/data/universe/

March 23, 2021

Everything is moving quickly now.  It’s disturbing, after so much stasis.

We were relieved to see family members in other states get vaccinated, and thrilled to start planning (not merely dreaming) when we might see them again.

Our state governor added K-12 teachers (but not higher education) to the then-current vaccination phase.  Then President Biden gave us all some much needed clarity by directing states to make vaccines available to all adults by May 1.

Oregon’s governor, and then our own, ordered schools to reopen–so after more than a year our son will return to the classroom half time.  That is already throwing off our carefully-tuned work and family schedules, with more disruption to come.

Every day other states open vaccination to all adults, but we are still weeks away.  To check social media is to chew glass–we’re thrilled to see friends get shots, but it only amplifies our own desire and frustration.  Thousands of Seattlites haunt Facebook groups, trying to learn where they might await waste shots at Rite Aids in distant counties.

We’ve kept so safe for so long.  It’s frightening to consider opening the bubble when we’re so close.  But we are also truly at a breaking point emotionally.  Patience has expired; hobbies and rituals have lost luster; even the lengthening days dawn wan while we wait.

 

 

March 1, 2021

It’s been a year since we learned COVID-19 was spreading undetected in Washington State.

More than half a million people in the U.S. have died.

But signs are pointing in positive directions, finally.  Case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths are all down from their terrible holiday peaks.  More people have been vaccinated in the US than have contracted COVID, and the vaccines are proving very effective.  The one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has now been approved, and tests are starting on safety and efficacy in children.

We are very tired, though.  January was one of the rainiest on record in Seattle, and we’ve all been cooped up together for too long.

School districts in large cities–Seattle among them–are having big fights about whether to reopen for in-person learning.  In some states educators are being prioritized for vaccines, but in Washington they’re still in future phases.  It’s frustrating watching university faculty & staff my age who aren’t in classrooms getting shots, especially when grocery workers, folks with preexisting conditions, and near-retirees still can’t.

Vaccine supply is supposed to increase sharply in the next few months–fingers crossed.  Before long vaccine hesitancy will probably be the biggest challenge.

Spring weather is starting to peek through.  The days are lengthening.  There will be outdoor summer day camps for the kids, and preschool for the youngest in the fall.  We are hopeful, but it is a hard scrape ahead to get there.

January 1, 2021

Like so many others, I greeted the changing of the calendar year today with relief: there’s some psychic release associated with putting “2020” behind us.

Unfortunately we start the new year with lots of bad news.  A new virus variant first identified in the UK appears to be more transmissible, and it is already spreading in the US.  This means even more rapid spread of the disease, and substantially higher rates of immunity needed for herd immunity (90% or more of the population will need to be vaccinated or have immunity from prior infection).  Our runway for getting the vulnerable vaccinated just got shorter, and in the US I see no further willingness to engage in the sorts of broad public health measures that could have limited the spread in the last ten months.

Worse, the rollout of the vaccines has been disastrous.  Despite (or perhaps due to) a widely decentralized vaccine distribution process, few states have managed to inject more than a few tens of percent of the vaccines they have received to date–raising a real risk in some cases that the doses will expire, unused, in the fridge.  Some of this is attributed to growing pains and the holiday season–but why are we taking vacations from administering vaccines during a pandemic?

Public health experts (and Twitter logicians) are debating all aspects of the vaccine prioritization.  A major question raised by the UK variant is if we should administer only one shot of the two-dose regimen initially, with the thinking that ~80% effectiveness for twice as many people is more helpful than 95% effectiveness for fewer.

There’s more: sizable proportions of the first-tier groups are refusing the vaccine!  If 50% of health-care workers in hard-hit LA County won’t get the shot it’s hard to see how we are going to vaccinate ourselves out of this, even when there’s enough supply…

But still–small bright spots shine through.  My mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law have each had a first dose–here’s hoping we will all join them very soon.

December 14, 2020

Today, I hope, marked the beginning of the end of COVID-19.  The first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine were administered to health-care workers around the country.  And the Electoral College voted for Joe Biden to be the next President.

I had hoped to capture a bit more of the last two and half months as it happened, but it has been an incredibly busy time.  While we hit our stride with remote schooling, work obligations for both my spouse and me skyrocketed, and today feels like the first time in months I could really take a breath.

October was particularly tough due to remote meetings.  Every science organization that normally would have planned an in-person meeting for the fall decided to try their hand at a virtual one, and they put them all in October.  If they were in-person meetings, you would decide if it was worth it to attend, if it was logistically feasible, etc.  And if you went you’d clear your calendar.  But for virtual meetings there’s no barrier to attending, and no good excuse for cancelling standing meetings.  So any open work time I had to write or code or even just skim emails evaporated.

We also spent a lot of our mental cycles processing the news.  Confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice.  A subsequent celebration that disregarded public health guidelines.   Result: a superspreader event that infected many Republicans, including the President.  The President is hospitalized, and for a weekend everything seems to hang in the balance.  And then–clearly too soon–he returns to the White House, and… recovers?  And begins campaign rallies again?  And suddenly it was time for the election, and the long, lingering farce that followed.

Our focus on politics distracted us from the start rise of the next and biggest wave of COVID infections, though, and in November it was here.  Hospital ICUs around the country were full.  Folks on the outer edges of our social network–friends of friends, distant social media contacts–reported catching COVID.  But unlike in the spring, nothing seemed to really change–Washington slightly tightened a few restrictions, but not in any really impactful way.  While our understanding of risk has improved since the spring, it seemed more a resignation that any sense of shared responsibility, sacrifice, or even reality had long since evaporated.  We waited for reckless Thanksgiving celebrations to drive the wave’s crest even higher.

For us, then, the dreary, darkening Seattle winter was a chance to turn further inward, and find (somehow) new energy and new family pastimes.  We had an all-Zoom Halloween inside our house.  The boys built elaborate Lego and MagnaTile and RC creations.  We played soccer and did windsprints in our muddy, sodden yard, the grass long since destroyed.  As the rain and the cold and the dark allowed, we pushed scooters and strollers around the same one-block lap.  We put up Christmas decorations, bought presents, and baked.  I put in new light fixtures and replaced light bulbs with brighter LEDs to stave off the darkness.  And, with all semblance of balance gone, we worked at night, almost every night, desperate to keep ahead of more-than-full-time obligations.

Yet peeking through the darkness was cause for hope.  Two newly-developed vaccines reported Phase III trial results of stunning efficacy.  States and local authorities began planning how to allocate the scarce supplies.  Last week the Pfizer vaccine was given an Emergency Use Authorization, with the same expected for Moderna’s later this week.  And so today our heroic health-care workers finally got the prioritization they have deserved.

We’re not out of the woods yet.  2,500 people a day are still dying, and the curves of infections still have not peaked.  We’re months away from having enough vaccines for the broader public, with big arguments about allocation (and conversely, persuading the vaccine-hesitant) still to come…

September 28, 2020

Things are… okay?  For us, at the moment, maybe?

Remote schooling started for the oldest earlier this month.  The transition for everyone took some figuring out, but for right now it seems like we’ve stabilized in a surprisingly good place.  The child is cooperative and as positive as he’s been since this all started, and he seems to be learning.  We’ve got a schedule arranged so we can both get some work done, even with my ever-changing meetings.

Perhaps prematurely, signs of normalcy are returning to the wider world as well.  There is a sudden surge of sports, with seasonally strange conjunctions: the Tour de France! the NBA finals! NFL and college football!  There seem to be more cars on our streets, driving faster.  Governors of some Southern states have declared complete reopenings.

It still seems hard to reason about the outbreaks.  The summer surge in the Southwest has abated, and now the upper Midwest is seeing a sharp rise in cases.  But it’s hard to understand in any practical sense what makes the case counts decrease–it doesn’t feel like people are really changing their behavior anymore, but maybe they do, locally, if it gets bad?  (It isn’t yet herd immunity, though.)

Political news is consuming most of our minds these days, in any case.

August 30, 2020

At 7:45 this evening I stepped outside, and it was fall.

Not by the calendar, of course—the equinox is still a few weeks away.  But the soft, cold drizzle in the gloaming made it unmistakably clear that Seattle’s summer was ending.

What did we make of these last few months?  We spent as much of it as we could outside, knowing that bleaker days lay ahead.

We got some guidebooks and spent weekend mornings at regional parks, discovering that our 6 and 2 year olds can handle a hike of a mile or so, and will tolerate it–even if their appreciation for the beautiful forests of the PNW didn’t match our own.  (After six years in dry, scrubby SoCal, green feels like a gift.)

We found beaches of rock and sand, river and lake.  We biked and scootered, walked and ran.

We stayed—no trips to see family, this year.  I watched on Zoom as my brother got married.  We FaceTimed and Skyped and called and texted; but it wasn’t the same.

We worked, of course—with our minds, and with our hands.  We repaired and planted and rearranged and reimagined.

And we watched, and read, and talked, and worried–about school and the kids, mainly, but also about the country and our society.  The pandemic surged in the South and West.

First grade starts online this week.  Violence is spiraling after yet another police shooting of a Black man.  And there is still no end in sight.

June 4, 2020

The mental space I had been using for COVID-19 has been entirely displaced by responding to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery; the subsequent protests; and local and national police response.

Like so many white Americans, I often ignore the degree to which our nation and its institutions embody white supremacy culture, to my own benefit.  For this reason I did not anticipate the violence with which police officers across the country would respond to these protests.  This Twitter thread–obviously disturbing–compiles hundreds of videos of police aggression against unarmed, peaceful protestors, continuing a sordid history that stretches back to our nation’s founding.  Especially despicable has been the deliberate targeting of credentialed journalists.  It is a moral travesty that some would respond to these actions by those sworn to protect and serve with whataboutism about looting and property damage.

I have taken the long-overdue opportunity to connect with local news sources, to learn more about Seattle’s history of police misconduct, to begin engaging with advocacy to reduce police use of force, and to lay the groundwork for greater anti-racist action in my own life going forward, even when this moment passes.

May 28, 2020

Whether due to lockdown fatigue, or skepticism, or confusion, or misinformation, or a sense that the threat has ebbed, more people in the area seem to be trying out social gatherings.  Mostly with some nod to social distancing, but the threat feels more distant and solidarity more tenuous.  Even in California and Washington, lockdowns are being eased.

Maybe there’s some truth to that?  Better scientific studies are starting to emerge, with news both good and bad.  In particular there is an idea circulating that a few “super-spreader” events are driving most of the transmission.  Japan’s strategy to focus containment efforts on preventing superspreading (in combination with mask wearing and other norms) seems to be workingunlike Sweden’s lockdown-free approach.  Perhaps Seattle’s COVID spread began later than initially believed for that reason.

Still, mask wearing and  curtailment of some activities will certainly necessary to prevent a death toll that has already topped 100,000 Americans.  (Remember when the IHME model’s revision of predicted deaths down to 65,000 was taken as “proof” that models were useless?)  But cries for “freedom” and “the constitution” seem to be growing louder–an argument with a long history.

Even as states reopen, the economic effects continue to linger.  Identity thieves have filed tremendous numbers of fraudulent unemployment claims, particularly in Washington State–even my department chair was victimized.

New topics are starting to elbow their way to the forefront of the news, with protests over the killing of George Floyd and others spreading nationwide.

May 18, 2020

Stasis is the status these days.  Somehow we’re halfway through May, and only the later sunsets provide any sign of change.  We have found a routine, mostly, and while every few days the kids need a new diversion they have mostly accepted our new rhythms.  Gratefully the kindergartner is not fighting school so hard, and has finally started to pick up a little reading.

Things happen, of course–or maybe more accurately, things don’t happen.  Heartbreakingly, we had to tell my brother we didn’t think it was prudent to fly to his wedding in July.  Plenty to second guess there, but going to the airport feels like going to the moon right now.  I got my first haircut at home.  Summer camps are out.  More conferences are cancelled, now in the fall.  Academics are starting to embrace virtual colloquia.  Seattle schools are sending surveys about “alternate learning approaches” for the fall.

This heartbreaking article compares how politicians and public health officials in Seattle cooperated–and those in New York tragically did not.  It shows how persuading Microsoft and Amazon to send its workers home early–and keeping schools open late–helped establish public acceptance of the drastic measures needed.  The implications of our failure to establish similar messaging nationally are left to the reader…

The depressing fact is that the US lockdowns failed to suppress the epidemic–but other countries have succeeded.

Nevertheless, restrictions are being relaxed, even here, as we learn more about the spectrum of risks.

There’s still plenty to be mad about, but I feel like I am saturated on anger and have moved into resignation.

But we have had an unusually pleasant spring, it’s light past 9:00 pm now–so there’s time for a bike ride or some work in the yard after the kids are in bed.  And so we continue onward.

May 5, 2020

Every technical person that I know has been alternating between incredulity and despair over this tweet by the White House Council of Economic Advisers (!!!) that contains a totally bogus, unmotivated cubic curve fit that creates the illusion that deaths will just “go to zero” in mid-May.  We put people in jail for less egregious falsifications.

New visualization tools from the FT.  Have log scales been obscuring how bad things are in the US?

WH is considering winding down its coronavirus task force: the plan is to have no plan.