The coronavirus crisis continues to wind on and on. And I continue to read, and puzzle through what the data actually means.
We’ve been bombarded with news, since reopening, of a rapid rise in cases. Locally, the bar/restaurant Tapped had a member of its waitstaff test positive for COVID-19, and in response shut its doors again. It’s well-known that the more conservative parts of our community are more in favor of reopening than the liberal side, so it’s not surprising that the odds of such an event would happen in that population.
The event is sad to me. We need to get socializing, and bars are an important part of that. I think it’s also important to maintain perspective. We still have no COVID-19 deaths in either Latah County or Whitman County. Deaths, regardless of the rapid rise in testing results across the country, are flat or declining. It’s wait-and-see if the various reopenings will change that. I still advise immunosuppressed people to be extra-careful. But the throngs of beachgoers and Black Lives Matters marchers did little to change the actual COVID death statistics. Socialization can happen.
What we have learned in the last month is that most active cases come from super-spreaders, in particular venues. A super-spreader is an infected person who, given the right circumstance, gives the disease to a bunch of others. Location matters. Super-spreader events are pretty exclusively tied to indoor bars, singing in choirs, and unfortunately for many, packed church services. I have yet to read of a documented case of super-spreading outdoors. You have to be packed in, yelling, and have poor airflow.
As far as the other modalities, evidence is pretty inconclusive that all the hand-washing and such makes much difference. If you stop the super-spreader situations, you basically whack about 80-90 percent of your cases. It’s easy to look around the world, even in countries that have their COVID act together, and see that super-spreaders are their bane.
It’s also easy to understand the “why” of transmission in super-spreader events. Bars are subject to an acoustic phenomena called the cocktail party effect. What happens in a noisy bar is everyone starts talking louder and louder, until everyone is basically screaming at each other.
Then, a noise pain threshold is reached, everyone goes silent (that odd pause) and then the process starts all over again. In churches, choirs belting out “That Old Rugged Cross” breathe in and out at the same frequency, with the droplets of mucus that the virus uses for transport. Lots of deep breathing creates the same pathways for infection that happen in bars. The virus is agnostic.
Moving forward, here are a couple of thoughts. First, unless you’ve literally been sealed in a room for the last four months, the odds are close to 100 percent that you’ve been exposed to COVID-19. Indians in the most remote parts of the Amazon have contracted it, and if they’ve seen it, we’ve seen it. I think the academic communities in both schools were saturated with it before spring break, being connected to Seattle.
Secondly, COVID-19 is turning out to be a socialized disease. You get it from your friends you like to laugh and argue with. We can do most of that outside, and we should. I’m very much in favor of any street closures that allow restaurants to move operations outside. That’s what they do in Europe, and it’s fantastic. But doing it inside simply isn’t going to work. We’ve seen that locally, as well as around the world.
Finally, we have to deal with this as a community. I’ve been wearing my mask for the last three months, and it’s finally the law in both Pullman and Moscow. Pulling together as a community is important for stopping this thing completely, and I’m hoping we can talk across the divide we have with our politics. We can only crush this thing together. So let’s keep problem-solving. Because we’re going to need it in the fall when students return.
Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.