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Free Form Friday: Dodging COVID, Winter ‘23-24

COVID-19 is on track to kill about as many Americans this year as died in the entire Vietnam War. You will have a hard time finding that number, but if you look hard enough you can find how many Americans died of COVID in January and extrapolate from there. Of course, that’s with the big caveats of tracking no longer being a thing and the expectation that death rates will fluctuate with seasons and that both the disease and the medicine could change. But the point is that COVID is still deadly. It’s possible you didn’t know that, but surely you know it’s still extremely contagious. If you haven’t had it recently, I’m certain you know many people who have, including some who have had it for the first time. And yes, some of those people will describe the symptoms as mild, but I keep hearing people using the same words to me after their recovery: “You do not want to have this.”

And so I don’t. And I’ve been trying not to get it since March of 2020, and thus far I’ve succeeded. I haven’t had anything else, either (meaning any other communicable diseases, with the possible exception of some sort of virus that manifested as a canker sore and muscle ache at one point).

For me, this has not only been an achievement, but it has been a profound improvement on my quality of life since the days before COVID, when I paid much less attention to disease and was sick far too often. Not being sick is a big quality of life improvement even when the disease I don’t have is something other, and potentially far less deadly, than COVID. For me, death should not be the bar. What I learned from the pandemic is that there are ways to reduce the chance of getting sick at all, and not being sick is better than being sick. Not being sick is also better than some of what I have had to give up in order not to be sick.

The worst thing for me about doing something in order to avoid getting sick is the social stigma I’ve encountered. Much of the world around me seems to have reacted to COVID becoming less deadly due to vaccinations and immunity through exposure like it no longer exists at all and that there’s no reason to act any differently than we did in 2018. All those maskless people in crowded restaurants, parties and shows look, to me, like they are defying reality itself and took a different set of lessons from the more intense phase of the pandemic than I did. “I want to live my life to the fullest,” I often hear, sometimes from people who are staring at my mask as if the mask itself were a bubo (as in a symptom of the bubonic plague). This statement is often followed by questions like the person asking them had never heard of COVID and had no idea how its transmitted, and who doesn’t really mind the idea of getting the flu or RSV and certainly not a cold.

After that long setup, the idea of this post was to address some of those types of questions. I’ve chosen to illustrate this post with a gallery of photos I’ve taken (or were taken of me) during some of the winter activities I’ve engaged in over the past few months. The point of the pictures is that there’s an awful lot to do, that can be done with low risk of getting sick. Far from “not living my life to the fullest”— I’ve been able to do all these things and much more not sick. That, to me, if much better than not being able to do them because I’m sick, or doing some of them while sick. Generally, like James Brown, I like to feel good.

So here are some of the types of questions I get. Most of these are adapted from actual questions that have been directed my way:

Do you live in a state of total lockdown?

No. Not since 2020. Too many people seem to me to think that the only two options are to live in a state of total lockdown or to act with reckless abandon. That’s a false dichotomy. I’m able to do most of what I want to do, but sometimes have to make adjustments like wearing a mask, eating outdoors and avoiding crowds.

Are you afraid of death?

No. I am afraid of carrying COVID and giving it to someone at greater risk of death than myself. Also, I’m very afraid at the prospect of getting long COVID. Beyond all that, not wanting to get sick is not a fear-based desire. I just don’t want to get sick.

Do you realize that because you do X, you don’t live a no-risk lifestyle?

Yes. There are a number of behaviors I engage in that are low-risk rather than no-risk. That extends way beyond risk of disease— for instance, I ride my bike as much as I can. There is a greater risk of being hit by a car because I ride my bike than if I never left my house. But I also wear a helmet, stay out of the middle of the street and avoid cars.

What do you miss that you don’t do anymore?

Going to diners, going to indoor shows, hosting dinner parties and, to some extent, flying to locations that are too far away to get to by car. Most of all, I miss not being looked at like I am more of a weirdo than people saw me as before. I also miss relationships that disintegrated either because of the pandemic or because of chains of events that commenced due to the pandemic.

Why do you feel comfortable staying in hotels?

This is one of a type of question that I have a hard time believing is being asked with sincerity. How exactly do you think COVID is transmitted? I either check into a hotel remotely, or wear a mask at check in and in common areas. I then go to my room and close the door. This is a pretty safe thing to do.

How do you go to work in an office?

Much the same way I go to hotels— I wear a mask in common areas, including in elevators (which I try to use alone, when I need to use one at all). I then go into my office, which has a good air filter, close my door and work. I generally interact with other people while wearing a mask or at a distance and I no longer use my office as a place to hang out with a revolving cast of maskless buddies.

Why do you think eating at places that offer outdoor dining are safe but not my house?

It is hard to transmit COVID outdoors. “Outdoors” means in the open air. There’s plenty to do in the open air including eating at restaurants that have outdoor, heated dining. It’s also pretty safe to eat in “igloos”— small, enclosed dining areas in which I sometimes eat with someone else who I know isn’t sick (like my wife). But there’s nothing magical about eating outside a restaurant’s permanent space. There are plenty of places, especially in New York City, that set up so-called outdoor dining in temporary structures that are totally enclosed and seat plenty of other patrons. That’s not safe and I don’t eat in such places. But that’s also not really “outdoors.”

Haven’t you heard that masks don’t work?

The right kind of mask, like KN95s, properly worn, significantly reduce the chance of spreading or contracting COVID (though not all diseases). Masks don’t work if they are the wrong type of mask (like cloth masks or surgical masks, though even they can help a little), if they are not properly worn (such as not covering the mouth or nose) or not worn during exposure. Don’t trust a blog that’s primarily about David Bowie to get the best explanation of what type of mask to wear and how they work, but come on, you’ve made it this far— how do you not know this?

You also might have read about a meta study that failed to show that the amalgam of mask policies, some implemented for reasons other than COVID, had much of an impact on preventing the spread of disease. There isn’t enough time or space here to go over all the ways this meta study has been (probably deliberately) misrepresented, however one key point is this: the meta study was not about the efficacy of properly wearing the right kind of mask. While it might— might— have had something to say about mask policies in the abstract, it had nothing to say about how well a properly worn KN95 mask will help prevent you from getting COVID.

Are you ever indoors without a mask?

Yes. In addition to places where I can be reasonably sure there is no COVID because, like how would it get there? (Like my house), I have on occasion made a call that certain indoor spaces are relatively safe. For instance, I have been in a handful of cavernous indoor spaces with few people anywhere close to me that seemed to be functionally equivalent to being outside. Maybe I was wrong to take off my mask in those instances, but I didn’t get sick. I don’t push it by going to such indoor locations too often, but I also am pretty sure there’s a meaningful difference between being in a large empty or nearly empty space and being in a small, cramped place.

Do you actually ask people to test for COVID before getting together with them?

Yes. On occasion, I’ve made the call that the person I’m going to see has had a low chance of having COVID and I haven’t asked for the test. Also, the chance of getting this wrong goes up with each additional person and each additional encounter with a person. But in general, if I get together indoors with someone and plan not to be wearing a mask, I ask that person to test, and I test myself so we’re on an even playing field.

Why don’t you travel?

I do travel. I travel quite a bit. I travel by car and by bicycle. As some of the attached pictures show, I can go far and wide via those methods. Too many people I know who fly have been getting sick for me to feel like flying is safe these days. Also, I once contracted the bird flu on the train, so I’m not about to get back on a train or bus any time soon. But I live within three hours of New York, Boston, Montreal, the Adirondacks, the Catskills and much, much more. I’m not at a loss of places to go or things to do.

Because you did something once and didn’t get sick, how can you say you won’t do that thing now?

This is usually asked as a kind of a gotcha question. Like, you crossed the street without looking once, so why are you telling me to look both ways before crossing the street? Look, part of the reason I’ve managed to avoid getting sick is because I take precautions, but I’ve probably made some wrong calls along the way but have gotten lucky nonetheless. That doesn’t mean repeating risky behavior over and over will forever be safe.

Do you want me to wear a mask?

Yes, but why are you putting it on me by asking me? I’m trying to prevent transmission of a disease, not appease some phobia. So wear a mask to reduce the risk of giving or getting COVID and don’t put it on me. Just wear the mask.

Why get a vaccine booster since it won’t prevent you from getting COVID?
The same reason you should get a flu shot every year. The disease changes and your immunity weakens. Also, don’t get confused about what the word “immunity” means in this context. It’s not like Superman and bullets— you’ll be more resistant to the worst of the disease. But look, the reason you are not getting measles is because you haven’t been with anyone who has measles. That shot you got in 1973 isn’t doing a whole lot for you now.

When will you get back to living your life?

I am living my life. My quality of life is better now that I’m not sick all the time. I hope that the disease, the medicine, the laws and/or societal norms change to make more activities safer, so I can make my triumphal return to a diner at some point, but I’m better off now that I was before the pandemic in all sorts of ways. None of that is a silver lining— I’d much rather COVID never happened, but I used the experience to improve my life, not retreat from it.

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