Rolling the Dice

It is very hard to know what the right answer is these days when it comes to pandemic safety.

Government data carries lots of caveats, but roughly 1 in 100 reported cases still lead to death1 E.g. LA County reports 1017 new cases and 14 new deaths today, 3,476,928 new cases and 33,889 deaths since the beginning.. The majority of people I know have become ill with COVID-19 at least once, but most recent infections have been relatively mild with few long-term consequences2That said, I know people who have had awful symptoms that go on for months..

So what – if any – precautions are still warranted for a reasonably healthy adult?

Two weeks ago I went on a work trip to Chicago. I wore an N95 mask everywhere I could: in the airport, on the plane, in the taxi, on the crowded trade show floor, and in private meetings with vendors. I even wore an N95 mask to the cocktail hours!3I had to forego the cocktails, obviously. Guess how many other attendees were likewise adorned? By my count, no more than 1 in 500. At a convention for cleaning industry professionals.

It was awkward and uncomfortable to be masked throughout the week, but it was possible. Where it was not possible was at the group dinners. I had something resembling a panic attack when I entered this room, awash in the noise of hundreds of humans packed in like sardines in a can:

A large, empty steakhouse dining room with tables packed closely together

For the sake of propriety I endured the dinner and enjoyed good food, good wine, and good conversation. I flew home on a Thursday with plans to fly right back out again on Saturday for vacation in London.

On Friday I got the email that the person sitting next to me at the dinner had tested positive. Despite all my best efforts to stay safe, the dinner and social niceties did me in. So much for that trip to London! Now I get to stay home and quarantine instead.

Except, of course, that’s not true. While the CDC offers tepid and widely ignored recommendations, there are no longer any formal requirements for travel: no need for vaccination, testing, tracing, quarantine, or masking. No more government-sponsored sick time. Far fewer flexible rebooking options by airlines and hotels. Even the free vaccines are going away at the end of the year!4Pfizer plans to start charging $120 per dose in 2023.

So what is a concerned individual to do? What is the right course of action for someone who believes we live in a society and should take care of each other? Luckily, I did not get COVID (this time) and did not have to make that decision. But in the airport, waiting for our flight to London, an older couple sat down near us with coughs and sniffles. Then they pulled out COVID rapid tests and listened loudly to the audio instructions while fumbling with the packaging. In the airport. While waiting to board the flight. Surrounded by other travelers.

I know public health policy is hard. I know public health communication is hard. I know everyone is tired of this, and the politics are fraught. I know Joe Biden says the pandemic is over and we now live with endemic COVID. And I can see that for most people, the new normal is just the old normal. But it is hard to believe that this is the best approach, that we individually and collectively are doing the right thing to properly balance risks and make a just, equitable society.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how things go in London. Maybe the UK has a better approach.