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December 17, 2021

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats, The Second Coming

It’s been a fall full of surprises. The school year started with the Delta wave cresting, and indeed both kids had classmates test positive in August and September. But we were fortunate, and neither kid caught COVID, and we settled into a stable state. In our area, mask mandates were applied again, soon joined by vaccine mandates–with predictable but (locally) muted protests.

My university, like many others, resumed in-person instruction despite the Delta wave; but with no in-classroom responsibilities I mostly continued working from home. The strain is starting to show, though–despite more regular work hours, my projects and my motivation languish. Several of my staff quit to take other positions: evidence that interpersonal bonds are fraying. Sudden inflation pushes industry salaries ever higher, too.

We continued our eager awaiting of the kids’ vaccines, and our patience was tested by ever-lengthening timelines. Pfizer finally submitted the EUA for 5-12 year olds in September, but it took until November to get fully approved. I was fortunate to be checking my email when the clinic at my son’s school was announced and snagged him a pair of slots. He got his second shot after Thanksgiving, and we now can look forward to less restrictive quarantines from school in cases of close contact, I think.

In response to evidence of waning efficiency, we picked up boosters for ourselves as well for good measure, at a city-wide clinic run with ruthless logistical efficiency at the Amazon headquarters.

My folks came for a lovely visit at Thanksgiving, the first time we had seen them since June. It was a very welcome interlude from a miserably rainy fall–an all-time record for September-November in Seattle, which is terrifying to contemplate. We were grateful for our new roof and gutters!

December, though, brought news of a new variant, Omicron, first identified in South Africa. While at this writing it appears less likely to lead to hospitalization and death than Delta, it spreads incredibly rapidly relative to what we’ve been used to with COVID to date. Neither immunity from prior infection nor from even triple vaccination is a guarantee against illness, thought they do appear to mitigate the more severe outcomes. With little broad appetite for (or outright hostility to) any sacrifice or real disruption to the status quo (let alone a lockdown or similar), an enormous holiday wave is inevitable. Even if most people avoid the worst outcomes, disruption of day-to-day life seem likely simply from everyone being sick at once (doctors, bus drivers, grocery workers…). And we must expect that, mostly out of sight, vulnerable people will suffer and die, and many others will face a long, slow recovery back to health. It’s the darkest time of year.

And today brings yet more unwelcome news: the 2-4 year old vaccine trial failed because the low dose did not trigger sufficient immune response. I expected it during the Delta wave, but now it seems truly inevitable that our youngest will catch COVID before he can be vaccinated; we are left to trust the probabilities that he’ll be okay.

August 16, 2021

Whiplash. It’s the only way to describe it.

With two kids under twelve, we never fully relaxed into the “hot vaxx summer” everyone was planning. But in June both kids were finally out of the house in camps and preschool–all day, every day. Frankly it took a little while to get used to concentrating through a full workday again.

Things already were going a little sideways in May, when the CDC told everyone vaccinated they could take their masks off–with predictable effects. Thankfully our kids’ care still required them. Still, it was a strange feeling to be the only ones still wearing masks on the playground at the end of June.

Already then there were rumbles of bad news on the horizon: increasing case rates in highly unvaccinated areas from the much more transmissible “Delta variant.” Rumors, and then increasing certainty, that the Delta variant could break through full vaccination. Vaccination still seemed to provide good protection against hospitalization, but it soon became clear that vaccinated people could get sick, could transmit the virus, could get long COVID, could get hospitalized, could die. Even the rhetoric that “kids don’t get sicktook a hit. Approval for the pediatric vaccine is still months away, despite the AAP begging the FDA to speed approval.

Through it all the steady drumbeat of resistance to public health measures has only intensified. Red state governors have banned mask mandates and vaccine mandates, despite mounting case rates. Schools have seen significant protests in opposition to mask wearing.

It’s taken awhile to get our minds around these changes. We’re having to question assumptions about the end of the pandemic that we clung to for a long time: especially, that once we have a vaccine it will all be over. The future, sadly, looks endemic: we will all likely get it, repeatedly.

In the meantime: schools nationwide are opening for the fall, many without any precautions, and are seeing truly astonishing infection rates. Schoolchildren are being hospitalized and dying. Case counts are rocketing upwards nationwide, and even in (relatively) highly-vaccinated Seattle.

It feels a lot like March 2020 again–but somehow we can’t stomach a lockdown again. We cancelled a family get-together, and have cut out risk wherever we can, but the kids are still doing school in person. Every option feels deranged. The youngest already had a close contact in his classroom and spent two weeks at home with us–thankfully he tested negative. At this point it feels like “when” rather than “if”–and we ask ourselves if we’re making the right choices.

May 3, 2021

What a month.  More changed for us in April than since the pandemic started.

We worked ourselves into a frenzy waiting for our turn to get vaccinated, but ultimately both of us were finally able to get shots.  Washington State flirted with maintaining the May 1st date for general adult eligibility, but ultimately accelerated it to April 15th.  And almost immediately afterwards there was excess capacity and appointments everywhere, even in Seattle, one of the most vaccine-willing places in the US.  Given the lack of uptake, as expected herd immunity appears all but impossible to achieve.  That’s no help for kids in the short term, but we’re at least breathing a bit easier ourselves for the first time in a year.  Emotionally, it may take awhile before we feel comfortable to go eat in a restaurant or back to the gym–but a few long-deferred visits with friends and neighbors are brightening our days.

Our oldest returned in person to hybrid school, so once again I start my day walking him up the hill to class.  Even four days a week at 2.5 hours is transformative after a year of unending Zoom calls.

Our youngest, however, has thrown us for a loop by dropping his afternoon nap.  He stuck with a nap far longer than his older brother–but then one day he came sailing into my room during a conference call, commenting on my colleague and I wearing the same work hoodie, and it was all over.  Without that two-hour break from his increasingly exuberant three-year-old energy, we’ve all come a bit unglued.  My spouse hit the phones and found him a spot in a local preschool–and he immediately blossomed into it.

We’re not sanguine about the risks to the kids–but it was clear we had no real alternatives.  Intense spousal effort yielded summer care as well, and we have hope for more regular school hours in the fall.  Suddenly our cramped professional lives can stretch a bit and we can survey what remains.

Still, fourth waves surge here and there in the US, and India has exploded into a terrible humanitarian crisis, devastating friends and colleagues.

I hope at some point to have space to reflect on what to take from this experience.  But for now this article captures at least a little of it:

Someday soon — maybe summer, maybe fall — you’ll blink and find yourself wandering through a park without having to debate distance, masks and the social viability of hugs in your head. What a moment that will be: to live without having to think about how to live. In that moment, it will feel like you won. Like your own choices saved you, other people’s doomed them, and maybe it was even pretty easy to do the right thing.

But don’t forget how you really felt. How doubt kept you up at night and how tired you were of thinking. Remember all the times you couldn’t remember … that thing you’ve forgotten … and all the times you impulse yelled and impulse shopped. Remember how many times you just wanted help — not authoritarian, one-size solutions, just help — and how angry you were when, instead, you were expected to become an expert in seemingly everything.

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.