Studio711

covid19

COVID-19: Day 201

Here we are more than six months into the lockdown and 99.94% of Americans haven’t died from the disease… but that’s still over 200,000 dead Americans. If you look at all the US military deaths in every war/skirmish/conflict of since the end of World War 2, whether it was in combat or not, COVID has still killed more people and it’s clearly not done yet. We’ll probably be able to throw World War 1 into that equation before we’re done.

I haven’t written a post for about six weeks, but the story hasn’t changed much. Every time I think about writing a post I realize that I’ve already said that. So today let’s look back at some quotes from previous posts and see how they held up:

One challenge is that new data is arriving all the time as the world’s scientific community joins forces to figure this virus out. (March 6)

This quote came on March 6 which is one week before my lockdown counter started, but it’s still true today. There’s a lot we don’t understand and the scientific community is still learning. This is never going to end. We’re still learning about how the common flu spreads and that’s been around for 100 years. The one thing clear about this virus is that it is the perfect mix of incubation rate and mortality rate to be smack dab in that gray area where people can argue about it while the bodies pile up.

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. … The second math complication is that humans don’t process probability well. (March 14)

Yep. If people understood the data, why would they be pushing back so hard against the lockdown guidance? I realize that my simplistic engineering-brain logic is flawed, but I ask myself this question daily.

Do we all agree that it’s bad if this spreads unabated? … Do we all agree that this spreads very quickly when we don’t do anything about it? (March 24)

I don’t have these questions anymore because it’s very clear that we don’t all agree on these fundamental issues.

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. (April 6)

That ethical bar of “if everyone did this, would it be ok?” isn’t my own idea but it always stuck with me as a good guideline. Are you going to die from COVID if you attend a party? Probably not, but it’s clearly not good if everyone did that. Unfortunately, Americans (and sinful humans in general) focus on optimizing for personal happiness.

Now that there is a glimmer of hope, people are starting to think about when we can lift the bans. Short summary: don’t hold your breath. Let’s look at the data. We just peaking now. We’re roughly halfway through this. (April 15)

“Halfway through this”. Nope. Not even close. My new guess is that either we start getting back to “normal” next summer or we live in some sort of hybrid situation for a very long time. I do believe that science will solve this eventually, but it remains to be seen how good the vaccines are, how long they last, and how many people will take them.

What’s the right balance point? I think all we know for sure right now is that “it depends”. With this heavy social and political push to end the lockdown, it feels pretty inevitable that we’re going to start growing exponentially again. Very little has changed since the first growth period. Social distancing is the only tool we have to fight this. … I do think we’re going to oscillate back and forth a bit until we find the least amount of lockdown that keeps us at some sustainable balance of infections and economic pain. I don’t think anybody has the answers about what that balance point is yet so we’ll have to fail a few times as we get it figured out. (April 29)

We’ve seen this play out across the country as various states go through waves alternating of infection and lockdown. The waves are getting smaller but they’re still coming. Here in King County we’ve been through two waves but it’s looking like wave 3 is starting.

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…. My main challenge in this was separating out valid Christian needs and desires from political anger and frustration. (June 13)

Being part of the leadership at church is the toughest job I’ve ever had at church. I’m asked to guide people away from human weakness and sin while accepting viewpoints that differ from my own but still align with the Bible.

So in conclusion, as I look back over all these posts, I see lots of data that explains the spread of the virus and the impact it’s having on our world, but I think there’s plenty of that available now. These are the key ones that I look at to form my opinions:

I feel like I’ve made all the points I can make with data showing the spread of the virus and why we as Christians are bound to comply with the lockdown, but I know I can’t change the world. So if I post on this again, it will be because I’ve figured out how to post about the impact this pandemic is having on our family without getting too far into the “why” of our choices. If the why isn’t clear yet, more posts aren’t going to change that.

On a more positive note, school has been a bright spot in our life. We struggled with the decision about whether to send Elijah or not, but after watching the school go through months of preparation for this year and reading through the comprehensive plan they created to comply with all the guidelines, we’re happy to see it going smoothly. Not only are people following the rules but they seem to be doing so willingly and with cheer. It has been a very positive experience.

I struggle with how to wrap up these thoughts, but I want to mention that Pastor is going through a new Bible study series on the Psalms. While we haven’t gotten to Psalm 62 yet, it felt like a fitting way to end this post:

My soul, rest quietly in God alone,
for my hope comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress.
I will not be disturbed.
My salvation and my honor depend on God, my strong rock.
My refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, you people.
Pour out your hearts before him.
God is a refuge for us. (Psalm 62:5-8)

COVID-19: Day 157

https://xkcd.com/2346/

Here are some common questions and statements that you might be hearing these days:

  • It’s probably not going to impact me personally.
  • I don’t feel the need to modify my behavior to help to global situation.
  • Can you even prove that this is really a problem?
  • Making these changes will be more detrimental then just letting it run its course.
  • Maybe we do have a problem, but who cares? Technology will save us.

Oh, did you think I was talking about COVID? No, those were about global warming. Pretty early on it struck me how this pandemic is a different version of the global warming problem on a very accelerated scale. I hesitated to mention it much because people are instantly divided into camps as soon as you mention global warming and I didn’t want to do that with the pandemic but that ship has sailed.

Both issues are these global, long-term, large-scale problems where a single person’s actions have very minimal impact, but it’s very hard to solve the overall problem without help from every individual making changes in their lives.

I realize that the comparison falls apart in many places too. For example, it’s a lot easier (but still difficult) to gather data about COVID. We know how many people are dying with COVID. The problem expands and contracts more rapidly and we’re able to measure it more effectively. We can try different approaches and see results in months instead of decades.

The problems are not the same and many people will have opposite opinions about the two issues, but you have to admit that core conundrum bares a strong resemblance: How do you get people to change their own behavior when they might never personally experience the rewards from their change? It ends up dividing people into angry, dug-in positions where they’re so busy yelling that they’re missing the reality. The truth is out there in no-man’s land and it’s hard to stand up in the middle without getting blasted by both sides.

Ok, enough with metaphors and similes, let’s circle back to that CDC graphic from last time. Remember that image that was going around social media showing how even the CDC says that the death rate is plummeting? I posted a copy of the image in the last post and said we should revisit it in a few weeks. The image was being misused because the posters failed to read the part which said that it takes weeks for the data to arrive. Well the data has arrived and now look at the data from July 4 and the data from August 8 on the right.

You can click into those images to see the timelines but even from a glance you can see how the numbers for July 4 are way higher then when the internet was claiming victory over the pandemic. Unfortunately I don’t know how many people will ever go back and notice the full dataset.

As you’re trying to internalize these numbers and what they mean for you, consider checking out this event planning tool from Georgia Tech. You tell it what county you’re in and tell it the size of your gathering and it gives you the odds that someone with COVID will be present. It’s a tad bit rough around the edges so it’s worth reading through some of the documentation before you have a reaction to it. But as an example, if I go to a gathering of 25 people in my county, there is a 1 in 5 chance that someone with COVID will be in the group. The big question in this data is how many people have COVID but never know it or get tested for it, but the site does allow you to adjust for that if you disagree with the 10 to 1 ratio that scientists estimate today.

Here in Washington, we seem to be plateauing after a second rise in cases started a month or two ago. I pray that people can actually stick with the guidelines and get a better grip on this situation instead of relaxing and letting it creep up again.

Nationally, the anger continues to build. Social media a dumpster fire, and even though we’re making slow progress, our country is falling behind other countries because we can’t get our act together. One of you told me you were at work wearing your mask and someone drove by on the street swearing at you for being a sheep. Even if that was more visible than most emotions, who doesn’t feel judged for the simple act of living their life these days? The mask has been turned into a visible pronouncement of your viewpoint.

Our sinful natures love the feeling of superiority. We love to see somebody doing something wrong and then act like we are able to withhold forgiveness. A recent episode of No Dumb Questions compared that feeling to black magic. You start off with a little taste of it, but you want more. As you get more comfortable with it, it feels better and better. Eventually your heart is consumed by it and you’re angry at everyone. The devil gives you that sweet little taste of hatred and self-righteousness and fans it into a roaring fire. The Bible speaks out against this in many places. For example:

Remember this, my dear brothers: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Certainly, a man’s anger does not bring about what is right before God. (James 1:19-20)

It’s possible to be informed about the pandemic without getting sucked into either angry trench but it’s impossible to do it alone. Thankfully, we don’t have to do it alone. God is still in control and he will guide us through this. Don’t let the devil strengthen his foothold in your life through fear and anger.

COVID-19: Day 122

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 13 as the start of our lockdown. I started working from home on March 5 and March 13 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

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.