Mobile testing in Long Beach

Pacific County public health nurse Lori Craig Ashley conducts a covid-19 test at the mobile testing station at the South Pacific County Administration Building.

The virus of time

A couple nights ago after an evening of binge watching, I asked myself, “Aren’t there better things you could be doing with your time?” I answered, sheepishly, “Of course.”

But maybe it’s OK to be escaping into dramas that take us out of our lives for a couple hours. Maybe binge watching is a good way to release the pent-up discomfort and uncertainty we’re feeling these days. And, by the way, what day is it anyway?

How long will we have to battle the virus? And why does time feel so different now? What are we waiting for exactly? If it’s a vaccine for covid-19, we’ll be here for a while. And if we do restart the economy and welcome second-home owners and tourists back, how will we keep ourselves safe without a vaccine?

These questions run through my mind in the wee hours. If I were more composed, more able to compartmentalize my feelings, I suppose I’d just say, “Great, I have more time to garden. I’ll teach my new dog old tricks.” Or even, “Where are those classics I’ve wanted to reread — Paradise Lost or Jude the Obscure?”

Time is a strangely foggy substance now; it runs like molasses during the day. But as we look back after the sun goes down, what did we really accomplish? It’s a bizarre list of not much: a dog walk, a nap, maybe a meal, a Zoom call. (Yes, I’m showing my unmitigated point of view as a single someone with no home schooling tasks and job to get to.)

This “virus of time,” as a good friend called it, has us all in its grip. Time is out of joint.

Time to open for business?

But will opening up our community cure it? Are we ready to sit down in restaurants together (maybe at a different spacing) or get that haircut we’ve been yearning for? It is time to get the clam shovels out to attack all those showings we’ve been walking past on the beach? It’s nice to think about, but the procedures for safe normalization are not yet in place.

The zigzag open up/stay closed recommendations from the White House have been anything but helpful. Take note: it’s a miracle, the virus will disappear; then it’s social distancing, stay home; then it’s liberate Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia; then when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp does just that (according to Time, even after Trump and Pence approved it: https://tinyurl.com/yb5szbf5), Kemp gets a presidential slap on the hand, tweety style.

What’s a country to do? I say put Trump back in the reality show box he emerged from and let’s listen to the epidemiologists and the governors who’ve proven to be leaders, our own Jay Inslee among them.

Fed and state officials respond

According to Mike Faulk, Washington state’s deputy director of communications, “Currently Gov. Inslee has extended the ‘stay home, stay healthy’ order through May 14th. At this point, the strategy for opening up some businesses is still being fleshed out. The governor has said that there are areas where the curve has not peaked [like Pacific County], so it’s not a one-size-fits-all.”

Faulk acknowledges that testing and transmission tracing will be key. “In terms of the testing, the governor has been talking about this a lot. We have the potential for significant lab capacity testing and tracing contacts, but there are a number of barriers. We’re still fighting to get the supplies we need.”

When asked about how contact tracing would work, Faulk says, “This will be carried out by a combination of state and local employees, and there will be members of the Washington National Guard involved. We’re hoping to have about 1,500 individuals in the statewide tracing team by mid-May. But it’s a goal, not a certainty.”

Michael Brewer, Sen. Patty Murray’s public press secretary, quotes Murray as saying, “Everyone wants us back to what we were six months ago — but it isn’t going to happen overnight. And as tough as it is, I don’t want us to be in a worse place in a month because we made the wrong decision now.”

Brewer indicates that the senator has made it clear that Congress must continue doing what’s necessary so that every community in the state has the tools and resources necessary, starting with ensuring that testing is “fast, free and everywhere.”

Then in the midst of the economic distress the virus is causing individuals, counties and states, Sen. Mitch McConnell suggested that states file for bankruptcy if they don’t have sufficient funds to meet the challenge. This was met with Murray’s incredulity, “Did he actually say those words? The world is upside down. It is not time to say to a family, a business, or a government agency, anywhere, to go bankrupt.”

You can’t ‘unexpose’ yourself

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, our deputy director of health and human services, Katie Lindstrom, weighs in. “We’re doing OK locally, but the virus issues are very complicated. We get weekly updates in our call from state officials. There’s a real push/pull between public health officials and businesses — we recognize how hard it is that everything’s closed and we want to open up as much as everybody, but from an epidemiology stand point, we need certain metrics in place before that can happen.”

“Early on we thought the transmission rate for every person infected was that four others would be exposed. Now, because of social distancing, the rate is closer to one person to .89 people. Health officials would like to see a lower rate — something between .5 and .8 — and to see it stay there for a period of time before we reopen.”

“We might roll-out an opening of certain industries — let’s say construction where it’s easier to have adequate distancing. But we might roll out and pull back, roll out and pull back, as officials watch that transmission rate.”

“The other piece that state officials want to ensure is the capacity of communities so that if there is a second bump in the curve, we have PPE and adequate testing abilities to treat and transfer out patients as needed.”

“Transient exposure is not really a risk. You’d probably have to be standing at six feet away from someone for over 10 minutes to get the virus. But you can’t go backwards and ‘unexpose’ yourself — so just assume the virus is everywhere. Stay home, wear a mask in public, and wash your hands.”

On the testing issue, Lindstrom says, “We seem to have worked through the test kit issue. We get replacements for all tests submitted, so supply is adequate for now. We’ve expanded drive-through testing to four days a week and have opened it up to all who have symptoms. We’re actually ahead of most other areas on this — many are still only testing high-risk symptomatic individuals. Altogether, we have tested upwards of 250 so far.”

In my humble opinion, this is still far too few tests to have an accurate picture of how impacted we are by the virus in our county. In order to open for business, we’ll need more comprehensive testing to asses asymptomatic carriers as well as tracking so we’re not caught flat-footed in a second virus wave.

But this soggy and strange time, notwithstanding, we are gaining on the virus: gaining an understanding of its devious ways; getting more medically prepared for how to combat it; and coming closer to devising a new normal for our communities going forward. The virus has a strong life force, but we humans are pretty wily too. I’m betting on our side.

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