Three years ago, our family went into lockdown, not knowing what COVID would mean for the future. After three years, life does seem to be returning more to normal. Through a combination of vaccines, immunity from previous infections, and better treatment options, the death rate is falling. The media is tired of talking about it, and I’ve had multiple people tell me that COVID is over.
While things are certainly better than they were, it’s still killing ~2500 people per week in the US. That’s an improvement from where we were, and it has been holding steady in that range for a few months. But even at that rate, it is still the 7th biggest killer in the US ahead of diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Higher vaccination rates, more home testing, and isolating when sick could save around 100,000 lives per year. How many lives could we save if people know that COVID is still killing this many people? Would they care?
We had a chance at getting people to care when there was a personal threat, but how do we get people to make sacrifices to help someone else? This challenge isn’t unique to COVID. With other global threats like our changing climate, we have an idea of which activities are making things worse, but how do we get people to make a financial or lifestyle change for results that won’t show up for a few decades? The real solutions seem to work around the need for individuals to make sacrifices, but will we find something like that for COVID?
Long term, I think we solve these types of problems by educating the next generation to do a better job of consuming information. I’ve been very happy to see Elijah’s school teaching how to differentiate facts from opinions, look for supporting evidence, and identify experts. A population with those kinds of habits would hopefully have a better response to situations like this in the future.
For now, we have to work with the tools at our disposal. The good news is that compared to the original lockdown, these tools are pretty easy to use:
If you haven’t gotten the updated vaccine shot that came out last fall, get it.
If you are sick, take a COVID test every couple days until you’re better. You get 8 free per month with most insurance plans.
If you get COVID, follow the guidelines and isolate.
For a mix of social and scientific reasons, it looks like COVID is here to stay, and while we don’t need to stay locked up in our houses, we also can’t ignore the continued impacts.
We held out for about two years but our whole family finally caught COVID. We suspect that Elijah caught it at school and then, since we weren’t willing to lock him in his room at home for a few days, Tyla and I caught it too. We’ve taken so many at-home COVID tests over the months since they came out that it was odd to finally see positive tests.
We’re in a weird situation now: COVID is still a leading cause of death in the United States, but it feels like we’ve lost track of it. Self-testing is great, but there doesn’t seem to be much emphasis on self-reporting a positive test. That makes it difficult to assess the risk level of going out. Hospitalization and death rates in our county have been increasing and that risk measure should be consistent, but what about all the other effects of COVID? How do I measure those risks if I don’t know how many people are currently infected?
There’s also a myth that getting COVID gives you super-immunity. Research shows that the vaccine gives you better immunity than catching COVID. Both wear off over time, and the combination of both is still the best, but this is an example of some basic information that we’re failing to spread in the community.
This won’t be the last time we catch it, but hopefully with our natural immunity, upcoming booster shots, masking in stores, and avoiding big crowds, we’ll be able to avoid it for quite a while. This isn’t something any of us are eager to go through again.
Yesterday marked two years from the semi-arbitrary date that I picked to be the start of COVID for our family. As much as I don’t want to write another COVID post, I feel like it’s good to keep documenting.
On Friday, Washington state lifted the mask mandate. Voluntary mask wearing was still nearly 100% in most stores over the weekend, but we’ll see how long that lasts. Over 80% of our county (12th largest in the country) has been vaccinated and if you cut it down to people 5 years and older, 92.5% have received at least one dose. This is awesome progress!
At work, campus is opening up again. This whole time I’ve wondered if everyone would slowly filter back into the office and give up on remote work, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. I don’t think I should share numbers, but a much larger percentage of people than I expected are working remotely at least part of the time. And even more encouraging is that a number of senior managers are moving to other parts of the country to work remotely full time. This really does feel like it is here to stay and I’ve officially given up my office at work.
Globally, the virus rages on. Countries are still setting new record highs of case counts and deaths. Vaccination rates are exceptionally low in most of Africa and other poorer countries. The vibe in America seems to be “yay it’s over!” but we can’t let up on the accelerator. There’s a lot of work to be done.
I also have a tough time believing the “yay it’s over” vibe. It does look like a lull in the storm, but as vaccinations wear off and we hit the end of summer, I don’t see anything preventing us from getting another spike in cases and/or another strain of the virus. We’re going to be living with this for a long time, but hopefully we’ll be able to use vaccines, masks, and social distancing to control the spread and kill as few people as possible.
It’s easy for me to spend my time looking ahead and wait for the next spike to come, but I’m trying to focus on enjoying the lull in the action and being thankful for it.
11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
We’re coming up on two years since the pandemic started for our family. Washington is one of the last states with a mask mandate, but that is now scheduled to end in a month in most situations and work is fully reopening campus in March. So let’s take a walk through some stats and see what’s going on.
The official mortality data for the United States is available for 2020 now. The number of deaths each year grows with the population, but last year was one of the biggest jumps we’ve ever seen. Life expectancy decreased 1.8 years from 2019 to 2020 (from 78.8 years to 77.0 years) which is the largest single year decrease in more than 75 years. COVID was the 3rd most common cause of death. (If you really want to dive into this data, check out the CDC WONDER tool and get lost in the flood.) Globally those numbers are even worse and continue to be bad in places without the healthcare system that we have in place.
There are currently about 2000 people/day dying of COVID. If we leveled out here, that would be 730,000 deaths per year which would have COVID at the top of the list with 2020’s numbers. But we should be able to do better than that since the numbers are still falling. If we can bottom out at our lowest death rate and stay there, that would be 90,000 deaths per year, but we’ve already lost around that many people this year to Omicron so 2022 will be pretty high up on that list even in the best case. As a society we are in the middle of deciding how high up that list we’re willing to go. The catch is that this line item is arguably the one that we could control the easiest.
We’re getting to the point with Omicron where we’ll start to be able to assess how much immunity it provides. The health community defines a reinfection as occurring within 90 days, and we’re about 90 days out from when Omicron hit. That data will provide a good idea of how well the new policy changes will work, at least until the next variant hits.
The general feeling is that we’re switching from a pandemic to an endemic. That feels a bit premature, but if we can loosen the restrictions for a while, maybe that’s healthy for the nation. But we need to be ready to put them all back in place if/when the next wave hits. Thankfully, vaccination rates are still climbing, but there are also people who aren’t getting boosted on time. My prayer continues to be that we can educate people so we don’t have to force behavior on them. There’s so much data available now to show how effective the vaccines are. In our county (the 12th largest in the country), you are 33x more likely to die from COVID in the last 30 days if you’re unvaccinated than if you’re vaccinated.
So we’re able to stop requiring masks to entire public places or vaccines to enter restaurants, but let’s watch the data and be ready to pull those tools back out when it’s time. Encourage everyone you know to get vaccinated and stay up to date with their booster shots. We’re probably going to be living with COVID forever, so vaccines will play a key role in us finding a new normal that doesn’t involve mandates.
As this drags on and everyone is seemingly at each others throats about what to do next, the future can seem hopeless and dim. A recent devotion reminded me to be “fiercely dependent” on God. He’s the only true source of comfort and peace. Everything else will fail but his love never will. He’s given us tools to fight the pandemic. So let’s use them and get on with the business of sharing the saving message of Jesus with the world. Imagine if we were as focused on spreading the gospel as we were with convincing people that we were right about politics…
Today is an exciting day for our family: Elijah is getting his first vaccine shot! We got on the list pretty quickly after it was announced but the wait times were a couple weeks everywhere I called. So three weeks from now he’ll get his second shot. Two weeks from then he’ll be fully vaccinated, and that will be the best (late) Christmas present for our whole family.
On a broader scale, it’s been over five months since my last post and the whole situation has gotten more and more frustrating. Now we’re in an argument about whether or not you can force someone to get a shot. Why is this even an argument? How did we get to a point where people are fighting against helping themselves and everyone around them by getting the shot? I pray that we quickly get to the point where science will outweigh politics, but I think we’re in for a very long haul and we might not have seen the worst of it yet both in terms of infections/deaths and in the economy.
So… woosah… I’m thankful that Elijah is able to get the vaccine now. Thank you to all the doctors, scientists, researchers, manufacturers, and government agencies that have joined forces around the globe to give us this life-saving option. Soon my family will be able to reassess the risks and figure out what things we can do that we weren’t doing before. We’ll be able to do that with much less risk of getting COVID ourselves or spreading it to the vulnerable population that we encounter.
P.S. Here are a few links I’ve found helpful lately:
We made it! Today marks the end of our family lockdown! As I mentioned last week, we kept our socializing minimized even past our completed vaccine date to help Elijah finish out the year without having to stay home for any symptoms. But today is his last day of school, we’re fully vaccinated, and summer awaits! We still have to figure out how to handle the summer since Elijah is unvaccinated but the risk levels look a lot different than they did last summer.
Virus activity in our area had another big burst while the rest of the country declined but it’s coming down now and the hospitalization rates are coming down too. I’m eagerly awaiting our first days without any deaths, but everything points to the vaccine being effective. I’m also eager to see the rest of the world get flooded with vaccines too so the global numbers can drop too.
My hope and prayer is that this is the last of my COVID-19 posts. To wrap up the series, I thought I’d list out positive changes that this ordeal has had in our personal lives.
The comic already says this one, but I hope that we can all continue wearing masks if we aren’t feeling well. I went into Home Depot the other day and noticed that there was no sign requiring masks anymore. I counted 70-80 people in the store (it was late in the evening) and only three people were not wearing a mask.
Curbside pickup is awesome! I love ordering online, tapping a button in an app when I arrive, and then having my order brought out to me.
Online meetings are very convenient. For example, our church council meetings typically happen at 6pm in the evenings. So I used to stick around at work for a few extra minutes, drive over to church, have the meeting, and then get home after Elijah is asleep or at the end of this bedtime routine. Now I just hop online for a bit, have the meeting, and I don’t give up the entire evening with my family. Keeping with the church theme, I’m excited for online small groups and Bible studies so we can skip rush hour traffic and make it easier to invite friends to join.
Why do I ever need to go into the office again? I have a better setup at home than I do at the office, and my team is hiring vigorously in Atlanta. By the time we are welcomed back to the office (currently set for September), I will have more people on my team outside of Redmond than local. So even if I go in, I still need to do everything remote. I’m not sure how we can say “being in the office is important” at the same time we say “creating an inclusive environment is important.” I’ll at least be taking advantage of the 50% work from home option, but the option of living farther away is very tempting.
At some point I started trying to intentionally plan a family adventure at least once a month. That meant going somewhere new, driving a little farther than we normally would, or doing something a little bigger than a normal Saturday trip.
As soon as the pandemic hit, I got more serious about setting a specific schedule for grocery shopping. We make a list throughout the week, and then I go Friday mornings at around 6:30am when the store is empty. It made me realize how much time I wasted with “oh I’ll just stop on the way home and grab something if we don’t have enough meals planned”.
My search for news that isn’t leading me towards an opinion has helped me easily identify any name-calling, bias, or rhetoric, even if it’s supporting my viewpoint. It has taught me a lot about my own writing and learning to speak without inflammatory language or virtue signaling. I have a long way to go on that journey but I want to consciously keep working on that.
I learned how to cut Elijah’s hair! The first few times were a little rough, but I think I’m finally getting the hang of it. It’s not flawless, but he loves me cutting his hair and I’m up for continuing to save $20/month.
The “life lessons” below overlap a bit with the list above but seemed like they deserved their own section:
It’s easier to keep your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time.
When two people are screaming at each other, the truth is probably in the middle… but that’s not always the case. If you’ve got a racist person screaming at someone else, the truth isn’t in the middle. The racist person is just wrong.
On the surface, some of the commandments seem pretty easy. For example, “You shall not murder.” Sure, I got that one. But the fifth command isn’t just telling us not to shiv someone, it’s telling us that we shouldn’t hurt or harm our neighbor. How do you do apply that when your mere presence might give them a fatal disease? In the fourth commandment we’re told to honor our government and others in authority. What’s the best way to honor them in complicated situations or when they disagree? And how do you make these decisions as the leader of an organization? I’m thankful that my salvation doesn’t depend on how well I keep the commandments, because there are a lot of times when I don’t even know which choice is better.
You know that one camping trip you had when it was cold and there was torrential rain the whole time? Now when you go camping and there is bad weather you laugh and say “Well at least it’s not as bad as that one time…” We may deal with worse things in life than this pandemic, but I have a feeling that COVID will be our “rainy camping trip” in a lot of situations.
Pastor used a song in his service a few weeks back that I’ve probably played 100 times since then. It talks about how we can feel like everything is crumbling around us, but Jesus isn’t just a happy thought that we use to ignore our troubles. He’s here. He’s powerful. He is worthy to stand before the Father and declare us righteous. The Father loves us. The Spirit is moving among us. The God of all creation is caring for us. We need to continually remind ourselves of this. So to end my last COVID post, here is Andrew Peterson singing “Is He Worthy”.
Today we get our second vaccine shot, so two weeks from now, we’ll be fully vaccinated! Since that gets us so close to the end of Elijah’s school year, we’ll just stretch our family lockdown a couple more weeks because if any of the three of us have symptoms that overlap with COVID, he can’t go to school. After this long in lockdown, a couple more voluntary weeks to help him finish out the school year doesn’t seem too painful. Plus, with the spike in cases going on around here right now, we’re not to eager to take our 95% immunity out for a test drive.
Besides, I think it’s going to take us a while to emerge back into civilization. Sometimes it feels like we’re stepping out of a bunker and blinking our eyes to adjust to the light while we field invitations to immediately jump into situations that we haven’t experienced for 14 months. Logically, I’m excited to remember what it’s like to take a walk without crossing to the other side of the street whenever I see someone coming. I’m excited to see friends and family again. I’m excited to worship in person again. I’m excited to shake hands with someone outside my household again. But emotionally? It’s a lot to deal with and it’s going to take time.
For my last post in this series on the final day of our family lockdown, I’m queuing up a big list of positive things from the pandemic. But I’ve also been thinking about how we, as a society, can learn from this experience. What an amazing time to be studying sociology, epidemiology, psychology, economics, data science or a host of other topics. This pandemic has generated material for thousands of PhD theses. Below are some of the things that I hope we’ll be able to do a better job at answering together as a civilization because many of them apply to a lot more situations than just COVID. COVID just threw them at us more rapidly than other forces do.
How many times can “official guidance” be changed before people ignore it completely?
How do we keep science and politics separate, or is it wrong to separate them?
How can the scientific community do a better job of communicating uncertainty in their findings without people pointing to the uncertainty as a reason to throw out the entire study?
How do we strike a balance between people’s right to not be hurt by you and your right to live your life? How do we measure the impact of those choices?
How do we convince people to make sacrifices when the benefits that aren’t easily observed on a personal level?
How do we get people to respect large data trends instead of their local observed experience, especially when exponential growth is in the mix?
How do we promote respect for experts while still leaving room for conflicting research?
How do we teach people to look at the raw information source before accepting the journalistic summary?
How can data models do a better job of taking into account the difference between what the government recommends and what people actually do, especially as that varies by area?
Not to make light of serious medical conditions, but do we have some kind of mass PTSD after all this time in lockdown?
I doubt there are answers to many of those questions, but there have to be improvements that can be made. And as I think about those questions, I also think back on all the positive content that popped up. The list is so long, but there are three quotes that stick out as I think about them now:
Adam Savage said that Jamie Hyneman had no inertia for changing his mind when presented with enough data to overturn his current understanding. What an amazing compliment! When I heard that, I immediately wondered how I would go about teaching that to Elijah. It’s an incredibly complicated problem because it gets into building an understanding of what data is valid and what it should take to overturn your current understanding. On a related note, a moderator of /r/changemyview said that one of the first things he likes to ask is “What would it take to change your mind?” Imagine if every discussion about a disagreement started with that question!
While researching the various presidential candidates, I found a page talking about their approaches to the pandemic. There were the obvious responses like “no lockdown” and “shut down the economy”, but another candidate didn’t support either one. Instead, they argued for devoting enormous and immediate energy into testing and regularly sharing consistent information. The idea was that most people aren’t going to knowingly run around infecting people or making choices to prolong the epidemic. I’m not saying that made this candidate worth voting for, but in a world where it seems like there are only two buckets of viewpoints, the response of “both answers are bad” really stuck with me. (I left the name out because it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this post, but because you’re probably wondering, it was Jo Jorgensen.)
I logged into a meeting at work a couple months ago and there was an employee who had just moved to the Redmond area from New Zealand. Somebody commented that life must feel pretty much the same because all the meetings still happen virtually. He replied, “Yeah, except you all do COVID a lot differently than we did.” I admit that I was clueless about what he meant so after the meeting I started reading. There were 26 deaths in New Zealand from COVID. That’s not a typo. Twenty six deaths in a country of 5.1 million people and almost all of those were before the end of April 2020. (If they experienced the US fatality to population ratio, they’d have 9200 deaths by now.) Wikipedia has a thorough listing of the timeline of their response, but after that initial total lockdown last March and April, they’ve been living a life generally unhindered by COVID including large concerts with 50,000 attendees. I’m really interested to circle back to this one after the dust settles and learn more about the pros and cons of their extreme response.
I’ve written all this almost looking back on the pandemic because that’s how it’s looking for my family. But globally? Daily infections are pretty close to the highest they’ve ever been. The stories coming out of Brazil and India are nightmarish. For example, in India, the number of people testing positive every day equals the population of Cleveland, OH. This virus is far from over and as the United States pulls out of it and has the luxury of wondering what it’s like to shake someone’s hand again, we can’t forget about the rest of the world.
Instead of a Bible verse this time, I’ll finish with a video from one of our churches in South Carolina. While this pandemic may have left us feeling crushed and isolated, this hymn is a good reminder that God is the one who can bring us all together again.
Bind us all as one together In your Church’s sacred fold, Weak and healthy, poor and wealthy, Sad and joyful, young and old. Is there want or pain or sorrow? Make us all the burden share. Are there spirits crushed and broken? Teach us, Lord, to soothe their care.
I couldn’t decide which comic to use so why not celebrate a little and use both.
WE GOT THE VACCINE! 402 days after our family lockdown began, Tyla and I had got pokes in the arm that will help us learn how to fight the virus. It was fairly easy to find a shot via covidwa.com and we only had to drive a few miles from our house. It’s not quite as fast as Neo learning kung fu, but cranking out a vaccine this quickly is still an amazing collaboration between researchers, tech providers, doctors, epidemiologists, politicians and average citizens.
Tyla and I will be fully vaccinated by June 1 which aligns pretty well with our plans to stay in lockdown until Elijah is out of school. It’s really tough when he gets sick during school so I think we can hang out at home for a couple additional weeks to help him out.
A quarter of our state is fully vaccinated, many countries are barely getting started, we don’t know how long it will last, and there are endless arguments still in play, but I want to take a moment and say WOOHOO! Thank you Lord!
Philippians 4:4-84 Rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Have you seen the flu stats this year? It turns out that masks, social distancing and 20 million more flu vaccines than last year are great ways to fight the flu. This is the lowest flu activity in 25 years. The stats are incredible. For example, over the last three years, there were an average of 177 pediatric deaths from influenza. This year? One.
The same number of tests were performed as in a normal year but only a tiny fraction of them are coming back positive so it’s not like they’re just getting reported as COVID instead. The CDC pages show the numbers by type of testing lab and each one tells the same story but I wanted to see the numbers all up so I pulled the raw data and made my own charts. The first chart shows the number of tests being run for each season (the series title is the year of the start of the season and each new season starts on week 40 of the year). Obviously the current series isn’t complete yet but up to this point, we’re running a comparable number of tests.
And of those tests, here are the counts of positive tests. I can’t figure out how to show the current season on the same chart as the others. The counts are so tiny compared to previous years.
There also aren’t nearly as many flu visits as normal this year either.
This is some feel good data! It’s fun to flip through these charts and see how much the flu season was stopped in it’s tracks while we fight back against COVID. If you want to dig through the data yourself, here are some links: source, source, source.
We’re more than a year into this so let’s check in on the progress. Locally in King County, we are thankfully way down from the peak after Christmas and levels are now around where they were in October. There’s a uptick in cases over the past couple weeks and if past trends are any indication, that usually means we’re heading for another peak. The trend we’re seeing here is being echoed in the rest of the world as well as cases are on the rise again.
The state has been relaxing restrictions over the past few weeks and the vaccine rollout is in full swing. Around 16% of the state is fully vaccinated with 28% having received their first dose. There are about 6 million adults in the state. Today 3 million are eligible and about two thirds of the eligible people have received their first dose. Over the next week, another 2 million will be eligible and on or before May 1, the final 1.2 million will be eligible. (source) If the current rate of vaccinations in our state stays the same, we’ll have about 3.5 million vaccinated by May 1. That’s a lot of data to swallow but the key question that comes out for me is how quickly should we be adding people to the list? If we go too slowly, we risk not keeping the pipeline full and wasting days and vaccines. If we go too quickly, we risk missing some of the most at-risk people who may have trouble getting to a vaccination site. But how many people of the people currently eligible are not planning to get the vaccine? Our current plan is to hop on the list as soon as we’re eligible and trust that the decision makers are doling these out fairly. I’m curious to see how long our wait will be when that happens.
It’s wonderful to see the vaccines going out much more quickly than planned. I pray that enough people get the vaccines and that the vaccines are effective enough to see a more permanent drop in numbers. Then we wait to see for how long they are effective.
The loosening restrictions and quick vaccine rollout has thrown me back into the world of figuring out how to adjust our own behavior. For a long time our personal guideline has been to reduce the amount of risk we put into the system. In the big picture, any contact outside your house increases risk and the more the risk rises, the more cases we have and the more people die. So we helped by keeping our risk input very low. If I catch it and take up a hospital bed, I want to know that it was because I was doing an approved activity and being as careful as I could. But now that a lot of the highest risk people are vaccinated, the math changes. It’s less critical if we have ten teenagers get sick than ten octogenarians. A lot organizations are putting a higher focus on hospitalization rates and indeed, those are looking pretty good around here, or at least we have some buffer capacity available.
And yet, we’re still hesitant to expand our bubble quickly. Regardless of whether we are exposed to COVID, increasing our contact with others means that we are increasing our risk for catching a cold, the flu, or other common sicknesses. If any of us have any sickness, Elijah can’t go to school. And if he gets any of those symptoms, it means that I have to drive him for his third COVID test. I’m not sure my dad heart can handle watching him get another brain tickle. So yes, we’ll start expanding out a bit and it’s great that we can technically invite vaccinated people into our home, but we’re still not going to be pushing the limits of the guidelines. Tyla and I will hopefully be finishing up our shots around the time that Elijah is out of school and then we can really evaluate stepping out of our bubble to socialize more. But we’ll figure out those details when we can see what the world looks like at that point. For this entire school year, Tyla and I have been almost totally isolated to give Elijah the best shot at a good school year. His school has done a great job following all the guidelines and fostering a positive attitude. We’re not going to give up now.
Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be overwhelmed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. Yes, I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41:10