Long Story Short: COVID-19 roundup
Like you, I’ve been reading, listening, and thinking about COVID-19 daily. We’ve all witnessed countless commentaries, news stories, press conferences, and social media posts. Over the course of one week on the national and regional front pages of the Buffalo News, forty-nine stories were related to COVID-19, while just seven covered everything else. This week, I share a sundry assortment of observations, information, and ruminations that have been rattling around in my head.
If you had only known!
Who could have predicted that, by mid-March, much of the country would be conducting business via the online meeting app, Zoom? If you possessed a crystal ball, you might have foreseen a world where every meeting, not to mention many TV shows and family gatherings, would look like the opening credits of the Brady Bunch.
You could have made a bundle investing in Zoom stock. Then again, maybe you did.
In that case, if you had only known! Who could have predicted that Zoom stock would take a serious tumble in late March, as security flaws in the popular app drew a backlash from politicians and regulators? Who knew Zoom-bombing would become a thing, as uninvited guests crashed meetings, sometimes stealing corporate proprietary material or employee files? Who could have imagined that Zoom would provide another golden opportunity for malicious mischief, such as when a graduate student presenting his dissertation was preempted by a pornographic image and racial slur? Last Monday, the YMCA of Buffalo Niagara announced that their live family story time was hacked, with “inappropriate language and vulgar content.”
If all that wasn’t enough, word got out that New York's top prosecutor is looking into allegations that Zoom is sharing personal data with outside companies including Facebook, without properly informing customers. As a result, the company’s stock has been zooming downward.
Advice from experts to Zoom users: make sure everyone in the group is using updated software, and don’t publicly announce planned meetings.
Here’s some investment advice that’s likely to pay off in less than a year. Buy stock associated with infant necessities: disposable diapers, baby formula, cribs, that sort of thing. Why? Nine months after the Blizzard of ’77, there was a baby boom. At the time, Catholic Health, which runs Mercy Hospital, estimated that there would be as much as a thirty percent increase in births that year. The infamous snowstorm only lasted a week and was confined to Western New York. Imagine what might happen with people cooped up for several weeks—even months—all across the United States?
Get ready for a population explosion late this year.
The great mask debate
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe we should be wearing surgical masks when we go out in public and those who don’t. After reexamining the issue, the World Health Organization (WHO)—which represents 178 countries—recently doubled down on its advice that, “If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.” The US Center for Disease Control (CDC), however, revised its recommendation as of Friday, April 3. It now recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” The CDC emphasizes, “The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.” (Both the CDC and WHO agree on this last point.)
Here are the principal pro and cons for mask wearing:
Pro 1. Masks can stop infected people from spreading the virus, even before they are symptomatic; 2. They help prevent wearers from touching their face with infected hands, which is one way the virus is spread.
Con 1. Surgical and homemade masks don’t stop the COVID-19 virus and wearing one might give people a false sense of security; 2. Using masks improperly might be worse than not using them at all.
If you do wear masks, the WHO says you need to learn how to use and dispose of them properly. It’s not as simple as you might think. Here are its guidelines:
•Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
•Cover mouth and nose with mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.
•Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
•Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single-use masks.
•To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
As for myself, I’m not going to take surgical masks away from health professionals who are in some cases being forced to reuse them due to limited availability. An Amherst pediatrician is sewing her own and Kaleida Health says it’s getting desperate for masks. There’s scant research on the effectiveness and safety of homemade masks, so each of us must consider the pros and cons carefully and decide for ourselves. Let the online bickering resume.
Experts and conspiracy
Speaking of social media, as hard as it is to believe, some otherwise perfectly intelligent people are demonstrating a willingness to buy into wacky conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19.
Experts theorize that conspiracy theories are a method of organizing and understanding frightening random events, which help exert a sense of control over unpredictable, complex systems. One prolific local Facebook “activist” suggests that the virus targets enemy foreign leaders, while US leaders aren’t getting it. The mind reels. Whether it’s the claim that COVID-19 is a deep state hoax cooked up by Democrats, or that it was created in a lab and accidently released, or it’s designed to force mass vaccinations on the public, conspiracy theories rarely hold up to scrutiny.
An international team of scientists examined COVID-19 on a genetic level, and determined that the virus is not manmade. The team has two likely explanations as to how it crossed over to humans, much like earlier viruses such as SARS. The thing is, scientists have been saying this sort of pandemic was going to happen for decades. Now that it has, why is it so hard to believe and why do people turn from reality to wild explanations?
The boy who cried wolf
President Trump has spent more than three years convincing the public that it cannot trust the “lying” media. And he’s largely succeeded. Many people on both ends of the political spectrum are deeply suspicious of mainstream news sources. Now we’re in a national crisis, and the President wants people to follow reliable advice, the kind disseminated by the mainstream media. Instead, many people turn to Facebook, Twitter, and shady websites, loaded with inaccurate information and fake cures.
As a group, real journalists are highly dedicated professionals. It’s particularly tragic that much of the public has lost faith in qualified journalists at a time when knowing the facts is a matter of life and death. The guy in the White House who bemoaned the “lying” media would now like you to follow reliably reported advice. But he’s done his work too well; now, people seek “alternative” facts.
Not fun in the summertime
You often hear that COVID-19 will fade with the warmer weather. Unfortunately, says Marc Lipsitch, Professor of Epidemiology and Director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, that’s not necessarily true. Other experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, admit they just don’t know.
Early last week, Buffalo had some unseasonably warm and sunny weather. I stepped onto my porch one balmy afternoon and took in the scene down my street. People were walking, bike-riding, skateboarding, playing driveway basketball, and engaging in a number of other activities. That’s when it occurred to me how fortunate it is that the virus struck in late winter. Because once the warm weather hits, after being cooped up for weeks, the public may not be willing to stay inside. Will the virus spread even faster when we hit summer, or will it die out? No one knows, but a week after our warm weather, the rate of New York City infections dramatically increased. That may be a coincidence.
A strong hint that the public will not remain confined when the weather breaks can be found in the St. Catherine’s Ontario newspaper, The Standard. One resident who drove by Niagara Falls was reported as being “flabbergasted” at seeing full parking lots and crowds gathered at the cataracts. Clifton Hill and other Canadian Falls attractions are closed, but the water keeps on falling and people keep on coming. And it’s not even summer.
Touching your face
Regular readers of LSS know I love data. I was listening to NPR recently when an expert said that people touch their face around 1000 times a day! It’s true we bring our fingers to our faces more than most of us realize, but 1000 seemed like a lot. So, I did some research.
The first article I read came from Healthline, with the title, You Probably Touch Your Face 16 Times an Hour: Here’s How to Stop. As the heading suggests, the article states that “Studies have found that people touch their faces more than sixteen times in an hour.” I did the math. Even if you continue digital face fondling all night long, that’s 384 touches, way short of 1000.
Next came Face touching: a frequent habit that has implications for hand hygiene, on PubMed.gov. These researchers did a study and determined, “On average, each of the twenty-six observed students touched their face twenty-three times per hour.” That’s still only 552 touches if you face-fondle twenty-four-hours a day! I needed a tiebreaker.
The Hill had a story whose title seemed to suggest it had the answer: How often do you touch your face—and does that increase your risk for coronavirus? “On average, they touched their faces 15.7 times per hour,” says the study they quoted: totaling 372 touches, which was close to the first study, but no cigar. Live Science quoted a major study that “found that people touched their faces an average of 3.6 times per hour.” That’s only 86.4 times over twenty-four hours, far from the other studies, and light years from 1000. Exasperated, I turned to what is usually a good source of reliable information, Wired: twenty-three times per hour, for 552.
Not one of the sources approached the 1000 facial touches cited by the NPR expert, and no two even agreed. What should you make of this? Well you touch your face a lot; that’s for sure. The other thing that’s certain—and you know this if you have tried—it’s really hard to stop.
Maybe you’ve seen that YouTube video, created by Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen, a family physician in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in which he demonstrates an elaborate process for disinfecting groceries after shopping. It was sent to me recently by a well-meaning friend, and it has almost twenty-four-million views.
Problem is, it’s largely hype, though at least it’s harmless hype. An article in Men’s Health consults with Chrysan Cronin, DrPH, MPH, a professor of public health at Muhlenberg College, who teaches Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Occupational and Environmental Health and says, "There is no evidence that suggests that the virus has been or can be transmitted from groceries. The probability of this is extremely low." According to the FDA and CDC: “Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Even former Congressman Chris Collins has a connection to COVID-19. A federal judge moved back his prison surrender date by two months, after his attorneys argued that health issues and age put him at high risk of death should he contract the coronavirus. Social distancing is notably tricky in prison.
Collins was originally sentenced to report to a penitentiary on March 17, but the slow-acting Bureau of Prisons had not decided which one he would be assigned to, and his check-in was delayed to April 21. With this recent ruling, the date has again been pushed back to June 23, which, ironically, is the day voters will go to the polls in a special election to replace him.
There are ample arguments for reducing prison populations in the United States, which incarcerates a greater share of its population than any other nation in the world. Governor Andrew Cuomo is under pressure to release prisoners during this pandemic.
Numerous studies demonstrate that people of color are sentenced to more frequent and severe prison terms than white populations for the same crimes. It's not surprising that Collins gets to delay a relatively light sentence for his white collar crimes.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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