Studio711

Commentary

COVID-19: Part 6

https://xkcd.com/2287/

It’s been almost 2 weeks since the last update, and it has been nice to tone down the obsessive reading about the virus. I limit myself to a couple minutes per day. My basic routine is:

  1. Hit the home page of a local TV station. If there isn’t anything new on that initial screen, close it and move on.
  2. Visit the excellent page of graphs and scroll through to see how/if things are changing, especially for Washington.

It’s wonderful to see that some countries are actually peaking. I don’t believe any of the data coming out of China, but even ignoring them, but even ignoring them, countries like Australia, Taiwan and maybe even Italy are starting to actually have fewer new cases each day than the day before.

Washington has beautiful mountains, but being the flattest state is nice too.

In most other places, we’re just happy to be seeing the rate of acceleration slow. That means we’re still getting more cases per day than the day before so the worst is yet to come, but those logarithmic curves are bending down closer and closer to horizontal and having the same number of new cases tomorrow as we did today is the first big milestone. From there we can watch the number of new cases each day decrease until finally, the total number of people with COVID-19 is less than it was the day before.

I think that is still quite a ways off. Anytime someone tells me a date of when a particular restriction is going to be lifted, I wonder why anybody even puts out those dates. It feels unlikely that any of them are correct. Weeks ago my company said, “There’s no end date. We’ll tell you when there is one.” That feels more reasonable at this point than saying the lockdown is over in X weeks.

I continue to wonder what will happen to schools. There are so many ideas floating around and none of them are good. Some states have already said there will be no more school after the scheduled end of the year. I can see how that might work for older students who are getting a reasonable online education, but what about my first grader? Despite having a trained teacher staying home tutoring an only child, there’s no way he’s learning as much as he would be at school, especially when a lot of that learning centers around social skills. We’re working hard and doing our best, but will they really just bump him up to second grade? Tyla and I are thankful that we didn’t hold him back a year when he started because that will leave the possibility open for that down the road if needed. I think one outcome of this whole experience will be an almost complete removal of the stigma surrounding repeating a grade. That’s going to be so much more common than it was when I was growing up.

Personally, I’m getting in to the groove of working from home, but this is probably the busiest I’ve ever been since taking this job. Cloud computing is booming and with supply chains disrupted, work is… challenging. As if that wasn’t enough, I’m also putting in a lot of hours helping our church to get services online. Pastor and Dave, our main organist, are doing a great job getting me recordings, but my evenings are spent at the same computer where my days are spent so I can edit everything together. It’s all important work and I know people are thankful, but it’s all so draining physically, emotionally and mentally. On Wednesday of last week, I realized I hadn’t been outside (except to put up the flag or take out the trash) since Sunday. Since then I’ve abandoned my post over lunch, left the phone in the house, and gone for a walk. And oh yeah, my family needs extra attention and time through this too!

When I do get a few minutes of free time, I feel like I should be spending it on work, church or family. But if I do talk to friends, watch my favorite YouTube creators or listen to podcasts, it feels like a never-ending stream of “I have so much time.” I know that everyone has their own challenges and the grass is always greener on the other side, but the idea of having an entire day (much less multiple weeks) with no responsibilities feels like the Shangri-La to me. If you are in that position, don’t squander your time! Don’t blow it watching Netflix all day. This is an amazing opportunity and if I can’t have it, I can at least enjoy seeing you be productive. It would feel so amazing to spend a couple days out in the garage working on that dresser project which is taking me so long.

As a family we’ve totally cut ourselves off from outside contact except for groceries and occasional food deliveries. We took a family “adventure” on Saturday which amounted to driving around. We drove through the new tunnel under Seattle. I’ve always wondered what it would look like to drive through four billion dollars. Now I know. We continued our tour around the Space Needle where we parked right in front and hopped out for a quick photo. We wrapped it up by driving down the main drag at Pike Place Market. That’s an impossible feat on a normal Saturday. It’s a measure of Elijah’s boredom that he thought this long car ride to nowhere was exciting.

Speaking of Elijah, he’s handling this all pretty well. He, like of all of us, has his moments where it all feels like too much, but overall I give him a thankful thumbs up. It’s especially hard for him when he sees other families who are interpreting the lockdown differently than we are. I try to let him feel that frustration but treat those as teachable moments. (If you’re a parent, this is a great 5 minute watch.) But in the back of my mind, I do wonder if we’re drawing our own boundaries correctly. However, deep down I still believe that if we all suck it up and cut off contact, we’ll be back to normal sooner than if we do this halfway. It would be different if you had symptoms as soon as you were contagious, but any one of us could have it right now and not know it so having contact with other people feels irresponsible.

In the end, my bar is “If everyone did this, would it be ok?” You can twist that in lots of ways to make anything seem permissible or not, but when viewed honestly and for lack of anything better, it feels like a reasonable starting point.

As I struggle to live up to my responsibilities as a Christian, husband, father, employee and church AV geek, I constantly have to remind myself that I’m not doing this alone. Yes, I have my family to support me, but more importantly, God is here with me. He’s guiding me through all of this and I’ll come out better for it having experienced it.

Psalm 50:15 Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.

COVID-19: Part 5

I wasn’t planning to make the next post yet, but now it seems like a good time because our governor just announced a “Stay Home” order. First of all, +10 points for not calling it “shelter in place”. I don’t know about you, but for me that term means there’s rampant mobs or zombie mosquitoes. It feels weird to people to “shelter in place” and then say “walks around the block with your family are ok.” And secondly, kudos for making this proclamation. Now I await actual enforcement of the order because until we do that, I don’t see how this is going to end. Think I’m crazy? Let me walk you through my thought process and we can see where we diverge.

Do we all agree that it’s bad if this spreads unabated? There are plenty of papers talking about the percentages of mild, severe and critical cases. Let’s take the bottom end of estimates and say that 5% of cases require hospitalization. There are 924,000 hospital beds in the US. So if all the cases in the US were evenly distributed (they’re not) and all the beds were capable of helping COVID-19 patients (they’re not), then that means once 46 million people have this, we’re going to overflow the hospitals. That 46 million number might sound rosy (it’s not… it’s only 3.5 weeks away, but more on that later) but it’s wildly optimistic because one of the real shortfalls is the number of ventilators. You may only have hundreds of those in your area. The federal government has some for emergencies but that number is around 10,000. Who cares about having a bed if you can’t breathe? There are already stories about Seattle hospitals being full and out of ventilators. Italian doctors were picking who they would try to save with the equipment at hand. I hope we can agree that this is bad if it spreads unabated.

Do we all agree that this spreads very quickly when we don’t do anything about it? Again, the math isn’t too hard to calculate but exponential growth can be hard to internalize. In my last post I guessed we’d be crossing 500k worldwide cases sometime around today. I probably missed that by a day or two because my formula didn’t take into account enough of the countries that are getting this under control, but I wasn’t off by that much. How can we make those predictions? It’s because when COVID-19 is spreading freely, the rate of cases increases by 35% every day. Whether it’s China, Italy, New York, Seattle or anywhere else, you get 35% more cases every day. Once more restrictions go into place, the growth slows to 22% and if you’re in a warm weather country then it grows at 14%. This is exponential growth and the best way to view exponential growth is on a logarithmic scale. A straight line on a logarithmic scale is exponential growth while linear growth looks like a downward curving line. We need to start seeing a change from exponential to linear before we can feel like we’re winning the fight. The best COVID-19 site I’ve seen is by a guy named Mark Handley. All this data is on github so you can draw your own charts, but it’s hard to tell the story more clearly than he does. I’ll just choose one chart that shows the growth per million inhabitants with some alignment of when the outbreaks started in each place:

Credit: Mark Handley, http://nrg.cs.ucl.ac.uk/mjh/covid19/#ww2

You thought Italy was bad? We are getting more cases than they did and we aren’t slowing down yet either. So we’re all in agreement that this spreads very quickly in similar climates and that if we do nothing, we’ll stick on this 35% daily increase? That would put the US at 500,000 cases by April 1, one million by April 3 and 10 million by April 11 and by April 22, everyone in the US has gotten it.

Ok, so it’s bad if everyone gets it, and it’s bad if we don’t try to stop it. How can we stop it? Right now the only tool we have is staying home. More and more states are enacting “stay at home” guidance, but how closely it’s followed varies widely. The only successful examples of reducing interaction are countries like China, Singapore and South Korea who have much stricter policies in place. Washington had the first big outbreak in the US so we’re a bit ahead of everyone else in shutting things down and over the last few days, it has looked like we’re finally slowing to the 22% rate. It’s good to see the improvement but we have to slow it a lot more. Whether you live in an area with a rule or not, stay home! We need to starve the virus of new hosts. The Washington Post has some great visuals to help explain the effect of staying home.

I hesitate to use the “flatten the curve” hashtag here, but time really is our friend. Even if we all eventually get sick, the longer we can stretch that period out, the better. Test kit production and ventilator production is being pushed to the limits. A vaccine is 18 months off but research is under way. Treatments are coming sooner than that but we’re still months away from that as well. It feels like our biggest hope is that once we’re swimming in test kits and those tests can be done in-private at home then we’ll really be on a good path for getting back to “normal”. And once we’re a couple months down the road, temps will be warmer which Cliff Mass thinks will help too. For even more hope from a disease expert, read Bill Gates’s Reddit AMA or read the lightly condensed version on Tech Crunch.

Ok, so it’s bad if everyone gets it, and it’s bad if we don’t try to stop it, but we are working to stop it and there is a lot of hope for the future. This will end and it’s not going to end in the downfall of civilization. We’ll pull through this and this data will spawn thousands of doctoral papers for years to come about how to handle these situations in the future. Is it going to be destructive to the economy? Absolutely. Is it going to be tough on individuals? Absolutely. But we will pull through this.

The signs we made after watching Pastor Novotny’s video.

The Time of Grace website has been one of our favorites in this house and after watching Pastor Herrmann’s devotion on Sunday, we happened to catch Pastor Novotny’s live stream from his house. I recommend you watch it as it has really stuck with us. God is here. God is with us. God has this under control. God is working this for our good. We’re not alone. Remember the words of Paul from the book of Philippians as he was imprisoned (or forcefully quarantined?):

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

COVID-19: Part 4

I’ve now completed two weeks of working from home and it doesn’t feel like we’re at the halfway point yet. I’m seeing more and more empty shelves from people panic-buying and most of the world is still firmly on the path of exponentially increasing case counts.

But before I talk about any of that, let’s stop and be thankful for a few things:

  1. There is a huge shortage of things like bleach, toilet paper and hand sanitzer. But not only are the local stores not jacking up the prices, they’re keeping their normal sales! I saw a shelf that said “please limit yourself to 2 items” right next to a “Buy 1 Get 1” sign. Capitalism (or price gouging depending on your position) is rampant in the secondary markets, but it’s worth being thankful when you pay $2 for a loaf of bread instead of $200.
  2. As Tyla and I discussed the “crisis” and “emergency”, it dawned on me that I’m sitting on a couch, watching TV on a projector, enjoying a full stomach and a heated house.

That list could go on and on and I think it’s important to regularly enumerate your own reasons to be thankful, especially in this scenario when it’s so easy to focus on the negatives. Keep those reasons to be thankful in mind as we dive into the reality of the situation…

I’ll throw a very uneducated guess out and say that around Tuesday of next week, we’ll cross one million cases world wide (assuming we have enough test kits to prove that.) [UPDATE 3/20: Oops, when I made that estimate, I forgot that China’s cases aren’t growing at the same rate anymore. That means we’d cross 500k around Tuesday and it takes us until the end of the week to get to a million.] This is going to get worse before it gets better. The one page of data that I keep going back to is one compiled by Mark Handley: http://nrg.cs.ucl.ac.uk/mjh/covid19/ Every country is following the exact same growth rates, and, aside from China and South Korea, nobody looks to be anywhere near having this under control. Buckle up, we’re just getting started.

Locally, it’s hard to get a grasp on how seriously people are taking the social distancing. For example, this photo gallery shows a lot of empty scenes where normally there would be crowds of people. But if you drive around during the day, there are plenty of people on the roads.

As an elder at church, I’ve been in a lot of discussions about what to do with our services and how we can continue to minister to people as our ability to meet is restricted. For now we’re moving to having small devotions with individual families and doing more online. We’re also discussing how this will affect Easter because it feels very unlikely that we’ll be back to normal by April 12.

At home we’re continuing to make changes and lock it down. Tyla is starting to get into a routine doing her best to homeschool Elijah. What a blessing to have a wife who went to college to be a teacher! We’re also blessed to have a supportive school providing us with lots of materials.

Last fall we booked a vacation that we’ve been dreaming of for a long time: Disney Aulani. We spent a long time deciding if we were willing to spend that much on a vacation, but once we pulled the trigger, we were very excited for it. We were scheduled to leave a week from Saturday. Today I canceled the trip. While we are bummed to miss out on this, I’m very thankful that with the exception of the airline, we got 100% of our money back. And the airline changed their “sorry you bought a nonrefundable ticket” policy to give us a credit that can be used through the end of the year. So I’m trying to view it as “Hey, we have a gift card for a free flight to Hawaii and back!”

There are an infinite number of unanswerable questions about what the next couple months will look like. Personally I’m focusing on a lot of prayer, doing the best I can to make sure my family stays healthy both physically and mentally, and making sure we have food to eat. Time spent being anxious is time that would have been better spent praising God and trusting him to care for us.

Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

COVID-19: Part 3

There were a lot of questions when I wrote the previous post. There are even more now, but we do have some answers mixed in. Will schools close? Yep. All schools in the state are closed until late April and many across the country are closed too. Will more restrictions be put in place? Yep. No gatherings of more than 250 people and if you do have a gathering smaller than that, there are restrictions about how your employees must be trained, the minimum distance between people, etc.

Is this an overreaction? That’s one we don’t have an answer for. At this point I feel like if we’re going to do this, then let’s do it. Let’s learn everything we can to make ourselves smarter for next time, but for now? Let’s lock it down. We don’t know what the right answer is, but I’m guessing we’re less likely to regret shutting things down. All of these dates about how long things will be closed are fuzzy. We just need to see that exponential curve start to flatten.

Humans aren’t great at absorbing the implications of math, especially in two ways that make this a tough problem. First, it’s hard to grasp the speed of exponential growth. Delaying by even a single day can mean thousands of additional people get infected. And since it seems that most symptoms take around five days to appear, we’re much farther up that curve than the numbers show right now.

The second math complication is that humans don’t process probability well. It’s called “neglect of probability“. It’s either not going to happen or it’s definitely going to happen. Will millions of people die from this disease? Will we run out of food? Will toilet paper be the next BitCoin? None of these are 0% or 100%, but treating them as such leads to a lot of irrational behavior.

I’ve completed 7 days of working from home and Elijah will be off of school for six weeks. Sporting seasons are being canceled. Most public events are canceled. Travel is locked down to some other countries. And so we’re back to the most divisive question: too much or not enough?

We have quite a bit of data at our fingertips. We can compare countries who did too little with those who reacted quickly. There are a lot of good articles out there and I specifically recommend one from Tomas Pueyo and another from a group of researchers and foundations. The second one is especially eye opening because their conclusion on March 10 was that this area wasn’t doing enough to stop the spread yet. A lot more measures have been put in place since then so hopefully the predictions have improved, if they were correct to begin with.

On a more micro level, our family is chugging along. It’s a tough situation to plan for. Trips to Costco and Safeway both showed a lot of people stocking up. I’m not sure if there is some secret, delicious recipe for toilet paper, but if you don’t have it now, you’re not going to find it. We’re well-stocked here (including ammo so don’t think about it… kidding… sort of.)

I’m blessed to have a job that allows me to work from home. Our team is adjusting well and I think we’re getting into a productive groove. My only real hangup is that this desk that I built in 2013 has never been the most comfortable thing. I can’t figure out exactly what it is, but a day at this desk leaves my back feeling sore. Since we’re going to have such a long spell of working from home, I ordered an electric base for a standup desk. I use mine a lot at work and it has always felt like too much of a luxury for home, but this situation pushed me over the edge. I saved some money by purchasing only the base. I’ll start with a simple plywood top but eventually I want to put a beautiful walnut top on it.

So we continue to chug along a day at a time. It’s amazing how many conversations I have about this single topic. I find myself wishing for a day where I don’t have to think about it. My hope is that once we get to “peak lockdown”, we’ll hit “peak panic” too and just hang tight for a while.

Psalm 91
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

COVID-19: Part 2

On Friday I woke up to the news that someone in our division had tested positive. The company notified everyone who was likely to have been in close proximity to him. It was in another building so it’s highly unlikely that I crossed paths with him, but it does make the “everyone work from home” recommendation seem like more of an obvious good move.

The first couple days of working from home were less productive than normal, but I think our team is getting settled in. I was asked to collect some best practices and set expectations about how we will interact and stay in our highly-collaborative mode even though we’re separated. Thankfully, collaboration tools have gotten a lot better in recent years, and while there are a lot of things I’d change about Microsoft Teams, it really is an excellent service.

Over the weekend, life continued to be pretty normal. We met up with Tyla’s family on Saturday to celebrate Logan’s birthday and then we went to Pizza Coop for dinner. I wasn’t sure what to expect there, but it felt like a very normal Saturday evening crowd. Church was well-attended on Sunday as well. The grocery stores are well-stocked, and other than news stories and less traffic than normal, there’s very little to indicate that anything odd is going on.

But it’s that normalcy that feels the strangest. Major snowstorms and power outages have a visible component and it’s easy for me to understand what I can do to help keep my family safe. But in this case, it’s a silent virus floating around. Could we do everything as normal and not be affected? Have we already come in contact with it and not caught it? Are we on the brink of exponential growth in the infection rate? None of these things are knowable or measurable. Life goes on except that every time someone coughs, heads snap in their direction and people scoot away.

It remains to be seen whether our current efforts will be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19, but I’m also interested to see what effect our improved hygiene has on standard illnesses like colds and the flu. Will those numbers be noticeably lower because we’re all washing our hands more often and staying home even when we have a little cough? I’d like to think that improved hygiene will be something we all take away from this, but the reality is that we’ll probably revert to our old ways a few months after this scare is over and we’re on to the election coverage.