I turned 35 yesterday. It was a quiet observance ― ragu and red wine alone with my wife ― but that’s just fine. I’m not a big birthday guy anyway. And it was definitely memorable.
That’s because I’m self-isolating after a brush with the coronavirus. It happened last week on an assignment. I met a new colleague and we (stupidly, in retrospect) shook hands then shared an umbrella. Soon after, she called to say her young daughter, potentially infected by a traveller, had come down with serious COVID-19 symptoms. Doctors tested her last Saturday and said the results would take a week. We’re still waiting.
My office told me to stay away in the meantime. But I wasn’t sure what else I should do. Completely quarantine myself? Tell other people I’d been in contact with? Or just calm down and go about my life? I sought advice from the county’s crisis-time Call Center ( 688-5551). They couldn’t offer specific directions in my case, a mere close call a couple of steps removed, and recommended generally erring on the side of caution.
So that’s what I did. I hunkered down, and I told the friends and family I’d recently seen there was a chance ― albeit a small one ― they’d been exposed. The reactions ranged from mild curiosity to outright alarm. I still wonder if it was the right move or if I just caused unnecessary worry. At least now they know. Otherwise, I would’ve felt like I was hiding something.
Working from home has its upsides. It’s quiet. It’s comfortable. I do a lot of this typing semi-reclined in a La-Z-Boy. During my lunch breaks, I catch up with neighbors. We shout at each other from the ends of our driveways. Pesky chores are quicker to finish and long projects easier to start. Seeds are now sprouting in an egg carton, and the shelf’s most daunting book is finally cracked. But there are downsides, too. I feel like I’m letting my paper down. I’m starting to go a little stir-crazy. The kitchen is in shambles. The cats aren’t respecting my boundaries. I haven’t put on shoes in three days.
And I’ve had to remind myself in moments of antsiness that this voluntary house arrest isn’t meant to protect me. I’m young-ish and healthy, and even if I were to get sick with COVID-19, I’d probably be okay. It’s meant to protect the people who wouldn’t be okay ― the partner of a friend with advanced kidney disease, the 95-year-old grandma of a coworker, the fragile person I don’t know who could pick up my germs from a railing on Stearns Wharf or a door handle at CVS.
That fact gets lost in all the novel coronavirus noise. The whole point of staying home and limiting your contact with other people ― doing your part to “flatten the curve” ― is to delay and space out the inevitable. Because, according to federal health experts, a huge chunk of the American population will contract the coronavirus in the next year or two. Some estimates put it as high as 150 million people, or 46 percent of the United States. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned last week that up to 70 percent of her country could get it.
The strategy across the globe and right here in Santa Barbara isn’t to entirely stop the spread ― that’s impossible at this point ― but to meter the infection rate so hospitals like Cottage can care for a trickle of patients instead of being overwhelmed by a flood of emergencies. It’s the speed at which the pandemic plays out that will dictate the severity of its impact.
That’s why governments are enacting the extreme measures we’re seeing now. San Luis Obispo just transitioned to a “shelter in place” order, like the one in the San Francisco Bay Area. Santa Barbara is probably not far behind. Whatever our directives are over the coming weeks and months, we should every one of us take them very, very seriously. Because even if you’re not personally at risk, it’s your job, for the sake of others, to keep the outbreak in slow motion.
If you need any more convincing on why radical lockdown policies are necessary and why we should follow them, check out the report published by Imperial College in London. It’s astonishing, and it’s what triggered the sudden increase in response from leaders across the U.S., including our own city council and county Public Health Department. Here’s a summary:
British researchers working with the World Health Organization plugged infection and death rates from China, Korea, and Italy into epidemic modeling software and ran a simulation on what would happen if the United States did absolutely nothing in response to COVID-19, if we treated it like the regular flu and let it take its course.
The simulation showed that 80 percent of Americans would get the disease in a matter of months and 0.9 percent of them would die. Between 4 and 8 percent of everyone over the age of 70 would die. Overall, 2.2 million Americans would perish.
The researchers ran the numbers again, this time assuming decision-makers adopted soft “mitigation” strategies like the kinds we were seeing two weeks ago, including only symptomatic cases going into isolation and people practicing social distancing. In that scenario, the death rate would be cut in half, but the virus would still kill 1.1 million Americans.
The researchers crunched the numbers a third time with the tougher “suppression” strategies that are now going into effect ― school and restaurant closures, bans on public gatherings, work-from-home instructions, and so on. The death rate shrank dramatically. It peaked at a few thousand three weeks from now and then went down. Crisis averted.
But a vaccine won’t be available for at least 18 months, the scientists also cautioned. Constant vigilance will become our new way of life. That might mean additional periods of suppression, like lifting restrictions for a month and then reapplying them for two months in a repeating pattern. Our economy and society will be disrupted in profound and lasting ways.
It’s grim, but that’s the reality. And the tricky part is if we do everything right, if we heed the warnings and take all the right precautions, not much will happen, and it’ll feel like we overreacted. That just means suppression worked. That’s a pandemic for ya.
So get ready to get cozy at home, or what the Danish in their snowy country call hygge (pronounced hoo-guh), treating the extra time inside as an opportunity instead of a hardship. That will be difficult for some and near impossible for others. Kids out of school and workers out of jobs are serious problems. The situation is unprecedented, and unknowns abound. If it’s any consolation, all levels of leadership, from the U.S. Senate to Santa Barbara City Hall, are working at their version of warp speed to give some relief.
Local resources for employees and small business owners can be found here. Ideas for weathering the crisis and the Independent’s nonstop coronavirus news coverage are here. If the news is too much, stress-reduction suggestions are available. And the latest information from Santa Barbara’s experts is always on the county’s Public Health Department website.
Most importantly, let’s remember to be patient and gentle with each other. Nerves are frayed, and tempers are short. These are extraordinary times. Being cooped up doesn’t help.
For the best techniques on how to stay sane, talk to indoor cats. They’re the masters of self-isolation. I’ve tried with mine, but no luck so far. They yammer a lot but never get to the point. In fact, they won’t shut up.