Like many people I became aware of Covid-19 when seeing images of the lockdown of the entire Wuhan region in early February. As a futurist, a science fiction writer, I paid attention to the aspects of it that informed worldbuilding. The use of drones to monitor temperatures. The adaptations to living in lockdown. The way in which people showed humanity by taking care of pets left behind by the hospitalized and the way commerce changed to delivery. I watched what seemed like near-apocalyptic videos of empty streets, or even someone going shopping and having to have their temperature taken and show an app that demonstrated their quarantine status.
I was paying very close attention to the trees, but I didn’t notice the forest until my friend Dr. Ross Kauffman, an epidemiologist, asked me what I expected to see change in the world once the virus broke out into the rest of the world.
Like many, I’d tagged it as something happening ‘over there.’ Like many other outbreaks. But when Ross asked me how much I had on hand in dry goods to weather a Wuhan-like shutdown I started looking closely at the raw math of the Coronavirus. I hadn’t looked closely at the underlying virus, just the reactions to it. The period where the virus had no symptoms and how fast and easily it spread, plus the death rate, looked really bad.
But it was still ‘over there.’
As February moved on Italy became the next epicenter outbreak. And that I followed closely as well. Italy had a strong medical system, was a western nation, and worked better to view as a model.
I considered whether to cancel my travel to the convention Capricon where I was Guest of Honor, but it felt a little silly then. I left for Chicago on February 13th and enjoyed the convention. I did do my best not to shake hands, avoided hugs, and only ate hot food or prepackaged. I felt a bit stand offish and silly, but there it is.
Over the next two weeks, watching the situation in Italy get worse, and after talking some more to my friend the epidemiologist, I got that gut instinct anyone who grows up in the Caribbean knows:
I still didn’t quite understand the math of the virus itself. I was mostly just looking at Italy and realizing that Italy lay a month in our future unless the country I was in acted quickly and coordinated with many other countries. With our current leadership?
No, I began to expect the worst. Seeing the president mock the very idea that anything should be done, to say there wasn’t a threat, I realized we were all vulnerable.
When our grocery budget reset and money came in, I began to drive my family nuts at the very end of February. We made a big Costco run, and stopped at Lowe’s to buy shelving. Emily humored me and we completely redesigned our pantry set up to double the amount of goods we could store in there. And then, over a couple trips, long before too many others were stocking, made sure it was packed full so that we could shelter in place without going out. I was imagining Ohioans in large numbers acting throughout March and April like some of the current red states were.
I did not want to be out in that.
Emily got the deep freezer stocked, we got the pantry stocked, and we had cleaning supplies and enough hand sanitizer, I felt I could relax a little. We were hurricane ready.
I created a spreadsheet, something I do to wrap my head around issues, to study the virus’s spread. And that’s when I got really chilled. Because until about March 1st or so, I’d been mainly looking at the fatality of the virus. I see this mistake still right now. You see something like “88.5% of everyone who gets it will be okay, so let’s look at the positive!”
Even then, I could see that experts said if no one did anything and the virus spread like a really bad flu, it could infect as much as 70% of the population, and if that’s the case, I realized that meant millions dying in a short period of time. I understood why officials had locked Italy down.
But that wasn’t the chilling thing about the virus. I still hadn’t understood the incredible, scary number that really was what was causing so much horror in Italy.
Twenty percent of people getting sick with Covid-19 needed hospital attention.
Putting that in a spreadsheet shook me. That meant, if left unchecked, 26 to 46 million people needing hospitalized.
Of course, there was a lot we didn’t know about Covid-19. How many people were really being infected, how many were having mild cases. But those millions needing care were clearly staggering. And the number needing ICUs was the next high number. Unchecked, which the Italians tried at first, meant the ICUs just got flooded. Boom. And hospitals were overwhelmed, the death rates would climb from the 2-3% of other countries, to Italy’s higher rates..
Now I understood what the risk was, and I was horrified.
I looked up how many hospital beds were in the town, how many people lived here, and plugged into those same calculations. And what I got back wasn’t encouraging.
On March 2nd I started trying to reach out to local government to see if I could get them to listen to a presentation by Dr. Kauffman. How many small towns have both an epidemiologist and a futurist?
As I waited to see about talking to local government, I was reading that the virus came with some gastro-intestinal effects in a small number of people, I purchased a basement toilet and paid to have it installed.
Our fridge started struggling to keep its temperature. I drove up to a hardware store in a nearby city to order a new fridge with money just recently saved up. I didn’t want to be in a lock down with a malfunctioning fridge. I found a french door fridge bigger than ours with all the features I wanted for 50% due to a dent in the door. Ordered it.
I tried to sell the second car, a project I’d slowly been working on. I found an interested buyer. That fell through, and then I tried to sell the car at a slight loss to a dealer, but that fell through when the shelter in place orders came through almost two weeks in. Alas. I couldn’t figure out how to drive up to Toledo to the dealer with the car, and then come back to Bluffton on the 11th. I was really rushing to make sure I had all my ducks ready, because I’d started doing some very simple modeling in Excel.
On March 10, the US had 760 infected, and our doubling rate was similar to Italy’s: every three days. So I just drew out an excel column that doubled the infected every three days:
I hoped, I hoped, the country would bend the curve. If Italy could shut down, the US could. But I saw the UK’s prime minister calling for the virus to ‘burn through’ the country and I saw a lot of conversation by Republican leaders calling for ‘economy first’ and to allow much the same.
In excel, a burn through had millions dead, so this chart gave me estimates to use to know how much to hunker down and when. And with Italy’s fatality rate on the disease climbing, I knew that a ‘let it burn’ strategy would have been horrific. Higher than 2-3 million, for sure.
I didn’t want to think I lived in that kind of country, but nothing I saw on Fox News or radio in the region argued against it, so I kept preparing myself for the worse.
I prepared to be the Chicken Little that pulled my kids out of school. I prepared to be the weirdo. I called family and urged them to pay serious attention to all this. I could barely sleep at night as I ran the horrific numbers in my head. I looked for any flattening of Italy’s curve.
And then something happened as I was getting the last items done on my hunker down checklist and yelling at my kids to wash their hands the moment they came in and to not touch anything…
…the governor of Ohio listened to the doctor in charge of his health department and shut down the schools.
I didn’t have to be the crazy parent.
Dr. Ross Kauffman, his brother, and I had been trading texts back and forth about the virus’s spread. I showed them my basic excel numbers, and we were all getting ready to hunker down. There would be no presentation to local power. Remember, at this point the president was downplaying the situation and there were only 70 or so official cases in Ohio.
But we could explain why the governor of Ohio was doing what he was doing, and we could try to see if we could help bend the curve in our own community however we could.
I proposed a video explaining the issue of Covid-19’s horrific hospitalization rate using our own town’s numbers. This would be a video that the town council and leaders could view and use to guide their own decisions.
Friday, after schools closed, and after our new fridge was installed, Ross and I worked on the script and video until four in the morning, and then I uploaded it to Vimeo. We sent it to a couple key friends, the idea being to see what they thought and if they would give us feedback. Then I would send it to stakeholders, and I would have done my civic duty. Maybe 10-15 people would see the video in all. I suggested an email link to a Covid email list that could talk about the issue more in our village.
I went to bed.
I woke up Saturday the 14th with text messages filling my phone’s screen and emails from people who’d seen the video. I pulled it up on Vimeo. It had 550 views. In a village of 4,000.
I panicked and pulled it offline.
There were hundreds of requests to be on the email list, from people outside of town, in town. My inbox was a mess.
I asked Ross and people I trusted to double check the video, which I reuploaded.
Right away it started going viral again.
Remember, in mid-March most explainers and other pieces of information, looked at the effects of Covid-19 from a state, or country perspective. To explain how it would overload a small town’s health system was something unique. Rural residents all over the US passed the video around, and it got a third of million plays (and 700,000 impressions). Another version of it cut down for a website that let you type in your own zip code got 120,000 impressions and 35,000 views.
So, our little video got almost a million views, not the 10-20 I was expecting.
And a lot of people watched it and understood that the 20% of infected people needing hospitals was the scary thing, and it really helped as a tool. I got a lot of mail from people telling me it helped them contextualize why the lock downs were happening.
I made so many mistakes with this video. I used Vimeo instead of Youtube at first. I didn’t enable embedding on Vimeo. I pulled it down right as it was going viral and reuploaded it to a different URL.
Despite all that, I ended up being the facilitator of an email list full of local stakeholders who have been figuring out how to best to bend the curve here in Bluffton. Our village was one of the earliest rural towns of its size to get a drive up fever clinic, and we helped behind the scenes as much as we could.
We’ve worked together to acquire hand sanitizer, contactless thermometers, and all sorts of other initiatives.
The community has also banded together on a Facebook group where a quarter of the entire town has been a giant mutual aid pool. And there are initiatives to print 3d parts for masks and shields, donations to local health systems, donating material for sewing cloth masks, people helping other people in all sorts of ways.
Being involved in many of these things ate up the last few weeks at a rate I wasn’t expecting. I’m usually the guy in the back of the room doodling away on a story. Facilitating doctors and area leaders on Zoom meetings was a surreal way to be involved in helping the community, but the urgency came from that invisible threat of so many people needing hospitalized if we didn’t bend the curve.
Many times I’ve asked if it was appropriate for me to be bugging people by phone or email, trying to make sure things were lined up to help the community. I certainly felt like I burned through a ton of social capital. But I kept trying to be guided by the idea of ‘will I look back and know I did everything I could to help?’ I used this guide as a I talked to people in rural areas all over the country who reached out to me because of the video, trying to give them links or contacts to good information so they could make leadership choices of their own. I hope I helped.
I was encouraged that not only did the community I live in come together, but I felt a lot of the worst case things the small crew of people I’d been talking to worried about as the email list came together ended up being taken care of by Ohio’s leadership. Dr. Amy Acton cancelled the schools. Then came businesses. The stay at home orders. When I had been wondering how to talk to businesses about six foot wide boxes while waiting in line, it became law. Delivery and curbside for food became the norm.
So here in Ohio, the state is working hard to bend the curve. Measures are being taken. It looks like science-listening adults are in control.
In my community we are mostly hunkered down, though I do find myself twitching whenever I go for a drive and see people completely ignoring the six food distancing to chat.
I don’t know what’s coming next. I’m trying to get back to my own writing deadlines. My kids are struggling with the isolation. I need to be there for them, I’m not being a good lockdown parent, as I’ve spent long days trying to solve other problems outside the house. I’ve slept poorly.
But I did everything I could. I think.
Now there are many better modeling sites than my spreadsheet. I’m very impressed with Ohio’s Coronavirus site. Using their daily updated stats I can see our ICU beds used rate is growing linearly, not exponentially.
I can also see that Ohio is bending the curve well. The daily numbers of new hospitalizations in Ohio dropped from an initial average of nearly 25% (a doubling of every 4 days) in March 7-17 to a 5% growth rate or lower (the data on recent hospitilizations lags a bit and is preliminary)
Now I’m looking at book publishing going up in smoke and wondering what the future of reading and books looks like, wondering what changes there will be in what people want to read, wondering if my various gigs and freelancing will hold or go up in smoke.
There’s so much uncertainty. It’s weird being a futurist, and seeing so much that could go either way. We’re passing through an area of extreme turbulence, and I am not sure what direction the boat will be headed. I have no idea what my own career will look like.
The last four weeks were a blur of activity where I collapsed into sleep everyday.
Now, I think, I’m trying to slow it down into one day at a time. Just one day at a time.
We’ll see how that goes. Right now I’m missing my usual social calendar, the tight circles of friends that came in and out of the house. I miss frisbee games and long walks, the restaurants, seeing friends when out and about. Now I only see friends on the other sides of windows as I pass by on a walk, usually for a purpose, or when I’m dropping something off that someone needs.
The full strangeness of it all is now catching up to me, and my mind is now starting to grapple with just how big of an event this is, so I’m doing my best to look at doing things I can control, lest I get overwhelmed with the immensity of it all.
I’m hoping to get back to starships and dragons soon.
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