It’s the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington State.
This column is being written Wednesday and its likely things will have changed, and increased in severity, by the time it is published less than 24 hours later. That’s the thing about epidemics – they follow exponential growth patterns, which basically means some kind of multiplication in severity from the previous day. The result is kind of a hockey stick curve – and in epidemics, not in your favor.
But there are many things that YOU – the reader – can do to change the shape of that curve. And they don’t involve waiting for your boss, or the university, to tell you what to do. Exponential growth is all about how fast things spread, and that’s something we can control. If you’re sick, obviously, stay home. Regardless of what officials tell you, at the time of this writing we have no idea how many cases of COVID-19 are present in Whitman and Latah counties. There is functionally no testing program (10 tests in a population of 40K people in Whitman County is not a program!) to tell us. Read the fine print after reading the headlines. I did.
Governor Inslee Wednesday morning announced a ban on any large gatherings of 250 or more people for counties on the west side of the state. We can be proactive and not go to high school and university events greater than 50 people, especially if those events are held in close quarters. This is part of a strategy of what is called “social distancing” – spreading ourselves out to stop virus spread. Rates of spread in models are calculated from normative conditions, like the fact that people may attend their daughter’s basketball game in a crowded auditorium. It’s a kick in the teeth of the virus to not “crowd up.” So don’t.
Social distancing can be applied on an individual basis. In China, queuing up for any event now involves keeping a distance of 4.5-feet between yourself and the next person in line. This is something folks on the Palouse do naturally. For those folks holding meetings, stop shaking hands and spread folks around the meeting rooms. I’m doing this with students already, and it’s working out just fine. I’ve had to be a little creative in meeting with all my students, but there’s always an opportunity to think up new ways to do things.
But first and foremost, especially in an authority-driven university community, we have to realize that we are all responsible for stopping this epidemic. At our college’s town hall meeting on Tuesday, which I attended virtually, the attitude was either “wait and see” or “the administration needs to tell us what to do.” Waiting matters, and not in a good way, in exponential situations. By the time the authority tells us it’s bad, it’s actually worse.
Remaining calm is always a good idea in a crisis situation. But remaining calm does not mean suspending your own brain function or not exercising appropriate prudence. One of the effects of being immersed, as we are, in authority-driven thinking at the university, is black-and-white solutions – either school goes on as normal, or we cancel all classes. There are many creative in-between solutions that can be thought of for many of our circumstances. And every time we implement one, with appropriate social distancing, we slow the virus down.
Italy is showing what happens when you don’t do that. I’ve been on the receiving end of feed from our very own “local woman makes good” international reporter, Andrea Vogt, who used to work for the Lewiston Tribune. She is on Twitter, and covering the pandemic in northern Italy. Their hospitals are so overwhelmed they are making triage decisions on who gets to live and die. And old folks, for the most part, you’re the ones getting selected out of the population.
None of this is destiny. But we need to act now, especially with social distancing. Yes, our routines will be disrupted. But countries that have done so are now seeing rapid declines in spread. We can do this.
Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University. His column normally runs on Saturdays.