- Should I visit my parents as planned, or wait?
- Should I cancel my party/gig/class/workshop?
- How should my travel plans or behaviors change?
- What can I do to ward off the Coronavirus?
- When do I head for the hills?
Let me be upfront: I don’t know what you should do. There are still many unknowns, and I’m not going to tell anybody what they should be doing. But in this article I will say how I think about approaching these issues, how other more qualified people do too, and I’ll try to put the risk in context. Take that for what it’s worth, or not, your call. I’m not an expert, I’m just some dude who’s been in quarantine for almost two weeks with a lot of time to learn about the science and the stories that others have shared.
Putting Risk in Context
Can you eliminate all possibility of getting COVID-19? Probably not.
Can you do things to bring the risks down to “grocery store” levels? Yup, I bet you can.
Before this virus made the news, you wouldn’t go around licking the shopping carts at your local grocery store or tasting the door handles on gas station bathrooms, right? And now that the Novel Coronavirus dominates the global media feed would be a really bad time to start doing that. Yet we’ve been touching things like this with our bare hands all our lives, and as the fearmongers in the news may be surprised to learn, we’re not dead yet. We are accustomed to actively exposing ourselves to a baseline level of risk when by engaging in everyday activities, every single day.
If we have a normal level of health and we can bring our risk down to a normal everyday level again, I’m going to call that “enough”. As in enough for our functional immune systems keep us mostly healthy from most things most of the time — even the Novel Coronavirus. Sometimes we get sick, then we get better. We have no defense against this new virus strain, and it could get quite ugly as our healthcare systems get overwhelmed. So it’s a great time to evaluate which activities we can renegotiate and postpone, just to be extra safe.
Overreacting is perfectly fine, panic isn’t. And ignorance can kill you and those you love.
Now if you aren’t lucky enough to have a normal level of health right now, or you do but you’re 60+ years old, then you have a very different level of “enough” and far less margin of error. I’ve been in quarantine because my partner is in this category. She’s eliminating everything, and for good reason. We’re also very concerned for her mother, with whom we typically interact daily. I’ll remind you that this is NOT the flu, it’s way more dangerous — especially to anyone over 80.
Now assuming you’re under 50 like me, getting down to normal risk levels with that evil Coronavirus lurking out there may not feel like enough for you. Okay, fair enough. But realize that if this is true then you will probably never feel safe again. There is no vaccine, though they’re bending all the rules to make one fast. Until it’s here, you may just have to get used to a world with the Coronavirus in it. Even when there is finally a vaccine, you still probably won’t ever feel as safe out there in the world. I happen to think that our panicky minds are actually on to something there.
Delusions of Safety
Safety is not an absolute. Never has been, never will be.
Our sense of safety is an illusion that requires a certain amount of ignorance to maintain.
We can’t think about things too much and still feel a sense of safety. The current pandemic that has our focus is deadly real — and it’s a case in point. I get in trouble for saying stuff like this out loud in meetings where I help make corporate safety trainings, but functionally safety boils down to the ratio of living people to dead people, expressed as a number for a given behavior. There is always a non-zero risk of death, and I find looking at it for what it is to be empowering. If you want to change something, you have to be real about what it is first.
Then there’s the stuff we don’t even know about and won’t figure in our calculations. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson is so fond of pointing out, “It’s the stuff we haven’t even figured out to worry about yet that poses the biggest existential threat to us.” Asteroid collision, anyone? Wandering black hole? These black swan events could absolutely happen any time and we’d be utterly defenseless, but they probably don’t keep you up at night. Nor should they.
So, no, we’re not safe, but please let’s not go off the deep end here. You’re gonna die someday, most likely not of COVID-19, even if you do get it, no matter how old you are.
The odds are that you won’t die from the Novel Coronavirus, but that you know at least one person who will.
But then we all die of something, and if you have psychological problems with this, then you might want to go seek psychological support (perhaps via Skype?). The truth is that we can influence but cannot ultimately control our own surroundings. Same with our loved ones, only even less so. For instance, I’ve been very careful in my self-quarantine, but even with all the trouble I’ve gone to in protecting my partner, there are no guarantees. She just got sneezed on, up close and right in the face, by someone who had recently returned from a cruise. No one expected that, no one had a plan for it. Whatcha gonna do?
What we all can do is pay attention, err on the side of caution, and behave a bit better today than we did yesterday.Behaving Better Here are a few personal policies I’m taking on post-quarantine:
- Wash my hands before I touch food. Mine or anyone else’s. Raw or ready to eat. I mostly did this before, but not always. Now I am prepared to be hungry until I can find a way to clean my hands. I’ve had plenty of practice with fasting in the last few years, so I know it’s not a big deal — especially compared to getting sick.
- Shelter in place when sick. When I’m unwell, you won’t see me. I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to miss a few days pay without getting evicted or going hungry. So from here forward, no matter where I am, I isolate as best I can when I notice that I’m coming down with something. As a performer, this may be hard. But the costs of bending this rule are bigger than my own discomfort, they include making my body an accomplice to your infection which is not okay with me.
- Contact people to let them know if I fall ill. As soon as I can after I catch anything, I will make a list of all the people I was around 72hrs prior to that and give them a quick heads up about their possible exposure. No shame, blame, or guilt needed, this is simply a courtesy to them and their loved ones. (I did not do that this time, and I really wish that I would have.)
- Travel with an unused N95 mask. This is for me if I get sick while on the road, but more likely I’ll use it like I do at Burning Man, as a gift for someone else who looks like they could use it. If I can help one person in a moment of need from spreading whatever it is they have, I’m actually helping many people around them, including myself.
- Keep hand sanitizer on hand. I often have one of those little bottles of Purell around somewhere, just in case. Now I’ll make sure I have that and some corona-killing cleansing wipes easily accessible at all times. Again, this is not just for me. I can be generous with them and share as I feel is appropriate. But it also helps ensure that I won’t need to go too long without eating (see bullet #1 above).
- Eat a plant-based diet. This whole virus scare came to pass as most do, something nasty crossed from the animals that humans keep for food to the humans that handle them and/or eat them. I chose to unplug from meat & dairy a few months ago exclusively for personal health & longevity reasons, but as a side benefit I can now appreciate that all risks from these materials are also literally off my plate. Plus I’m not funding the voluntary human behavior or industries that inevitably lead to such global problems. I’ve withdrawn my support.
- Boost my immune system as needed. I’ve learned a ton about supplements with anti-viral & anti-bacterial properties in the last two weeks. Before I’d just take a multivitimin and maybe some Vitamin C when around lots of people, now I’ve got a whole well-researched regimen to turn to. If you’re curious, let me know. I may post it to my blog or something.
- Keep well-stocked for emergencies. My partner and I had been building this direction for a while, which came in super handy in this pandemic pinch! Now I want to get to the point that it doesn’t affect us if other people run out and buy everything off the shelves to horde it for themselves. I want to be able to hunker down with family at home for at least a month without needing anyone to run to the store or order anything online for any reason. This looks achievable to me, and very worth the money.
- Don’t listen to scared/scary people. Haters gonna hate, crackpots gonna crack, and politicians gonna play politics. This entire episode reminds me that I really can afford to tune out all that optional stress. As I learned from my work with Project Censored long ago, the media has its own reasons for what it tells us and what it doesn’t tell us. It’s all too easy to forget and get triggered into fear when the headlines bump up a fontsize or two. It is up to us to seek out the information we need to make decisions, and I now have some great places to look for the science that helps me do that.
From Quarantine to…?
Yes, I’m finally coming out of quarantine, but not very far out. For the next month or two, I plan to lie low. No travel, no crowds. I’ve already canceled the events that I was scheduled to attend. Pretty much anything that I can back out of, I’m backing out of in the name of Social Distancing. I’ll do a lot more hiking and disinfecting stuff, and a lot less meeting people or touching my face.
Informing My Own Decisions
There’s a ton of information that’s come to light just in the last few days. We now have way more data than we did a week ago about the dreaded SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness that it begets. While I did have flu symptoms last week, I am now 100% certain that the sick I got is not at all related to what’s in the news.
First off, the Novel Coronavirus has a relatively long incubation period. This is one of the things that’s made it so tricky to pin down. Newest reports show that “97.5% of those who develop symptoms will do so within 11.5 days” though in some heavy exposure instances it could take up to 14-days, as you’ve probably heard reported. There are also some documented cases in vulnerable populations in as little as 2-days. But most of the time, most people will fall ill with COVID-19 either 5–6 days after exposure, or their immune systems will fight it off and they won’t get infected at all.
In my particular case, I got sick early in the morning on Monday, March 2nd. Which would mean I would have had to have been exposed between February 17th and 29th, most likely on the 25th or 26th. But I was leading my usually secluded, rural Utah life at that time. I didn’t travel to the San Francisco Bay Area until February 27th, with lots of activity on the 28th and 29th. While there’s a small possibility I could have been exposed to the Novel Coronavirus then, given my symptoms and from everything we know about COVID-19, I could not have been exposing anyone else to it. If it was just a seasonal flu, I could have spread that.
Secondly, the only point at which I know I was around sick people on my flight was from Salt Lake City to Oakland. There were two people within two rows of me who were coughing and sneezing the whole flight, including one person right in front of me in seat 22C. At the time there were no cases of Coronavirus originating in Utah, but there were plenty of the usual colds and flus going around.
The standard incubation period for a seasonal flu is 1–4 days. And I did, in fact, find myself coughing and sneezing 4 days after my flight out, which was also 2 days after my greatest exposure risk, but mere hours after I had returned from California to Utah again. This would likely have been too fast for Coronavirus to hit me, had I been exposed to it at any point in California, such as my musical performances or my flight back. Plus it’s not like anyone else I was around then came down with a case of COVID-19. I’ve been keeping tabs on that. So again, the timing fits the flu perfectly. Novel Coronavirus, not so much.
Thirdly, last week I was worried about what if I got sick with the regular old flu but was also exposed to the Coronavirus while in California. Admittedly there is far less data to go by on this point, but given the speed at which it tends to set in for people with weakened immune systems, and the fact that I was pretty sick last week, all indications are that I would be showing symptoms by now if they were going to show up at all. My fever broke last Thursday, and I’ve felt like my normal healthy self again in the last few days. Though there’s no peer-reviewed study to point to on this yet, from all the accounts I’ve been reading the Novel Coronavirus wouldn’t have the novel patience to wait a full 14-days to strike when it had ample access to my already compromised immune system all last week. Given that, we can conservatively subtract a half-day for every day spent sick from the full 14-day quarantine window. That puts me at 12-days of quarantine, just in case.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the concern that I might carry COVID-19 without showing any symptoms at all. A week ago, all we had to go on was the asymptomatic data from other coronaviruses, which can be as high as 20%. So one in five people can get some of the other kinds of coronaviruses and then transmit them to more people without getting sick themselves. Fortunately, we have some data on this newest coronavirus now, and it comes in at or well below 1.2%. So out of a thousand people who have diagnosible cases of COVID-19, maybe twelve of them on the outside would seem to get away scott-free.
Even then, and this is a critical point, those rare asymptomatic people don’t seem to be very contagious. This new virus spread is scary, but doesn’t spread nearly as easily as we feared at first. If you get coughed on or sneezed on by someone with COVID-19 or happen to handle something that was and then pick your nose, conceivably you too can win the dreaded Corona award. It’s now looking very unlikely that food is a transmission route, it’s truly a respiratory thing. But avoid all of these predictably stupid behaviors and you’re likely to avoid this and all other such viruses. As you might imagine, those dozen out of a thousand infected people who are asymptomatic don’t tend to cough or sneeze or otherwise spread their bodily fluids around willy-nilly quite as much, so they don’t tend to transmissibly spread what they’ve asymptomatically got.
In my particular case, if I were exposed to the Coronavirus between February 28th and March 1st (when I initially thought I might have been) and then got sick from March 2nd through March 5th (which did happen) I would almost certainly be showing signs by today, March 12th. But I’m not. Instead I’m happy to report that I’m all better! Yay!
From everything we know now but didn’t know a week ago, there’s no way COVID-19 would have hit me in less than 48hrs. And as of this Saturday, I’ll have been in quarantine for 12-days, long enough that it would have hit the already influenza’d me if it was ever going to.
So I’m good. See? No Coronavirus.
How Can I Prove It To You?
I go round and round with people about testing. There’s a lot of confusion from the top down here in the US, I get it. Here’s the thing about testing me now, on the off chance I could get one of those elusive CDC tests: it won’t prove anything.
There is no test for exposure to the SARS-Cov-2 Coronavirus. That’s what will be called a serology test once it gets invented, and there’s a global race to figure out how to make that dream test a reality. But as of this moment (and likely for months to come), there is no way to detect the specific antibodies that would be present in someone who got sick with COVID-19 and then got better. We just have the rRT-PCR test to diagnose COVID-19 disease.
Basically, we can test for the illness caused by Coronavirus only within narrow snapshot of time.
Because I’ve been without any symptoms at all this week, there’s literally nothing to test for. I’m fully recovered for days now, swab me up down and sideways all you like and I could only ever test negative for COVID-19. Because again, it’s not a test for whether you have had Coronavirus or not, it’s a test for if you DO have it in your body at the moment you’re being tested. This is why testing promptly and multiple times is so gosh-darned important.
Last week was the time to test me. I would love to have taken a COVID-19 test then! Unfortunately, at the time I was expressing those not-so-fun flu symptoms, I was ineligible for CDC testing — purely for political reasons. This has allegedly changed, though it’s still unclear (as are all things around COVID-19 testing in the USA). If I were sick today, I tend to think I’d be able to scare people enough to force the issue and go get myself a test. Given the rural area where I live, I’m still not entirely sure about that, but if you’re in a city you hopefully could.
That said, I have a friend in Texas who is currently being treated for pneumonia after 10-days of being sick, and has been refused COVID-19 testing as recently as yesterday. Doctors and nurses are raising their voices about their inability to be granted testing kits for patients from the CDC based on their medical recommendations. And there are even people in the beltway complaining about being denied access to tests regardless of symptoms unless they can name who infected them. Then there’s horror stories from infected doctors who can’t even get tested. Fun times.
Can’t Trust The Government
One of the biggest positive realizations to come from this whole episode is how utterly unprepared we all are for stuff like this. Not only are we in the USA one of the only affected nations without a national healthcare system or a federal concept of “sick leave”, many officials in our country have been actively working against the interests of its citizenry. Yes, our current leadership likes to just make sh*t up and then say something distracting. What else is new? Wake up and smell the 2020, people.
Most poor Americans do not have sick leave, so have to go to work. Though there are certainly some strange factors at play here in the United States, it’s essentially structural issue going on here that isn’t all that unique.
There is a natural immune response to bad news from any country, be that China or Iran or Italy or South Korea or the good ol’ US of A.
When we don’t need our leaders to lead the way we want them to go, they just might. When we depend on them to always do what works best for us or else we’re screwed, we become vulnerable to their fallibility and their whim. In our part of the world (unlike China or Iran), this is a completely avoidable problem! The more resilient we are as individuals and as communities, the less governing we need our governments to do. I think that’s always a good thing.
Listen, I don’t want to get political here. I just want to point out that that no nation on earth is well-suited to handle what are inherently transnational problems. Some do better than others, sure. But countries weren’t created for this kind of thing, it’s a limitation of their design. As I’ve written about before, I believe the concept of a “nation” has a place, and that this idea has essentially run its course as the dominant paradigm. We can design better than that these days, and we will need to if we want to thrive, or even just survive the instability that is very predictably coming to a nation near you within your lifetime.
Too far? Yeah okay, back to the crisis at hand.
*So what should we do?
This is clearly a matter of opinion. Here’s mine: we should do better.
We should use all that we know to systemically outsmart our more panicky and fearful selves. Each of us knows a lot of great stuff…that’s really hard to remember while we’re scared!
So if you want advice, I’d say don’t let yourself make any critical life decisions while you’re scared out of your frickin’ mind. Calm down first. Learn to tell facts from feelings (yes, they are different!), and build habits today that create the world you want to live in tomorrow. There is nothing we can buy or do or say today that will make us feel safe, but we can build a safer and better life from here on out if we choose to make this a priority.
Maybe you could cancel stuff? Stay home for a while?
Or maybe you could start with some new hygiene habits or finding ways to gently support people who are unconscious about theirs?
I believe in our ability to make conscious choices, as individuals and as a society. Culture doesn’t happen to us, but rather through us. That’s why I don’t tell others what they should do, instead I do exactly what I want them to do. What I want you to do. Right now, I really want you to keep your germs to yourself and play it safe, and that’s why I’ve been in quarantine myself.
Soon I come out of my self-imposed quarantine. Am I still scared of Coronavirus? Of course, a bit. Not in my own body so much as those close to mine.
I’ve had enough time to myself to think this through, then talk with others I care about to make a joint and collective decision. This choice is based on the facts, and on the feelings of those around me. This weekend I will confidently rejoin my loved ones and the world. The good news is that my isolation is almost over.
The best news is that I am now quite certain that I never had the Coronavirus to begin with. I’ve played it safe on behalf of those I love, and I don’t regret it. I hope that my sharing this helps you to see that you too can do the same, if you so choose.
Quarantine sucks, I’m not gonna lie. I highly recommend avoiding it if you can! Yet preparing for it is a really smart thing to do. Because we never know when it might be the best choice we’ve got.
And as the world is now openly demonstrating for us, it’s definitely best when it’s your own choice to make!