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Losing a whole year

Started: 2021-03-06 21:19:15

Submitted: 2021-03-07 00:17:35

Visibility: World-readable

Looking back on a lost year during the COVID-19 pandemic

One year ago today was my first day working remotely as the COVID-19 pandemic overtook Seattle and the city's tech employers strongly encouraged remote work. The talk was about "bending the curve" for a couple of weeks, and then we could return to normal. Every company I'd ever given my email address to started sending out "covid-19 updates" every couple of days, as if I cared what they were doing to respond to the pandemic, at a time when we had very few answers and yet we were supposed to come up with a coherent response.

I didn't really believe that we were going to be able to go back to normal in a couple of weeks, because the only two places that were ahead of us in the pandemic — Wuhan and northern Italy — had endured weeks or months of harsh lock-down and were only barely able to bend the curve back down to a point where it was ok to look outside one's own home. The only hope I saw on the horizon was a vaccine, which (I was told, by hopefully-reliable sources on Twitter) was twelve or eighteen months out.

Pandemic board with Seattle about to outbreak
Pandemic board with Seattle about to outbreak

One year into the pandemic, I guess I can say I was right about the trajectory of the virus through the world. The only thing that really surprised me was, in March, when people in Seattle and San Francisco actually stayed in their houses and avoided transmitting the virus and successfully bent the curve. But containment was never a viable strategy for the United States, so we were never going to go back to normal after two weeks. The best we could do — the best we ended up doing — was an endless cycle of re-open and re-close as we tried (badly) to adjust lockdown restrictions to target some acceptable level of infections and deaths.

Crochet coronavirus
Crochet coronavirus

The biggest thing that pissed me off during the pandemic was the muddled public health messaging, as policy-makers tried to game out what to tell us based on how they thought we would respond, rather than telling us what they really knew. This led us to completely-avoidable flip-flopping on masks (first masks were bad because reasons, then masks were good all of the sudden), and now on whether it's safe to do things after being vaccinated. We can't expect people to stay locked up and socially isolated for ever; the better approach is harm reduction: give people the best information so they can make their own choices based on a nuanced risk assessment. (Don't have a dinner party with 50 unvaccinated people, but maybe 5 vaccinated people is fine.)

The next biggest thing that bothers me about public health messaging is a profound inability to communicate when things are probably true but we don't have great evidence for them yet, versus waiting for the best double-blind peer-reviewed studies to prove things before public health authorities are willing to say anything. This leads to weird news reports where scientists say things like "we don't have evidence whether the vaccine prevents transmission of COVID-19", which gets reported by credulous journalists as "Vaccines don't prevent transmission, everybody panic!" when the truth is more like "hey we're fairly confident the vaccine will prevent transmission, especially by asymptomatic people, because that's usually the case with this sort of thing, but we're looking for more evidence of that now. So now is not the time to go kissing strangers but maybe that small dinner party with your vaccinated friends is ok."

Approaching the east portal of the Snoqualmie Tunnel
Approaching the east portal of the Snoqualmie Tunnel

I first saw the light at the end of the tunnel in December, when the first vaccine was approved for emergency use in the United States. Three months later, case counts have dropped far enough that we're well below the winter peak, and there's some evidence the vaccine is doing what it's supposed to do. My parents are both vaccinated, and my kids are starting school in person this month. Now the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to resolve into an actual exit: I can see the arch of the roof and the square sides and bottom. It's still a ways off in the distance, but there's a good chance I'll be able to get the vaccine myself in the next couple of months and then I can go back to museums and restaurants and get on planes as we all try to figure out what the new normal will be.