Friday, April 10, 2020

How are we doing today?

According to modeling at National Public Radio yesterday (the site is here, just scroll down and click on the blue "SHOW ALL (ORDERED BY PEAK DATE))", Pennsylvania is due to peak April 15th. This accords strongly with my own data from the PA-HEALTH case website:

Graph: Author

This shows that our daily new case rate has dropped below 10% (yay). I just came from the grocery store, where most customers and about half the staff were wearing masks. Wearing masks does work to prevent the spread of influenza-like illnesses. According to the CDC "Most experts think that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes." This reach extends about 6 feet. (Hence, all the yellow tape marks 6 feet apart on the store's floor!)

However, with the novel coronavirus, this is less clear. The World Health Organization still lists this virus as being spread by droplets and contact. They are aware of some studies that suggest it can be breathed out, even while talking, but also note that this research is still in progress and is not conclusive, and they stress that personal protective equipment is in short supply, so masking by ordinary folks might not be a good use of that PPE.

Of course, the directive from the Governor's Office that all people should mask reflects the thinking that "Well what if is does turn out to be airborne? Why not be careful?" Urging people to "make their own" masks--sewing them, or wearing scarves or bandannas--addresses the PPE issue. The idea is not to be protected from inhaling COVID-19, rather to avoid breathing it out.

My graph above displays a consistent decline in new cases since the outbreak began and some precautions were started, and a continued decline since social distancing and stay-at-home orders were rolled out. It's possible that that masking directive will lead to an even sharper decline, but it's also possible it won't.

There are several reasons for this:

  1. It's possible that most transmission is not airborne, even if some is. Statistically, it could be difficult to impossible to see this come through the numbers.
  2. It is likely that little things, like picking up things at stores, which can involve contact with stuff that settled out of the air, is a cause of transmission, but again, statistically that would be hard to see in the numbers.
  3. It may be that there isn't any airborne expression of virus, except when someone coughs or gets a COVID-19 test (which involves sticking a swab up the nose--really far!), or gets a respiratory procedure like intubation. This would mean airborne transmission mainly happens in hospitals, but not the community.

When I was out just a while ago I saw many creative masks! It's a fun way to do something that may or may not help, so why not? On the other hand, I found it hard to feel critical toward the people I saw not wearing masks. Masks can be hot. They fog people's glasses. And they aren't 100% effective in controlling the expression of very tiny aerosol particles. They are fairly ineffective at keeping those very tiny particles out.

I also think there's something else going on. I think masking creeps some people out. It visually reinforces our fear of one another. I did see a lot of fear in people's eyes in that store--both among the people wearing masks (afraid of the virus), and those not wearing masks, afraid of what we are becoming--perhaps a society of individuals, separated permanently from one another, driven by a fear of our instinctive social, "touchy" nature.

So looking ahead, I will be watching for this. Are we to become a society of germaphobes, living in fear of one another, forever bathing in sanitizer? Looking back over the last 20 years and the proliferation of germicidal hand soaps, wipes, and a commercial emphasis in TV ads on being absolutely clean, I have every reason to believe that the trauma of coronavirus on our collective mind will lead to exactly that.

Interestingly, as I have discussed elsewhere in this blog, there's good reason to suspect that this obsession with "sterile-clean" home environments has been partially responsible for the explosion of auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and other conditions.

What will happen? Too soon to tell...but when we begin to know, you can be sure I'll be talking about it!

Do what you need to do to be comfortably safe!

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