Monday, July 27, 2020

Thoughts on the Pandemic from an Engineer and Teacher

A slightly-shortened version of this article appeared as a board of contributors article in the Sunday 26 July 2020 Waco Tribune-Herald newspaper.


There's been talk about Sweden's experience fighting the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic.  Sweden used less restrictive quarantine measures and saw higher rates of infections.  I have seen this result argued both ways.  But none of those making claims consider the timing.

It's not just the measures taken,  it's also the timing of when those measures start relative to the viral "invasion".  Sweden was aware of the problem,  and started its measures early in the viral invasion process. 

Starting early enough has a tremendous effect at "flattening the curve".  The not-so-strict nature of Sweden's measures show up in the slightly-higher infection and death curves relative to its neighbors,  who took stricter measures,  but also started early. And that's the true comparison.

That is not "sound-bite simple",  but it is just not very hard to understand.

New York state on the other hand got started later in the infection process with its very strict measures.  The lateness of the start is why their measures were just barely effective,  and the curves for infections and deaths very nearly swamped their capabilities to handle it. 

So why did New York get started so late?  Because at that time,  the federal government as embodied by the Trump administration was still decrying this as a Democrat hoax,  and still claiming it was no worse than any other flu.  You have all seen the video footage of Mr. Trump and others saying those things,  along about February and March. 

These lies (not just "mixed signals",  but out-and-out lies,  if one is truly honest about it) coming from the White House meant that New York,  California,  and Washington state got started too late,  in their confusion over guidance.  So their infection rate and death rate curves all spiked up very high. 

Eventually,  the CDC experts got heard,  and after too long a delay,  the "Trumpsters" in the White House finally admitted this disease was a real problem.  Yet the far-right/alt-right component of their political base is still even today circulating lies and conspiracy theories about this virus,  including deliberately stirring up erroneous claims of "my right not to wear a mask is absolute". 

And it is the resulting misbehavior by individual citizens,  of deliberately not wearing masks to prevent disease transmission (traceable to that third-to-a-half of the population that still likes Trump no matter what),  which has caused the disastrous resurgence of the disease across the south and southwest of the US. 

The claim of an absolute right not to wear a mask is based on a premise that is demonstrably false,  so the conclusion is false as well.  It is based on the notion that the mask is worn to protect the wearer from infection,  and that his choice does not affect anyone else. 

That is just dead wrong scientifically!  The mask protects those around the wearer from being infected by the wearer,  which is important,  because most of those spreading the disease do not know they have it.  Thus the choice not to wear a mask can have life-threatening consequences for all in the vicinity.  It is simply not allowed legally,  to threaten the lives of others,  in other circumstances;  this is no different.

Want proof of the disease-spreading connection to all the lies that came from the far-right/alt-right?  Most of the states seeing the worst resurgence are so-called "red" states.  As Gomer Pyle would say,  "Surprise,  surprise!"  And we have recently seen where loyal Trump-supporting governors are at odds with the mayors in their own states,  over those governors' refusal to order mask-wearing. 

It is wrong to pitch this politically as a stark binary choice (close down to save lives,  or open up to save the economy),  because we have learned a lot since this pandemic started.  There is no reason most businesses and other activities cannot reopen,  if disease transmission can be prevented!  But it usually requires changes in HOW they do whatever it is they do,  to accomplish that. 

The only tools we have to employ are masks,  the 6-foot rule,  gloves,  disinfection in multiple forms,  and for the more extreme cases,  PPE like face shields and suits.  There are some businesses or activities that cannot effectively limit disease transmission:  those must remain closed.  And there's no way around that ugly little fact of life!

Schools as we have known them may be one such that have to stay closed.  It's not the classrooms,  those can be "fixed" by limiting class sizes to about a third of what we have traditionally used,  in order to have the room to space everybody out 6 to 8 feet in all directions. 

The school boards are going to balk at doing this because of the money:  3 times the teachers and a lot of portable buildings needing HVAC will cost a lot. So,  at local election time,  you have to remember who valued lives over money,  and who valued money over lives. It's a moral choice.

Up to about 6th grade,  if you can get them inside their classrooms instead of congregating in the schoolyard before school starts (and after it ends),  you can stop disease transmission between kids.  School buses are another bad problem,  though,  and also very expensive to solve.  To space out where the kids sit on the bus,  you will need a whole lot more buses and drivers.  Once again,  this is very expensive to actually do.

But the school lunchroom will be very difficult to change.  You have to space-out all the tables,  the chairs around those tables,  and all the line-standers.  You simply cannot have the giant dense crowds in the lunchroom,  that have been so traditional up to now!  It'll cost!  And lunch hour won't be short anymore.  Which means you will have fewer teachers around to police it.  They'll be teaching classes.

So also it will be expensive to stop disease transmission during recess,  sports,  and extracurricular activities.  It can be done,  but you must pay to do it!  Locker rooms and stadium seating are the hardest to remedy.  But band halls and science labs are problems as well.

From about 7th grade on up,  the students don't stay in the same classroom all day anymore.  The halls are very densely crowded shoulder-to-shoulder every 45 minutes or so,  as they change from class to class.  That simply cannot be allowed,  if disease transmission is to be prevented!  Period! 

I don't have the answer to that one,  but it is very clear indeed that we need a whole new way of conducting and scheduling our junior high and high school classes.  That change-classes crowded-hallway picture just cannot be allowed! If you cannot change that,  best to stay closed!

With the start of school only a few weeks away,  I do not see how all this can be adequately addressed.  Yet it must be,  as soon as possible.  Why?  Because distance learning is a poor substitute for interactive in-classroom learning.  It is no substitute at all,  for folks with poor access to the internet,  which is way too widespread in this country.

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