The virus that ate 2020

It may feel like a welcome break. But steel yourself. A week ago, my wife’s boss said the organization would close through the end of March. More recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo said the pandemic won’t peak here until about May 1. He didn’t mention that it will need to subside, at roughly the same rate. COVID-19 won’t return to mid-March levels until mid-June, if we’re lucky. But people infected can be contagious after they are symptom-free, Chinese studies have shown, for up to a week or even two. Ignore that and we risk a new surge of infections. Which means the economy doesn’t de-hibernate until the Fourth of July from its four-month, remote-work, totally unrestful semi-hiatus.

Ultimately, a third to half the country could get infected. How many deaths will depend on the number of ventilators. Washington is just now saying it will order manufacturers to stop whatever they are making and switch to ventilators. Pardon us if that doesn’t inspire a big “Whew! That problem’s solved.” These are complex medical-grade machines that help critically ill patients breathe, or breathe for them. They force a mix of oxygen and air through a tube down the nose or throat and draw out carbon dioxide. Some patients need a sedative to relax and stop fighting the rhythm, to relent to the intrusion of the tube.

No, Ford can’t convert the F-150 line to ventilator machines overnight. Nor can Whirlpool. Nor Tesla’s Elon Musk, though he generously offered to do so.

Simply put: Don’t get sick. Anyway, hospitals will probably be full. Problem is, COVID-19 is highly contagious. How contagious is still unknown. There have been indications. It’s a brand-new virus, so no one has immunity. On a cruise ship, 712 people were infected by one passenger. Even some who recovered have been re-infected.

The virus must come from an infected person, who sheds it in particles called virons. Champion sneezers and coughers can propel virons many feet, far more than the 6-foot minimum recommended for social distancing. Small droplets can stay aloft for a while. Obviously, they land anywhere. Depending on surface, air temperature and humidity, COVID-19 virons nestled in a nice warm mucus droplet can stay contagious for many hours.

In public, wear a mask. Actually, don’t go out. If you must, hand washing is critical. First, soap and water. Simple bar soap is fine. A virus has a shell of lipid or fat. Soap dissolves the fatty shell. Without this protection the virus’s core, its genetic material, falls apart.

These four steps are from a British scrub nurse.  (1) Wet your hands and soap up. Rub them together as you usually do. (2) Clean between your fingers by lacing them together, one hand behind the other, and rub. (3) Wash your thumbs by rubbing with soapy water. (4) Wash your fingertips by rubbing them against your other palm. Be sure to involve your fingernails. A brush is recommended.

A hand sanitizer will do. Follow the same four steps. Find one with an alcohol content of at least 70%. Rubbing or isopropyl alcohol is even better. Carry a small bottle and a clean rag or paper towels. If you need to de-virus surfaces in your travels, this is much cheaper than disposable sanitary wipes. Distilled spirits are generally not strong enough unless overproof rum such as Bacardi 151 or grain alcohol of 140 proof or more. Stick with rubbing alcohol: it’s a money saver.

We might as well get used to all this extra effort, and to being self-reliant in our semi-isolation. Zero contacts should be our goal for the time being. If we stretch this thing out, given pandemic math, we have a decent chance that the death rate will not soar and our most vulnerable citizens can be diagnosed early and cared for.

Tom Parrett writes about science and nature. He lives in Millerton.

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