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COVID-19: Day 129

I’m changing the title of this series to give a better idea of how long we’ve been in the slog. I’m marking March 6 as the start of our lockdown. I started working from home on March 5 and March 6 was Elijah’s last day of in-person classes.

https://xkcd.com/2330/

It’s been quite a while since I’ve done one of these posts, and frankly that’s because it feels less and less safe to document my thoughts on the topic. I talked previously about how we all started off in the same boat, then we we were just in the same storm, and now I’m not even sure we’re on the same planet. As with most topics on 24-hour news channels, it feels like we’re taught that if you’re not screaming the same thing as me then you must be my mortal enemy. Can we just agree that the truth lies somewhere (undefined) in between the two extremes? Isn’t that almost always the case?

I timed my last post right at the bottom of the trough for Washington. Since then we’ve been climbing very steadily. If you look at the raw diagnosis numbers, it looks like we’re getting infected at a much higher rate than we were in March and April. But the other side screams, “It’s just because we’re testing more!” Look one step further and realize the truth is in the middle. Yes, the numbers are going up, but no the virus isn’t spreading as fast as it was in March and April. So much is unknown about the actual spread back then, but the best estimates show we were at an R (reproductive rate) of 2 back then in King County, and we’re probably around 1.4 now. So should we be concerned about this regression? Absolutely! But do we need to lock everything down as drastically as we did back then? No, not yet anyway. Very early in this series, I wrote that we’re going to go through a series of ups and downs as we figure out the right level of safety precautions to balance a functioning society with not killing off 2% of the population. We’re in for a roller coaster ride of these infection waves because there is no magic cure out yet. We’re just as vulnerable as we were on March 6, but the good news is that we’re in a better position to analyze the spread and jump on it sooner.

It’s encouraging work at a company that is so heavily involved in analyzing the data. There’s obviously a tight partnership with the Bill Gates Foundation and their jobs all revolve around fighting disease on a global scale. Combine the two groups and you have a real powerhouse. Some of the information is still being vetted and worked on but I’ll give you four solid links to peruse if you want to focus on the data and not the media’s interpretation of it:

That first link is probably my favorite as it gives you an apples to apples comparison of the infection rates by US county (or by country). Even that can be a little misleading when you look at very sparsely populated counties where a single case can change the color of the county, but still, when you hear a friend across the country say things are good or bad, you can compare the infection rate in their county per 100k people with your own and compare their statement with your own personal feelings.

The other link that caught my attention this week is the COVID-19 Survival Calculator. As we collect more and more data about the virus and about the people catching it, these kinds of statistical models get more and more accurate. My odds of dying this year (without COVID-19) are around 1 in 700 according to the CDC. My odds of catching COVID-19 and then dying from it are 1 in 400. So while that’s not going to cause me to hide under my bed for the next year, it’s a significant increase. If you’re elderly, lower income, etc those odds can get horrifically bad to the point where if you get COVID-19, it’s like sticking a revolver to your head and being forced to play Russian Roulette.

Getting a good handle on the raw data is an important step in arming yourself to not be taken in by bad information. The internet is aflame with people using “data” to argue their point. For example, this chart was floating around the internet recently.

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm

That one comes from the CDC so it must be legit, right? Sure, the data is right but read the fine print and you’ll see that it can take weeks for the data to roll in and even if the data was instant, people don’t die from the disease as soon as they get diagnosed with it. So this chart is very much a lagging indicator of what’s going on. Go back and check that chart when you we get into late August and see if it still looks as rosy. You have to be so careful whenever you read the news or peruse social media.

The first step in the battle is just knowing when you’re being manipulated either directly or via a share of a share of a share of a share. I wish I could give more details but we get some incredibly interesting security talks inside the company and they go into great detail breaking down misinformation campaigns post by post and tracing it back to the bad actors running those campaigns. I’ll summarize with this: assume that everything you read is fake. It’s almost impossible that in your internet browsing today, you haven’t read a story, post or comment that is written by someone explicitly trying to game your emotions to push you to one side of the war or the other. Be on the lookout especially for “us vs them” talk. Once they get you screaming at the other side, nothing productive will happen. They want us to hate each other. Destin from Smarter Every Day had some a nice Instagram story about this exact topic the other day. I’m paraphrasing but he said “Don’t let this affect your heart. If you met someone on the street, would you run up to them screaming? Wouldn’t you be able to have a polite conversation even if you disagreed with them? Remember Proverbs 15:1: A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Now’s a good time to rewatch his great series about disinformation on the internet.)

We’re in this for the long haul. We could be 6-12 months or more away from a vaccine but there is still question about if we can produce a vaccine or if it will be effective for more than a few months. And even if we can make the vaccine, how long will it take to distribute to everyone in the world? And how many people are going to refuse it? Sure, 2020 is bad, but it’s not like 2021 is going to be all sunshine and roses. This is going to take time.

So woooosahhhhhhh. Be kind. Seek the truth in the middle ground. Be wary of information presented in arguments. Show grace to those who are struggling with this on both sides. But most importantly:

Above all else, guard your heart,
    for everything you do flows from it.
Keep your mouth free of perversity;
    keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Let your eyes look straight ahead;
    fix your gaze directly before you.
Give careful thought to the paths for your feet
    and be steadfast in all your ways.
Do not turn to the right or the left;
    keep your foot from evil.

Proverbs 4:23-27

Lifetime Member

I turn 40 this year. While it doesn’t feel nearly as weird as I thought it would, for years Tyla and I have talked about doing an uncharacteristically big gift for our 40th birthdays. Some ideas I’ve had are going to Maker Faire in California (but that got canceled even before COVID-19), watching a SpaceX launch, renting a vacation house for a weekend, or taking a rally racing day class at Dirt Fish. Once the lockdown started, I started thinking about other options. The original goal of this was to have an experience that we wouldn’t normally have, not to just buy something expensive and throw it in the house.

Ever since Kevin opened his taproom, he’s had a limited number of lifetime membership spots available. It has always seemed like a great way to support a friend, but it also felt extravagant. So… it’s a perfect fit for this 40th birthday experience!

Thankfully he had a spot left for me, so after years of thinking about it, I’m happy to announce that I’m a Good Brewing Co. Lifetime Member! What does that mean? It’s mostly me showing my support for Kevin and his wife and what they have started, but it does get me some nice perks like a buck or two off beer purchases, free merchandise each year, a private party with annual members and a more private party with the lifetime members.

I never imagined that I’d be a lifetime member at a brewery, but I’ve never seen a brewery like Good Brewing!

COVID-19: Part 11

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write today, but there’s a lot of things that make this weekend special:

  • This is the 100th day since I started working from home.
  • Elijah and Tyla finished up the school year yesterday
  • Monday is Elijah’s birthday.

It seemed like all of that warranted a “where are we now” post.

Since the last post, King County has moved to Phase “1.5”. It’s basically like Phase 2 but with lower limits. So if a restaurant might be allowed to have 50% capacity in Phase 2, in Phase 1.5 they can have 25%. King County is a bit behind some other counties mostly because they aren’t doing enough testing. It’s hard to ramp up to test the right percentage of the population when you have the most populous county in the state.

The risk assessment dashboard from Washington state is the main data source that I’m watching these days. It shows the metrics that each county needs to hit to apply for the next phase. Looking at that website, it appears that King County has really been ramping up their testing and infection rates are falling so we will probably be applying for phase 2 next week.

When we were in phase 1, it was very easy to draw the line on our interaction with people outside our house because there was none. Now that we’re able to have outdoor interaction with 5 people, it’s more challenging to draw the lines. It’s important to get Elijah outside to socialize with his friends and burn off some energy, but how do you keep that to 5 people? As we’ve seen all along, these rules are difficult to implement, but we continue to do our best to follow the orders and when in doubt, I apply that guideline I quoted early in this series: If everyone else was doing the same thing, would it be ok?

As if deciding how to handle things inside my own family wasn’t enough of a challenge, I’m also an elder at church which means I’ve been having a lot of difficult meetings to figure out how to minister to our members. Our behavior inside the walls of thechurch are even more complicated since we aren’t bound biblically or constitutionally to follow guidelines that tell us not to worship together. However, up to this point we’ve been abiding by them by choice. As a group, we decided to open up a very limited service this week, following the same rules that the state government gave for other businesses even though they have said that indoor church services aren’t included yet. It was a tough choice followed by many more tough decisions about what precautions to take.

My main challenge in this was separating out valid Christian needs and desires from political anger and frustration. While the church will be open this week, my family won’t be attending this one. My thinking is that King County appears to be on the verge of Phase 2 when I’ll be able to attend church without exercising my right for civil disobedience. I don’t know how things will shake out down the road but at least for this weekend, that’s the plan. (If you want an excellent survey of what the Bible says about our responsibility to follow the government and how that applies to these pandemic orders, check out this blog post by Dr. Ryan MacPherson. It’s fun to hear from him again. We went to church with him while he was getting his PhD at Notre Dame.)

Socially, it’s challenging to have a new opportunity in our bag. Outdoor visitation with five people per week outside of our household? That is very easy to burn through. How do you pick the five people? How do you kindly tell close friends that you’re not picking them this week? I don’t have answers but we’ll figure it out.

I’m thankful that things are opening up despite the new challenges that it presents. I’m thankful that the outdoor spread of this does seem to be small as evidenced by the lack of an uptick in Seattle despite the large protests. However I’m nervous about counties like Yakima and Spokane. Yakima has one tenth the population of King County but yet they have three times more cases than King County. The quick answer from the people who want to ignore this is that “they’re just doing more testing.” If you look at the data, that is true but despite how many tests they do, they’re still getting the same rate of positives. That implies that there is a huge untested population that has the virus. Spokane is also headed in the wrong direction. After lowering their numbers and demanding that they be allowed to go to Phase 2 with the counties around them, their numbers are shooting up much higher than the first spike. Will we see more hot spots like that as things reopen?

It’s easy to get lost wondering if and when the second wave is going hit or what will school be like in the fall or will we really get a vaccine in the beginning of 2021 or how long will it take them to produce enough for everyone globally or how big will the outcry be from the anti-vaccine crowd? All of that is out of my control so I focus on my family and living our lives one day at a time. I don’t have to get through a year at a time. I just have to get through today.

With that in mind, I recommend reading the June 10 devotion from our church body titled “A New Day“. It focused on the comforting refrain from the first book of Genesis: “There was evening and there was morning.” Every day, the sun comes up and the sun goes down. God continues to be in control. He watches over us and keeps his promises. He gives us what we need each day.

COVID-19: Part 10

When this whole thing started, it felt wonderful to be fighting something together as a global group. It’s like the story from the cold war when Reagan and Gorbachev were in tense negotiations. During a private conversation in a break, Reagan said, “If aliens attacked the United States, would you help us?” Gorbachev said yes, and after they went back into the room, negotiations went much better. Sometimes there’s a common enemy we can all fight and it brings us together.

That was nice while it lasted wasn’t it? On a recent episode of his podcast, Mike Rowe said, “A couple months ago I said, ‘For the first time in a long time, we’re all in the same boat.’ I take it back. I don’t believe we are. I think we’re all in the same storm. Our boats are different for sure.” When I open up the news, it’s full of tension and anger as each political side beats the drum and rallies the troops for another screaming match. How can people be so different when the data is so clear?

Data like this is far from clear. While this virus was expanding rapidly, the population had to learn how to understand the pace indicated by an upward line on a logarithmic scale. Now that we’re coming back down, a better metric seems to be the “R-value” or the transmission rate. An R of 1 means that for every one person who gets sick, they share it with 1 more person. If the outbreak is at that level, it means that we’re going to hold our ground. Go above 1 and we end up with a mess. Keep it below 1 and we will solve the problem. The trick is figuring out what R value we’re currently at and how that varies by region.

Uncertainty in models showing the impact of various social distancing rules combined with the fires being flamed in politics lead to a situation where everyone can find a “statistical report” that reinforces their bias. I don’t know which point of view this report backs up, but I’ve been keeping tabs on the ones that my company is involved with and one of the best is the Centre for Mathematical Modeling of Infections Diseases. Their estimates show that R is probably at or above 1 in most states. The Institute for Disease Modeling also has a very detailed dive into transmission characteristics in Washington State.

CMMID transmission estimates for the United States
IDM transmission estimates for Washington State

The media thrives in the uncertainty of these models. They can twist the statistics and wording, but if you skip over the media and look at the raw data, you can get a better idea of the situation and the level of confidence you can reasonably gain from it. Are we out of the woods? No way. Have the changes in restrictions over the last couple weeks taken us immediately back to huge increases? Nope. Yay for now, but this virus is pernicious. The time between being infected and having measurable symptoms is long, so the task of finding a good balance between lockdown and a return to normal is going to take a very long time.

It’s hard to know how much of this anger being flamed up around the country is legitimate and how much is an effect of being influenced by bad actors in the system. Other countries love targeting the US and feeding the frenzy. The media makes their money on eyeballs. People love to have their biases reconfirmed. It’s a lot of dry tinder.

It’s easy to get depressed with all the fighting and the numbers that arent’ trending down as fast as we’d like. But there’s hope too. There are other polls that show that we’re not really as divided and angry as it seems. I enjoyed this comic (with sources cited) from Randal Munroe:

Coronavirus Polling

Even if the country really is divided and angry, it doesn’t mean that I have to participate. Tyla and I were talking about good things to come out of this This list will continue to grow for decades as gain more perspective, but here are a few of the things we came up with:

  • We have an amazing digital library that keeps our eyeballs full of good books. A couple weeks before this all started, we had decided to get Elijah a tablet to help with his reading. So not only can we use our awesome library, but now there are floods of educational apps that have free periods. Elijah’s reading skills have skyrocketed!
  • We haven’t been sick for two and a half months! That’s unheard of during school season. It’s usually a non-stop merry-go-round of viruses and bacteria flowing around.
  • I do most of the cooking at dinner time and it’s challenging to keep dinner interesting on weeknights. The removal of my commute means that I can plan just about any meal on any day.
  • What a perfect time for me to build a new computer! It has been a joy to work on this thing every day, and the enormous horsepower has come in very handy with all the video editing that I’ve been doing for church.
  • I’ve been wanting to learn Davinci Resolve for video editing and all of this editing for church services finally pushed me over the edge. While I don’t really have any extra time to learn things since work is busy, I was forced into the situation and after a couple weeks of struggling, I’ve burst through to the other side where now I’m more productive than before and I have an endless list of new features to explore. (It’s like learning to swim the Stennis way!)

I could go on and on, but the point is that while there’s still a lot of uncertainty and we’re being encouraged to fight with “the others”, keep calm and carry on. Good things are happening too. And even if you can’t see those good things when you read the news, you can find them in your own life. Celebrate them and thank God for them.

James 1:17-21

17 Every good act of giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the lights, who does not change or shift like a shadow. 18 Just as he planned, he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would be a kind of firstfruits of his creations.

19 Remember this, my dear brothers: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. 20 Certainly, a man’s anger does not bring about what is right before God. 21 So after getting rid of all moral filthiness and overflowing wickedness, receive with humility the word planted in you. It is able to save your souls.

COVID-19: Part 9 – The Awakening

On Friday afternoon, Governor Inslee extended the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order through May 31, but more interestingly, he released the guidelines for how things will be opened back up. There are multiple phases of opening and there will be at least 3 weeks between each phase to ensure that we have time to measure the impact of the changes. Along the way, other states are going to be pushing to open back up much more quickly so we’ll have data about how well (or not) that goes.

It sounds like Phase 1 could start in a couple weeks. That one is only a mild increase from what we currently have, but as an elder at our church, I’m specifically interested in the allowance for drive-in services. I’m also the resident AV geek, so that means I need to come up with a tech solution if we go that route. It will take until Phase 3 for us to start having bigger church services, although even then, we’d need to have a couple of them to fit within the limits.

Phase 2 is looking pretty good right now… it will be really nice to sit on enjoy a small barbeque with friends or family this summer! At that point I think we can let Elijah play outside with friends more too. Schools are notably absent from the plan and it’s hard for me to believe we’ll be all the way through Phase 4 by September, but we can figure that out later.

There are an increasing number of people deciding they are done with the lockdown. I hope that some of them will see this list and realize that they need to dial it back a little. (Never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to ignorance. – Hanlon’s Razor) As for me and my family, we will continue to keep any contact outside our house to an absolute minimum. Why? The government told us to stay home, and the Bible is very clear on the role of government for a Christian:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-2)

So unless the government starts forcing me to do things counter to the Bible, I need to follow their rules, and in our state right now, those rules are telling me to stay home. I can disagree with the rules, but that doesn’t mean I can disobey them. I can vote to change the rules or elect new leaders, but I can’t ignore them.

We can do this. Together.