings; the curve took off close to a month before Thanksgiving. And for all that, I consider it pretty thin gruel. It’s dry here probably 340 days a year. It’s even drier in summer than winter.

The theory that people spend more time indoors than outdoors in winter doesn’t apply in Arizona. The reverse is largely the case: When it’s 110 degrees outside, most people stay indoors, or maybe stand up to their necks in the pool. Winter is when people jog, bike, hike, and work outdoors, getting lots of fresh air and plenty of sun (and thus crucial Vitamin D) on their faces, arms, and legs.

Again, where the hell did that near-vertical runup in deaths come from?

I’ll tell you where it didn’t come from: People ditching their masks. The fact that mask compliance is at 90+% during an explosion in COVID-19 deaths screams out something a lot of people don’t want to hear: Masks don’t prevent infection. If they did, the increase would have been a lot more gradual, and probably a lot lower in magnitude.

Let me put it in short, simple words: Masks have been sold as a means of stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They’ve been sold hard. Mask skeptics get called a whole lot of dirty words, even though we wear masks as a courtesy to the rule of law. Faced with a graph like the one the State of Arizona itself puts out, what are we supposed to think?

The graph says something else, perhaps a little more quietly: There are no COVID-19 experts. We still have very little understanding of how this thing spreads and (especially) why it hits some people so devastatingly hard, and others barely at all. When our (often self-appointed) experts told us to put on masks, we put on masks. And then the graph went through the roof.

I wish I had answers. I don’t. Why two peaks instead of one? What had been going on between the end of July and the end of September? Were we doing something right? If so, what? And what did we start doing wrong in late October?

Nobody knows. Read that again: Nobody knows.

If I figure it out, you’ll read about it here.

Just-So Stories

Here come the just-so stories. I ran into one some weeks ago that reminded me of the category. Most people think of Just-So stories as fables about animals, as Kipling wrote, especially fables about animal origins; e.g., how the leopard got his spots.

But that’s mostly because of Kipling. Wiktionary’s definition of a just-so story is “a story that cannot be proven or disproven, used as an explanation of a current state of affairs.” In most cases that’s true. In broader and more modern terms, a just-so story is an urban legend with a moral admonishing people to obey some stated principle or face the (scary) consequences. You’ve all probably seen your share, though you probably didn’t think of them as “just-so stories.” Still, that’s what they are.

Here’s the story I heard: A woman described having some unstated number of people over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was held outside, in Arizona. Some (unstated number) wore masks. The 13 others did not. The people who wore masks did not catch SARS-CoV-2. All the rest did.

I assume she thought she was doing a public service by frightening people into wearing masks all the time, everywhere. I don’t think she was ready for the response she got: People called her a fake, a yarn-spinner…a liar. The reason is fairly simple: The story is too pat. All the people who refused to wear masks got sick. None of the people who did wear masks got sick. And this was during a dinner held outdoors.

Is this possible? Of course. Is it likely? No, if you know anything at all about COVID-19. Was the dinner indoors? No. Were the dinner guests all older people? No. (The older people wore masks.) Young people may test positive for the virus, but they rarely show symptoms and almost never become seriously ill. And with even the slightest breeze, exhaled viruses are dispersed in seconds.

Yet, it was…just so. Medical privacy laws make such stories conveniently unverifiable.

I don’t want to pile on her too hard here, and thus won’t post a link. (I also don’t want to give her any more exposure than she’s already gotten.) The point I’m making is that urban legends are still very much with us, and unverifiable stories should be treated as such: useless at best and misleading at worst. The best way to fight urban legends is not to spread them. The second-best way is to (politely) state in the comments (if there is a comments section) that the story is an urban legend and not be trusted. The story may well have been “just so” in the teller’s imagination. In the real world, well…probably not.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Wow. The magazine that gave us “The Case for Killing Granny” is now saying that our public health officials have overcounted COVID-19 deaths by counting any person dying with COVID-19 as dying of it–including suicides and, sheesh, car accident victims. This has been known for some time, but I give the otherwise dopey Newsweek credit for admitting that government isn’t always right.
  • More on how we count COVID-19 deaths: Johns Hopkins published a paper suggesting that we are overcounting COVID deaths and undercounting deaths from other causes like heart disease. By misclassifying deaths as from COVID, we undercount deaths from other causes. The authors of the paper suggest that this means COVID-19’s impact on US deaths is far less than commonly stated. Johns Hopkins has predictably deleted the article, but there’s an archived copy on The Wayback Machine. Well worth a read–and possibly worth saving the original Johns Hopkins article to local disk in case threats of legal action force Wayback to take their copy down.
  • A new paper posits that UVB in sunlight stimulates the production of antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) in the skin, especially cathelicidin (LL-37). LL-37 has several roles, but it has been shown to inhibit the action of the influenza virus in humans. AMP action involves Vitamin D, but the D3 found in OTC supplements does not appear to work with it. My serum D3 tested toward the top of the recommended level several months ago, but it’s hard to know how much of that was produced in my skin in this (outrageously) sunny place, and how much came to me in pills.
  • David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars movies, died yesterday, at 85. He was 6’6″ and was given the choice of playing either Vader or Chewbacca. He chose Vader because “you always remember the bad guy.” (Well, true. But nobody’s going to forget Chewie, either.) Click through to it: The photo of gentle giant Prowse with six little girls in a UK safety program is priceless.
  • Somebody did a test on the startup time required for programs written in various languages, including nearly all of the ones I’m familiar with. (At least those that weren’t Xerox in-house experiments.) FreePascal 3.0.2 and 3.0.4 beat all the others, hands down, not even close. I don’t know enough about compiler internals to tell how one gets that kind of startup performance, but you sure as hell do not get it with C# or Java.
  • I should add that if you’re on Twitter and work in Pascal, you must follow @SciPasTips.
  • Bummer: The Arecibo radio telescope will be scrapped. Stuff is breaking in the basic structure of the mechanism that just can’t be swapped in without rebuilding practically the whole thing. That reflector comprises eighteen acres. It’s been in operation for 57 years. Wait! I have an idea! Let’s build an even bigger one…in space! (Yes, I’m pretty sure Heinlein thought of it first.)
  • As far as I’m concerned, this kid wins the Best Halloween Costume Award not only for 2020, but for the rest of time.

Odd Lots

Three Coins 9-20-2020 - 500 Wide.jpg

  • The old pennies appear to be back. (See my entry for November 7, 2019.) Over the last two weeks, at least 75% of the pennies I’ve gotten at McDonald’s were pre-2000, some of them very pre-2000. Yesterday alone I got three pennies, two from the ’90s, and one from…1962. This morning I actually got a parking-lot nickel. (Left, above.) It’s from 1999 in case you can’t make it out, and it’s lived a very hard life. The nickel on the right is 80 years old. The penny, a trifling 38. I wonder if, with new coins in short supply, McDonald’s is again getting them from the people who run networks of supermarket coin exchangers. I was getting shiny new pennies for a couple of months, and then suddenly I wasn’t. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
    • “How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the manager? I would like to see him.”
      –Soren Kierkegaard, Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits (1847)

      (Hmmm. Maybe “Soren” is German for “Karen”.)

    • There’s an excellent COVID-19 stats dashboard maintained by the Arizona Department of Health Services that as best I can tell is updated daily. It covers new cases, hospitalization rates, daily death rates by date of death, demographics, and lots of other useful stuff. The daily death rates for the disease have been in single digits since September 10, and the peak death day was July 17, when 97 people died. Seeing the graphs and digesting the numbers, it’s pretty obvious that the pandemic is burning out in Arizona.
    • The older red wine is, the less trans-resveratrol it contains, and thus the fewer beneficial health effects. I’m not a wine snob, and most wine I drink these days is 2017 or 2018. I’ll open old wine now and then (we have some) when the occasion demands, but not for daily consumption.

    • Put this on your calendar: On December 21 there will be a “grand conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which will be the closest conjunction of the two giant planets since 1623 AD. The planets will be separated by only 6 arc minutes, which is one-fifth the width of the full Moon. With a decent scope and good eyepieces, you should be able to see the disks of both planets in one view.
    • This is a good year for planet spotting. On October 6, Mars will reach its closest approach to Earth during its 2020 opposition. (The opposition itself refers to Mars with respect to the Sun, and is on October 14.) The Red Planet will reach magtnitude -2.6, and on that date will be brighter than Jupiter. It won’t be this big or bright again until 2030. So put it on your calendars.
    • Great fun: Sixty Seconds of Stella Leaf Jumps. (I remember leaves, heh.)
    • We’ve been hearing that Vitamin D enhances immune function for respiratory infections for quite awhile. It’s also true that many of the people who die from COVID-19 are significantly and often severely deficient in the vitamin. Here’s a scientific paper correlating Vitamin D levels with SARS-CoV-2 test results. Short form: The more deficient you are, the more likely you are to be infected after contact with the virus. Take some pills. Get some sun. Don’t just cower in your spare room waiting for a vaccine.
    • Twitter can be so worth it sometimes.
    • Check out the first graph in this article. Countries that treat their COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine have far lower case-fatality rates than countries (including ours) that has banned or discouraged the use of the drug.

    More on Masks

    I realize that I should have made the masks portion of yesterday’s wander its own post. What was supposed to be a casual collection of odd impressions of current events and what I’m up to turned into a mildly angry rant. That’s just how things work in the back of my head sometimes.

    Anyway. I ran into some links this morning that are worth mentioning. The first one is a must-read: “Aerosols, Droplets, and Airborne Spread.” It didn’t answer all of my questions, but it answered a lot of them. It’s a very long, dense article. (I think it was intended for medical professionals.) Read it anyway. Yes, it’s almost three months old, but I sure don’t get the impression that we’ve learned much since that time. The big takeaway is that SARS-CoV-2 spreads via aerosols; that is, naked virus particles or droplets so small that they remain suspended in the air for a long time. (A lot of supposed experts deny this.) Ever watch cigarette smoke? It doesn’t drift toward the ground. It gradually spreads out until you can’t see it anymore. But take a whiff of the supposedly empty air, and you’ll know it’s still there.

    Most droplets fall to the ground fairly quickly. But it’s true (as I mentioned yesterday) that in low-humidity environments, droplets evaporate quickly, and what may have been exhaled as a droplet large enough to fall can shrink to aerosol size before it hits the ground. We’re having a cool day here to close out June in Arizona. It won’t even break 100. The humidity is way up, at 16%. Tomorrow July comes in like a toaster oven (by most people’s standards) at 103. The humidity will be 10% or less. Even a 100┬Ám droplet will likely give up its water long before it hits the ground in that kind of humidity. After that, it floats for what may be 30,000 hours; i.e., indefinitely.

    People are still getting into fistfights about whether there are enough viral particles in airborne aerosol droplets to cause infection. It’s not a yes/no kind of question. Like a lot of other things associated with health, it’s about probabilities. I’m thinking that if you spend an hour in a crowded bar where everybody is talking loud, laughing, and drinking, you’re likely to get enough virus to become infected, even if everybody in the bar is wearing a mask. If you pass somebody in the baking aisle at Safeway, probably not. Why do I say this? Two things:

    1. There is something called “time in proximity.” The longer you spend close to an infected person, the more likely you are to get sufficient viral load to come down with COVID-19. I don’t go to bars much for the bar experience, but my writers’ workshop took place in a sports bar for over three years. When there were important games, people were draped all over each other, talking loud and cheering when their side made a good play.
    2. You can catch this thing if you get enough viruses in your eyes. A couple of droplets is all it takes. Masks don’t protect your eyes. Nor do I think masks eliminate all exhaled aerosols. Sit in a bar for an hour with hordes of people cheering into their masks, well, you’ll probably get enough of the bad guy in your eyes to come down with it. Why? Badly fitted masks allow exhaled air to flow out the edges. I tried singing with a mask on to see if they leaked out the edges when I sang forcefully. They did.

    I’m sure I’ll get yelled at for my contention that masks don’t help us anywhere near as much as our supposed health experts claim, but I’m past caring. Which leads us to another and probably more controversial link, which is one MD fisking a rah-rah hurray-for-masks post by another MD. This is a guest post on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, and you’re free to dial it down if that makes a difference to you. I don’t agree with all the points made, but there are some solid numbers and good explanations about some of the downsides of wearing masks, few of which ever come up in the current debate.

    Something else that I knew but forgot to mention yesterday: A real N95 mask filters inbound air only. N95’s have one-way exhalation ports that remain closed until pressure in the mask indicates that the wearer has exhaled. Then it opens and releases the wearer’s breath through the port. No filtering of exhaled breath is done. None. N95’s exist specifically to keep patients from infecting medical personnel. They protect no one but the wearer. The tiresome bleat that “You wear a mask to reassure and protect others” simply doesn’t apply for N95 masks.

    So where do I sit in all this? I’ll give you a list:

    1. We do not know a lot of things, particularly involving viral load, antibody generation, asymptomatic carriers, etc. Everything we know about SARS-CoV-2 and its effects (COVID-19) must be regarded as tentative. We’ll learn more as we go, but right now there is a lot of arguing and handwaving over significant issues.
    2. Wearing a mask is no guarantee that you won’t catch the virus, nor infect others. Everything is a matter of probabilities. The type of mask matters, some being worthless (handkerchiefs & bandanas etc.) and some a lot better. But none are any guarantee, especially if you wear a mask the wrong way. (I’ve seen a lot of that in grocery stores.)
    3. Time in proximity matters. It’s the crowded bar thing again, or any dense meeting of bodies talking, laughing, or lor’ ‘elp us, cheering. Spend enough time cheek-by-jowl with virus carriers, and you will almost certainly get the virus, mask or no mask.
    4. Masks can be overwhelmed by strong exhalation. I’ve tried this myself, as I said before: Cheering or singing into a mask will just force air out the sides when the material of which the mask is made can no longer pass the volume of air presented to it. That air is not filtered.
    5. Masks don’t protect your eyes. This should be self-explanatory, but it’s rarely discussed. Getting droplets in your eyes is apparently less likely to lead to infection than breathing them in. However, after enough time in dense gatherings, your eyes could put your viral load over the top into infection territory.
    6. And my conclusion: Put as much distance between yourself and others as you can. Even that’s no guarantee. Furthermore, for some people it may be all but impossible. But for people in my age bracket (I turned 68 yesterday) it could become a life-or-death issue.

    Carol and I wear masks, and we stay home a lot. We certainly don’t go to bars or political rallies or protests or anywhere else you have screaming crowds. If you pin me down on it, I’ll express my opinion that masks don’t protect you anywhere near as well as ten feet of clear air. But as with almost everything else about the virus, your guess is as good as mine.

    Odd Lots

    Boy, writing this entry just felt good. I gotta do more of these…

    • People are asking me what’s happening with Dreamhealer. (First chapter here.) I’m working with an artist on a cover. The ending needs a hair more editing, but after that it’s an afternoon’s work to lay out the ebook in Jutoh. I had intended to introduce it at LibertyCon mid-June. Lacking a LibertyCon, I’m now just intending to get it out as fast as I can.
    • Are any of my ham friends (general or higher) interested in an experimental sked on the low bands? If so, where have you heard Phoenix? I usually try 20M before anything else, but if anybody’s got any heuristics, let me know somehow.
    • Everybody (ok, every nerd) knows about the Carrington Event. Even I didn’t know that we had another one of those in May 1921. Although Carrington is more famous, by strictly objective measure (the disturbance storm time index, or Dst) the two solar storms were almost exactly alike. In both cases telegraph stations caught fire from currents induced in the wires, and a lot of telephone equipment (which wasn’t deployed in 1859) was destroyed in 1921 by the same induced currents. Damn, like I needed something else to worry about.
    • I’ve backed a number of technologies before. Risky business. I backed Wi-Fi back in the early oughts and won big.I backed WiMAX and watched it swiftly and silently vanish away. I backed Powerline networking (now gathered under the umbrella term HomePlug) and lost but still use it. Here’s a good article on what happened to both WiMAX and HomePlug.
    • One technology I haven’t backed yet is 5G mobile, which is finally getting some traction in the marketplace. My LTE phone works just fine, and I don’t stream video to my phone. (I have a big honking TV for that.) Where I think 5G is most promising is as competition to the mostly monopolist residential broadband providers. We have cable Internet here, and it’s…ok. If 4K (or God help us, 8K) video is to have a chance, it will be through the benefits of 5G, and not otherwise.
    • Neil Ferguson’s computer model of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the UK’s lockdown. Now it comes out that the model was a good design with a trash implementation. (This from a computational epidemiologist, who just might know a crap pandemic model when he sees one.) Imperial College refuses to release the original model’s code and is making stupid excuses why not. A fragmentary and much-jiggered source code suite is now available on Github, and includes things like a global variable struct with 582 fields. (And lots more global variables.) Uggh. Her Majesty should demand her people’s money back.
    • A San Diego County supervisor stated that only six of 194 recorded coronavirus deaths were actually caused by the virus. The others died with the virus, but according to the supervisor, not of it. Yes, yes, I know, it’s not either-or. COVID-19 can push an elderly heart or cancer patient over the edge. Still, we need solid numbers on how deadly this thing is, and for that we have to back out the count of people who were already dying of other things.
    • Here’s a good example: A Colorado man died of alcohol poisoning. (0.55%, when the supposedly lethal threshold is 0.3%.) He was tested for coronavirus and found to be carrying it. So he was listed as dying of COVID-19. He had no comorbidities, beyond enough booze to kill a middling elephant.
    • The county I grew up in now has more COVID-19 cases than any other county in the US. Good ol’ Cook County, Illinois. I guess we got out in time.
    • In good news locally, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is announcing plans to build a $10B plant in Arizona. Is it possible that those jobs are coming back? (Sorry, Steve.)
    • Now that we’re all obliged to wear masks, it was inevitable: Gait recognition technology is in development. It uses deep learning and sensors in the floor. This is more than a little creepy, granting that we once said that about face recognition as well. I recall a friend (now deceased) telling me in 1976 that “You walk as though you’re on your way to kill something.” (That was partly ROTC marching and partly the need to walk fast from one busted Xerox machine to another in downtown Chicago.) Maybe I should buy a scooter.

    The Numbers Game

    COVID-19 is a numbers game. Trouble is, we don’t know what any of the numbers are. Yes, we can tote up test positives and deaths, but that tells us surprisingly little about the things that matter in this case: How contagious is the virus? How many people are infected but don’t know it? How many people had it but thought they had the flu? All of that matters.

    None of it is known.

    We’ll learn more as new tests are devised, particularly for antibodies. Knowing how many people have caught the virus but threw it off would put a number of things into perspective, especially the critical issue: How close are we to herd immunity? That’s the most important known unknown in a big greasy sack of mixed unknowns.

    In the meantime, people worry. I’m one of them. I’ve read others online. The worried ones tend to be older folks. And yeek! It was a little disorienting to internalize that I’m an older folk. I’ll be 68 in two months. I don’t care if 60 is the new 40. We have decent stats on whom the virus is taking out. And that curve heads for the sky at age 60.

    As an aside, there’s the complicating factor in that anybody who dies with the virus in their system tends to be counted as a COVID-19 fatality, even if they had heart disease or stage 4 cancer. Sometimes the corpses aren’t even tested for coronavirus. If it looks like the virus, coughs like the virus, or kills like the virus, then…they write COVID-19 on the death certificate. That may be unavoidable in some cases, but it certainly does not help in our current numbers game.

    This may all seem obvious, but I’m not done yet. The country has to open up soon. People are burning through their savings trying to keep the lights on and food on the table. (Alas, the people who are keeping us under house arrest never miss any paychecks.) Businesses are failing. My local art supplies store has closed forever. A lot of restaurants are not going to make it. Smithfield closed its ginormous pork-packing plant in Sioux Falls, SD, and the firm is supposedly working with the CDC to determine how and when the plant will reopen. Too much of that and we’ll have food shortages.

    We’re not there yet. My local groceries have fresh meat again, at least. My hunch is that the hoarders have already filled their chest freezers, at least those hoarders who can find their chest freezers behind the mountains of toilet paper piled up in their basements.

    I recognize that there will be a cost in letting people go back to work, particularly in monster cities like New York and Chicago where getting around is mostly done on jam-packed buses and subway/commuter trains. More people will be infected. Additional people will die. Those numbers can’t be known yet. (Computer models riddled with unknown parameters are utterly worthless.) Being my ever-hopeful self, it looks like the numbers won’t be nearly as bad as early models suggested. The big upside is rarely mentioned: Herd immunity happens because people catch the virus, develop antibodies, and throw off the virus. Some of that has happened already. It’s happening. More needs to.

    We’re a ways off from a vaccine, though one will happen. In the meantime, we need to consider any drug or drug combo that shows promise through clinical experience. The media seems…peculiarly…opposed to hydroxychloroquine plus zinc and an antibiotic. Still, observational studies are being ramped up as quickly as possible, and early clinical experience looks good. If I suddenly got hit hard, I would ask for that first. When you’re looking death in the eye, you may not be as insistent on bureaucratic niceties.

    People like me will probably have to stay home for awhile longer than those younger and not yet retired. I’m willing to do that…to a degree. Carol and I walk in local parks. If we need something at a store, we mask up and go. How effective are the masks? Nobody knows. But it’s worse than that. No matter how much you wear your mask, a virus or seventeen may land in one of your eyes. The mask reduces the likelihood of catching it. But it never reduces the likelihood to zero. The same goes for cleaning surfaces, which is harder now because the hoarders have snapped up all the cleaning supplies. Miss something with that soapy rag (you’d use alcohol if you could find some) and you could pick up the virus. Less likely, but possible. No matter what measures you might take, your chances of catching COVID-19 will never go to zero. And your chances of dying will never go to zero. We do not and cannot and will never know. Carol and I have had our family trust and wills together for awhile. We take whatever protective measures we can. That’s about the best we (or anybody) can do.

    Irrepressibly perky gonzo optimist that I am, I do see something to be optimistic about: Evolution is a thing, and it works. Viruses that immobilize/kill their hosts quickly eventually lose out to related strains that infect and cause fewer and less severe symptoms. Over time, newly discovered viruses mutate toward more innocuous forms. It worked that way with HIV. It will work that way with our current coronavirus. It’s already working that way, even if we can’t measure it. How long will it take? No one knows. Get over it.

    It comes down to this: Whether you like to gamble or not, you’re damned well gambling, and you will never know the odds. Come May 1, if we don’t begin opening up our economy, the virus could well become the least of our worries. Those odds are greater than zero. Greater, in fact, than you may think.

    Hamsterin’

    Hamsterin-500 Wide.jpg

    Well. The Great Toiler Paper Famine of 2020 may be subsiding. We got a package of six rolls (one package only!) this morning, and we should have enough now for a couple of weeks.

    We have the stores to thank for that. Both Fry’s and Safeway are now limiting quantities on hoardables and even non-hoardables like milk. One per household is the general rule. We know that Fry’s usually gets a truck on Monday nights, so we were there first thing in the morning. Like many other grocers across the country, Fry’s reserves the first hour for people over 60. We got there at 5:50, and there was already a considerable line. At 6 AM sharp, they opened the doors, and everybody made for the toilet paper aisle at a dead run. And lo and behold: Piles and piles of toilet paper! And paper towels. And baby wipes. And rubbing alcohol.

    Alas, no bratwurst. What, they’re hoarding bratwursts now?

    So we got our one package of TP and one package of paper towels. Carol got a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a few other things before we ran through Mickey D’s drive-thru for breakfast. All in all, a good and useful morning.

    Oh–and at 5:45 AM when we backed out of the garage, I remembered that this morning is Mercury’s maximum elongation, so we jumped out of the Durango and searched for that most-difficult planet. Even at max elongation, the little snot is unholy hard to spot, but spot it we did. (It helps to have few trees and no two-story houses in our neighborhood.) Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn were in a tight little group much higher in the southeast.

    The lockdown here in Arizona has been cordial and mostly voluntary. Local government is not harrassing people who walk for exercise. My barber shop closed last Thursday, but others are still open, so if I get a little too pointy-haired, I have options. The Jewish Community Center is closed, so we’re not doing our usual weight training every Monday. I’m going to buy an 18-pound ketttlebell if I can find a store still selling 18-pound kettlebells. You can do a lot with an 18-pound kettlebell. We had to cancel our writers’ workshop because restaurants can’t provide indoor or patio seating. We meet in a biggish sandwich place, so we’re out of luck. We’re trying to figure out a reliable teleconferencing system for the interim.

    We no longer go to Costco. That’s a shame, since I like their frozen blueberries, but with conventional grocery stores limiting quantities to stop hoarding, all the hamsterin’ is now being done at Costco. People line up around the block to get in and buy truckloads of TP and cart-sized bricks of plastic bottled water. I’ve seen photos. It’s surreal.

    We’ve learned the secret: Go to small stores. I don’t mean convenience stores. I mean specialty stores, like the little Polish/Russian grocery down in Mesa. We bought six bags of their excellent hand-made pierogies a few days ago. They had a lot of other stuff I couldn’t quite identify, since I don’t read Polish, much less Russian. But nobody was hoarding pierogi.

    Our days are heating up. It’s still snowing in Colorado Springs, but in Phoenix our daily highs are beginning to creep up into the 80s. We’re about to engage in an interesting experiment: Warmer temps slow down most viruses. There’s a debate raging about whether or not that’s true of COVID-19, but we’re going to find out. Arizona is not a virus hot zone by any means, with only 326 cases and 3 deaths. (New York has 26,000+ cases and 271 deaths.) Is it the warmer temps, or just good clean livin’? Nobody knows…yet.

    One thing I’m pretty sure of is that UV light can kill viruses, and we lead the nation in the production of UV light. In fact, when we get a package from Amazon, I put on gloves and take it out to the backyard, and set it down on the pool deck. I turn it a couple of times to make sure all surfaces get a dose, but if 15 minutes of Arizona sun can cause sunburn, it will damned well kill viruses.

    So here we are. I read books, or write them. I program. I tinker in my workshop. I throw the ball around the yard for the dogs. I cook. And I wash my hands. Hoo-boy, do I wash my hands. So life goes on. Don’t let the panicmongers mong you any panic. We don’t know how bad COVID-19 will ultimately be, but it will almost certainly not be as bad as the media are insisting. I see a lot of people on Twitter trying to stir up panic, and they sure sound and act like paid operatives. If you catch them with a question they can’t answer, they vanish. If you ask them for their credentials, they vanish. Do whatever you can to discredit such screamers. And carry on. This too will pass, perhaps sooner than we think.

    Life in the Time of Quarantine

    “Social distancing,” heh. It’s basicallly what Carol and I consider ordinary life. We’re retired, we’re home a lot, and don’t have the energy to cope with huge events like concerts, parades, political rallies, and so on. We don’t go to bars. Ok, my writers’ group used to meet in a sports bar, but then they repurposed their party room and we had to move to a sandwich shop across the street. (Yelp now reports that the sports bar has closed.) But that weekly writers’ group–with at most ten or eleven other people, usually fewer–is most of the social anything that I do these days.

    So we’re doing our part by basically keeping on keeping on. I’m working on different techniques to avoid using my hands as much in public places. If I’m going through a door that simply pushes open, I push with my shoulder. When I take a drink from a water fountain, I press the bar with my elbow. (This is easier than it might seem, if you’ve never tried it.) After I wash my hands in a men’s room, I dry my hands on a paper towel and then grip the door handle through the towel. If my nose itches, I scratch it against my upper arm. I’m going to use Michael Covington’s technique to keep rubbing alcohol with me while I’m out in public: Fill one of those little eyeglass-cleaner solution push-spray bottles with ordinary drugstore isopropyl alcohol. Squirt a little on your palm, rub it around for a few seconds, and it dries without stickyness. You can buy little belt-holsters for pepper-spray cans, and I suspect an alcohol spray bottle might behave a little better if it’s alone in a holster than in my pocket wrestling with my car keys and pocket change.

    Although the locusts are still out there, the stores are starting to get wise by placing limits on purchases of certain popular items, like toilet paper, paper towels, eggs, bread, milk, etc. Fry’s set this up over the weekend. We went to Safeway yesterday and whereas there are still a lot of empty shelves, there weren’t as many locusts and their carts weren’t especially full. (We haven’t braved Costco yet.) My guess is that everybody who intended to fill their chest freezers has already filled them. We bought two packages of boneless pork chops, some dental floss and a tube of Pepsodent. The supply chain is still out there, and once people realize that civil order isn’t going to collapse, they may return to their accustomed shopping habits.

    Then again, there’s another possible explanation for hoarding, which occurred to me once I began hearing about municipalities shutting down restaurants, bars, libraries, concert halls, movie theaters, and so on. People may be afraid of government-enforced quarantine. This is happening in other countries, especially Italy. How far the feds could take it here is an interesting question. I don’t see federal involvement as a likely option, especially now that the decisions are being made at the local level. Rumors have it that Phoenix will shut down restaurants here in a day or two. If it happens, it happens. We go out to eat on average once a month anyway.

    Nobody’s suggesting that we shut down grocery stores, nor prevent people from shopping for groceries and prescriptions.

    The real issue with shutting down “non-essential” businesses, of course, is that businesses without customers will go under. I don’t know what the solution to that is. Restaurants that do drive-through and carry-out will get a lot better at it, and restaurants that don’t do it will learn how in a big hurry. Government isn’t always behind such things; just yesterday McDonald’s announced that it would close seating areas in all company-owned restaurants. What bars are going to do is far less clear. I’m all for flattening the pandemic curve. What I don’t think is a good idea is flattening the economy.

    Another question occurred to me last night: To what extent can a CPAP machine sub for a medical ventilator? The adaptive kind (like mine) may be less useful than the ones where you dial in the inches of pressure you want, and that’s how much the machine pumps. (There may be a setting on APAP machines for fixed pressure, and I’ll investigate that later today.)

    So we’re kicking the beachball around in the backyard for the dogs to chase, reading, writing, working on the garden, pulling weeds, and so on. Life continues. I’m less worried about the virus itself than about government screwups that make things worse. Government is incompetent because there are no penalties for incompetence. If the penalty for screwing things up were a jail term or a $100,000 fine, I’ll bet that government would work a lot better.

    It is to dream, alas.