As we trudge through the fourth month of coronavirus life in the US, the weird ways things have changed feel more familiar now, if not exactly normal. People are adaptable after all, which is why our species has endured for so long.
Humanity: Surviving shitty circumstances for centuries!
In an attempt to feel some control in this chaotic COVID-19 world, I’ve begun viewing life as an exercise in risk management. I suppose life has always been an exercise in risk management, but I’m been doing more exercising lately (figuratively and literally since I’ve started walking regularly to strengthen my heart and lungs). I’ve always known that some things are dangerous, like throwing yourself in front of a speeding car, but for the first few months of coronavirus I had no idea what was risky. Did I need to wipe down all of my groceries with Lysol? Was it okay to scratch my nose after I’d slathered my hand in sanitizer? Did the pack of four runners who came out of nowhere during my walk corona-bomb me, dooming me to die? (The answers are: Probably not, yes, and no.)
Now that scientists know more about COVID-19, I have a better sense of how risky certain behaviors are. I should preface this by acknowledging that COVID-19 is a novel virus, so everything we think we know right now might turn out to be wrong later. I’m not a scientist, obviously, so you should double-check anything I say with a source you trust. That said, I feel like I know how to better protect myself these days. (Wear a mask! Keep hand sanitizer as close as your cell phone!) Erin Bromage, a comparative immunologist and professor of biology, wrote a post called “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them” that’s helped immensely. Her post about “What’s the deal with masks?” has helpful illustrations as well. The most important thing I learned from her is this formula:
Successful Infection = (Exposure to Virus) x (Time)
In a remarkably rare piece of good news, just because you get exposed to a single particle of the virus doesn’t mean you’ll get infected. Bad news: you rarely ever get exposed to just one particle. However, you have to get exposed to a certain amount of particles to get sick, though it’s not known exactly how many or if that number varies from person to person. To judge my general risk of getting infected, I’ve been looking at four things, all while assuming anyone I meet could be sick:
- How many virus particles is the infected person spewing?
- How far away am I from the person?
- How long am I in the presence of the person?
- Are the virus particles being recirculated in the air around us?
The virus hitches a ride on respiratory particles that fly out of an infected person’s mouth. How many and how far they fly depends on what the person is doing. If someone is simply breathing, they spew less particles than if they’re talking, which is less than if they are singing. (When I saw Spring Awakening in London a zillion years ago, there was a lot of spittle spraying across stage, so I am not surprised by the viral risks of singing.) Avoid sneezers and coughers at all costs! And of course, wearing a mask reduces how many respiratory particles can travel away from your body, though it doesn’t stop them all.
If I do end up in the vicinity of an infected person, I’ll be exposed to less particles if I’m farther away from them. Outdoors is safer than indoors because the particles get dispersed quickly and the air surrounding me isn’t recirculated like it is indoors where virus particles can build up. Also, the less time I’m around someone, the less likely I am to get infected. If someone has been quarantined or avoids going out, they’re at a lower risk of infecting me than someone who has to interact with others as part of an essential job, though that’s no reason to get sloppy.
So, standing right next to a breather for two seconds is less risky than standing six feet away from a singer for two hours. Sitting at an indoor restaurant that recirculates the air is more risky than running right past an infected person outside. There is risk associated with every activity, so I should never assume I’m invincible, but it turns out that some things I thought were extraordinarily risky at the start of this dystopian moment are only slightly risky, even if they’re not risk free.
For instance, I was deathly afraid (literally!) of the grocery store back in March. These days, it doesn’t scare me too much as long as I do several things:
- Shop at the Meijer that has wide aisles and high ceilings.
- Wear a mask and gloves.
- Go at 8am when it opens and traffic is low.
- Get in and out as quickly as possible. No lingering!
- Stay six feet away from people.
- Sanitize my hands in the car and wash them as soon as I get home as well as after I put away the groceries.
As long as I don’t run into any coughers or sneezers and don’t walk through an area where someone coughed or sneezed three minutes ago, I can probably get in an out without getting infected. But the universe evidently hates me because last Tuesday my cashier stifled a cough and I convinced myself I was going to die, even though I was more than six feet away and we were both wearing masks and there was a big plastic screen between us. I even went so far as to figure out who to give my passwords to and schedule a vet appointment so Java Bean could get his shots that are required at the kennel that accepts diabetic cats which could take care of him while I was in the hospital and I printed out detailed instructions about his food and meds schedule too. I’ve pulled out of that anxiety spiral for now, but I’m still taking my temperature every morning to convince myself I’m fine.
Which brings home the fact that even if I do everything “right,” I might still contract COVID-19, so no activity is truly without risk. When I drive my car, I might die in an accident, but the chance is low, so I’ve made the decision that the rewards of mobility are worth the risk. It makes my world bigger and better. With COVID-19 among us, I have to make similar judgments, but I’m doing it all the time, because this virus has made my world smaller and worse.
I’ve also had to consider how likely it is I’ll die if I get COVID when assessing the “worth” of a behavior. That means grocery shopping is an okay risk for me, but not for my mother, which is why I’m paying off that car loan she gave me one Meijer receipt at a time. It’s also possible that as we learn more about this disease or if it possibly mutates (let’s not think about that!), I’ll have to adjust my assessment of how dangerous something is. I’m grateful that grocery shopping is the riskiest thing being asked of me right now. A lot of people are in truly awful situations where they have to risk going out to work or else they’ll be unable to pay the bills. Which is why it’s infuriating that…
Other people are forcing us into risky situations
Anyone who refuses to wear a mask right now is no better than a drunk driver. Maybe they’ll get home safely; maybe they’ll run down someone’s grandparents on the way there. Who knows? People who won’t wear masks are putting us all at risk of getting mowed down by this disease. It’s like we got shoved in that person’s car before they drive drunkenly down the highway chugging whiskey, assuring us that car accidents aren’t any worse than bicycle accidents and we’d only hit an old person which doesn’t count and why should we bother to wear seat belts if we’re all going to die someday anyway?
I do marvel at the fact that the same day humanity successfully sent two astronauts blasting off to the international space station was the same day millions of people refused to wear masks during a pandemic. It’s infuriating that so many people in the US either don’t understand the danger they’re putting us in or simply don’t care. Thousands of people are flocking to crowded beaches and hanging out in packed bars without masks on, while the rest of us are staying at home and social distancing as best we can. I know some people are stuck in bad quarantine situations or are facing mental health problems due to isolation, but that’s no excuse to leave home without a mask! You’ve had plenty of time to obtain one. If you are going to risk going out, don’t make the rest of us risk getting infected by you!
None of which is to say I’m perfect. Last week I scratched my cheek right after touching the mailbox and nearly had a panic attack. I also didn’t ask my mom to wear a mask when I visited her on Mother’s Day because she’d been totally quarantined and I knew it was nearly impossible for her to be infected. Masks do more to protect other people than yourself, so I didn’t think she should bother. However, she’s worn one any time I’ve seen her since, and we socially distance with the sliding porch door open. It’s not zero risk, but making my mother live alone without any visitors for more than a year is risky too, so we balance it.
One good factor in my risk assessment formula is…
Indiana is a fairly low-risk state. (Wow, really?)
Despite living in a state with a Republican governor, Indiana is doing…ok. I am shocked, honestly. Like, good shocked, but shocked all the same. I mean, last year a Trump rally happened four miles away from my apartment. Somehow every state around us has increasing COVID-19 cases while we’re holding steady. The negative space inside all those orange states forms the outline of ours.
I don’t know what is up with this. Not many people are wearing masks around here and they’re only being mandated in a couple of counties,
none of which I live in. (UPDATE: The mayor of Indianapolis mandated masks beginning July 9. Yay!) I do think our governor took things seriously unlike some leaders in other red states, and we’ve been moving through reopening stages slowly instead of rapidly. Also, some people say Indiana is known as the “Crossroads of America” because people drive through here, but never stop. Just call us India-no-place. NapTown! Community spread is probably our biggest threat, not tons of people bringing the disease here from elsewhere. Regardless, I don’t think it will continue for long. The rest of the US is spiraling out of control because there is no national strategy and every state is doing whatever the hell it wants. In a country with open borders between the states, a hotspot in one state has the potential to impact us all.
The saddest thing is knowing this country could be doing so much better than it is. Living in the US is a lot riskier than it would have been if this disease had been taken seriously from the start, or hell, if people would just take it seriously before their local hospitals start reaching capacity. There are people in either political party who could have handled this competently, but none of them are in charge. I’m angry at everyone who enabled this moment in American history and I’m uncertain about what the future holds or whether things will ever get better. I hope everyone I love will live to see how it turns out, but who knows? I do know one thing, though…
I baked something!
It took 51 days after quarantine began, but I got out the hand mixer on May 1 and made some brownies. It’s not a sourdough starter, which every self-isolating, middle-aged, white women seems to have obtained, but it was yummy. I risked salmonella poisoning by licking the batter off the spoon, but it was a risk I was willing to take.