– Ben Martens


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.

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.

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.

COVID-19: Part 9 – The Awakening

On Friday afternoon, Governor Inslee extended the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order through May 31, but more interestingly, he released the guidelines for how things will be opened back up. There are multiple phases of opening and there will be at least 3 weeks between each phase to ensure that we have time to measure the impact of the changes. Along the way, other states are going to be pushing to open back up much more quickly so we’ll have data about how well (or not) that goes.

It sounds like Phase 1 could start in a couple weeks. That one is only a mild increase from what we currently have, but as an elder at our church, I’m specifically interested in the allowance for drive-in services. I’m also the resident AV geek, so that means I need to come up with a tech solution if we go that route. It will take until Phase 3 for us to start having bigger church services, although even then, we’d need to have a couple of them to fit within the limits.

Phase 2 is looking pretty good right now… it will be really nice to sit on enjoy a small barbeque with friends or family this summer! At that point I think we can let Elijah play outside with friends more too. Schools are notably absent from the plan and it’s hard for me to believe we’ll be all the way through Phase 4 by September, but we can figure that out later.

There are an increasing number of people deciding they are done with the lockdown. I hope that some of them will see this list and realize that they need to dial it back a little. (Never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to ignorance. – Hanlon’s Razor) As for me and my family, we will continue to keep any contact outside our house to an absolute minimum. Why? The government told us to stay home, and the Bible is very clear on the role of government for a Christian:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-2)

So unless the government starts forcing me to do things counter to the Bible, I need to follow their rules, and in our state right now, those rules are telling me to stay home. I can disagree with the rules, but that doesn’t mean I can disobey them. I can vote to change the rules or elect new leaders, but I can’t ignore them.

We can do this. Together.

COVID-19: Part 8

We made it through day 50 of the lockdown! Most places in the US seem to have seen their peak hospital utilization. Daily infection rates have flattened out so at least things aren’t getting exponentially worse. Our efforts are working. However, our fight is far from cheap. The economy is struggling to deal with this, unemployment is skyrocketing, and people are antsy to gather in groups again.

Your reading assignment for today is an excellent post by Bill Gates. He has devoted his life to global health issues so it’s extremely interesting to get his take on the situation. If you only have time to read one post, read his!

For my own feeble analysis, let’s start by looking at the IHME models. As we move into the long recovery period, I find this to be a great source of information. They do a good job of showing how the current load relates to the total availability of hospital resources, how the speed of recovery is uncertain and at one point we might get to a day when nobody dies from the virus in the state. I took their data normalized it by state population and then calculated the predicted total deaths per 100,000 people based on the average output of the IHME models. I think this helps to show how various states reacted to the virus and how well their efforts to slow the virus are working. I picked the top 10 states along with a few others where some of you live.

LocationMean Deaths Per 100,000
New York119.4
New Jersey79.5
Rhode Island57.7
North Dakota46.7
District of Columbia32.4

Some states have a harder time containing this than others. Most people are spread out in Montana so a lockdown probably doesn’t need to be very severe. New York City is much denser so they need an extreme lockdown to contain the spread. And then there’s the question of how many deaths the lockdown itself causes. 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. There’s no vaccine or treatment, and now the WHO is evening questioning whether it’s possible to build up an immunity. 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.

The only way this works is if everyone participates in following the guidance provided by your local government. Doing otherwise is selfish. Stay home. Stay healthy. We can do this if we do it together.

If your government says it’s ok to start easing up on the lockdown, then use your best judgement. I know it’s going to be a long time before the three of us feel comfortable in a crowd again. I’m starting to have dreams at night where the basic premise is that I realize I’m in a crowd and regardless of how I got there, I don’t know how to extricate myself. I’m guessing I’m not alone in those kind of thoughts. Thankfully our management has already said that we will not be among the first to return to the office, and even when it is an option, we’ll all be able to keep working from home as long as we want to. I don’t expect a mad rush to fill up the office spaces again.

It has been an interesting time to be a husband and a parent too. Other than getting food, we have had almost zero contact with anyone outside our house and that’s our continued plan until the lockdown restrictions are eased. While being home together is a chance for us to bond and grow stronger as a unit, we’re very eager to have parks and hiking trails open again so we can get out a bit more. More and more trails will be snow-free as the year warms up so that will spread out the hikers and I’m confident I can find trails with low crowds on them.

Little League thinks they’re going to resume practices on May 11 and June 1. I find it highly unlikely that they’ll be allowed to operate on that schedule. On the surface that feels like a great activity since it’s outside and fairly spread out, but if you’ve ever walked through the fields on a Saturday, you know it’s a huge event. Six fields with ~12 kids each plus coaches, families, umpires, and concession booth workers add up to a big crowd in a tiny space. We opted to skip this year and use our money as a credit toward next year. I also expect a fair amount of other families will be opting out so it will be interesting to see hear if they have to combine teams or anything like that.

In the face of uncertainty, we press on knowing that God has this under control and even though we are being tested, we won’t be pushed beyond what we can bear.

James 1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

COVID-19: Part 7

I’ve been working from home for over a month now and schools have been closed almost as long. Let’s start of with great news: IT IS WORKING. While there are hot spots where the hospitals are overrun (e.g. New York and New Jersey) the curves are starting to flatten and in some states we’re even seeing the total number of cases decrease. Washington was one of the first states to notice the outbreak and we’re leading the charge on the downslope too. It looks like we hit peek hospital usage around April 5.

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. My new favorite data site (in addition to this one) is Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation site. Their data can be viewed by lots of different areas and it shows how counts are increasing and decreasing relative to the available ICU and standard hospital beds. It also does a good job of describing the uncertainty in the forecast models. But it generally looks like by early to mid-May, states might see their first days of no deaths from the virus.

So we can crank up the baseball season? Nope, at least not with crowds attending. Those models assume that everyone stays in lockdown. At this point, there’s nothing to stop this from starting up all over again. Until we have tests that work very soon after you get infected, give quick answers, are cheap to purchase and can be manufactured by the millions/billions, we will be keeping some form of restrictions. If a vaccine gets developed in 18 months, it will be the fastest vaccine ever completed. Then we have to manufacture lots of the vaccine, get it to everyone, etc. And remember we’re only talking about the first world here. What about the third world countries where staying home and not working means that you and your family starve?

Washington leaders are talking to various sectors of the economy about what it might look like to relax restrictions so those talks are starting to filter out to the public through word of mouth. Obviously these are early talks transmitted by word of mouth so the reliability is low, but I’ve heard from multiple people that it’s possible we won’t be eating together in a restaurant for another year.

If you doubt the legitimacy of that, look at some summer events like the Marymoor beer festival. That’s postponed indefinitely. And check out the news from Microsoft saying they have converted every in-person event/conference into an online-only event through July 2021 with a note that they might push beyond that. That’s not a typo. 2021.

Will we be working from home that long? Will kids be schooling from home in the fall? My gut says no, but even if schools re-open in the fall, they’re going to need some very strict measures in place. In some schools you have to walk through a metal detector to get in, but maybe now you’ll also need to be tested or at least have your temperature checked. Life is not going to be “normal” for a long time.

Luckily for all of us, this is an election year. So science and math will get politicized and ripped apart by both sides until it’s only very loosely related to the original evidence. We’ll get to hear both sides screaming at each other about how they did or didn’t do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Yay. I’m sure that will be helpful.

Maybe I’m way off base, but as we start to start coming down from the peak, I hope they start getting the message out to the public about what the changes will look like. It’s good for people to get excited and see that their efforts are working, but I do think there are a lot of misconceptions about how this is going to play out.

Until we know more, stay home. Don’t have contact with anyone other than people you live with. The only reason the numbers didn’t immediately stop after 2 weeks of lock down is because people are still having contact. Obviously there are some essential workers and we all need to get food, but there is plenty of unnecessary contact still happening. Stay home. Let’s end this together and then we can figure out how to keep it from flaring up again.

Isaiah 43:1-2

But now this is what the Lord says,
    the Lord who created you, O Jacob,
    the Lord who formed you, O Israel.
    Do not be afraid, because I have redeemed you.
    I have called you by name. You are mine.
When you cross through the waters, I will be with you.
    When you cross the rivers, they will not sweep you away.
    When you walk through fire, you will not be burned,
    and the flame will not set you on fire.

COVID-19: Part 6

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,

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: 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.”