The Pandemic Diary: May 18

Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.

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May 18: I’m pretty sure the first major news story I remember in my life was the Iran Hostage Crisis, which began in late 1979.  The eruption of Mt. St. Helens a few months later was a close second. Today is the 40th anniversary of that eruption.

I’ve always been fascinated by it. Obviously a big part of that is simply the sheer size of the cataclysm. Part of my fascination, however, has to do with the fact that there was a two-month build-up. There was uncertainty about what would happen and when. If, indeed, anything was going to happen at all. I know with hindsight what happened, but I still go back and read contemporaneous accounts to get a flavor of the time just before the eruption.

A number of people dismissed the danger. Some of them, most notably local resident/character Harry R. Truman, decided to stay put. Truman got a lot of media attention between March and May of 1980 for his vow to remain in his house at the bottom of the north slope no matter what. His most famous quote along those lines was “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it,” which was taken as a fatalistic, almost romantic sentiment on the old man’s part.

But Truman wasn’t that fatalistic. He was also in denial, saying “this area is heavily timbered, Spirit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain is a mile away, the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.” He didn’t think he’d be harmed because he simply could not imagine anything beyond his own experience.

Someone who was not at all in denial was the USGS volcanologist David A. Johnston. Johnston was the first scientist on the scene and stayed there for the duration, studying the seismic activity and the changes in the mountain, talking to the press, and raising awareness about what might happen. He and several other volcanologists warned people away from the volcano during the two months of pre-eruptive activity and successfully fought considerable pressure to re-open the area from people who did not think the situation was all that dangerous.

Seconds after the eruption, Harry R. Truman was buried under pyroclastic flow that had no trouble at all getting through that timber and across Spirit Lake. David A. Johnston, stationed on a ridge six miles to the north, was swept away by the lateral blast which traveled toward him at nearly the speed of sound. Neither Truman’s nor Johnston’s bodies were ever found.

Johnston’s last words, recorded over a radio transmission as the entire north side of a mountain hurtled towards him were, “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” I’d like to think that just before he died that he knew and appreciated that, if it wasn’t for his and his colleagues’ work, it’s likely that far more than 57 people would have died when Mt. St. Helens blew.

There will always be people in denial of the dangers around them. There will always be people who won’t let themselves be saved. There will, hopefully, always be scientists seeking and disseminating information which will help people protect themselves. I just hope that in the future the ratios of those in denial to those who heed the warnings will be a bit better than they seem to be these days.

 

Phase 1 clinical trial of a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed by the biotech company Moderna, has reportedly yielded positive results. The FDA has approved a Phase 2 trial, which would expand the study to more test subjects, with a Phase 3 trial to follow in the summer if the next is successful. Moderna says that if there are no setbacks a publicly available vaccine could be ready as early as January.

Take all of that with a grain of salt — and please heed the usual caveats when it comes to both vaccine trials and reporting on almost any scientific work — but I’ll take any good news I can get these days.

In vaguely related news:

He’s probably not doing that, actually. Trump is a lot of things but he doesn’t strike me as a guy who is about to start popping pills that have been increasingly shown to be dangerous for off-label use. He only takes risks with the lives and fortunes of others, not his own. He may get some White House doctor to offer some ambiguous words that almost, but don’t quite, cover for his irresponsible claim, but I suspect something else is going on.

For example, as was reported in April, Trump has a personal financial interest in and/or connection to Sanofi, the French drugmaker that produces a brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine. There’s a decent chance he’s trying to do that company and, in turn himself or friends of his, a solid. Lucky for him we’ve basically legalized corruption among Republican office holders over the past three years so no one will do anything about it if that’s the case.

He’s also insecure, and late last week a whistleblower testified before Congress about just how irresponsible Trump was to promote the drug from the presidential podium. It would be a classic Trump move to push back by doubling and tripling down. “Oh yeah, he’s wrong, and not only is he wrong, but the drug is safe, and not only is the drug safe, but I myself am taking it!” Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Regardless of what Trump is personally doing — he can snort kerosene for all I care — him merely saying he’s doing this is obviously horrible. Especially when he added, later in the news conference, “what do you have to lose?” His hardcore supporters are basically a cult. Some of them will, based on his personal endorsement, view the drug as harmless. Some will seek it out and take it.

But even if that doesn’t happen, it’s just the latest of scores and scores of examples of Trump undermining science, medicine, public health, and the experts in those fields in the middle of a motherfucking pandemic, and that’s the sort of thing that would cause any country that isn’t a failed state like we’ve quickly become to remove him from office immediately due to incapacity and incompetence.

 

Yesterday I talked about how government is and will continue to cook the books with respect to the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Right on schedule, this morning’s Columbus Dispatch reports the following:

Belmont Correctional Institution is emerging as the state’s latest prison hot spot for the coronavirus as COVID-19 cases soar and conditions at the minimum-to-medium security facility in eastern Ohio deteriorate. But the public may never know it because the state has stopped the mass testing that showed prisons in Marion and Pickaway counties were the top COVID-19 hot spots in the nation . . . Those on the front lines say the virus almost certainly is more widespread than reported because the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is no longer conducting widespread testing in prisons.

It’s worse than officials are saying. It was worse than they were saying it was before, it is worse than they are saying it is now, and it will be worse than they will be saying it is then. That’s the only thing I’m confident about in all of this.

 

I was reading a book before bed last night and, though I didn’t feel tired, my eyes felt tired. Soon it almost felt as if they were swelling shut. I looked in a mirror to make sure they, you know, weren’t doing that, and everything looked normal. They weren’t even a little puffy. I decided to take it as a sign that I was just tired and went to bed.

I woke up at 3:45 this morning and, in addition to my eyes feeling the same way, my nose and ear felt all stuffed up. After trying to fight though it and get back to sleep for a few minutes I got up. Thinking it could just be an explosion of seasonal allergies after a couple of humid days and a lot of outside time, I took a Zyrtec. It helped a little, but not completely. And by 10:30AM I was zoned out due to both the medicine and the lack of sleep, so I took a nap.

The nap helped, but by 4PM my throat was scratchy again and it had been joined by some body aches and general fatigue. I laid down in bed. When Allison came home she convinced me that the carryout dinner I had planned to get the kids would be transformed to delivery and that I wasn’t to do anything else this evening.

Everything delivering now is so new to me, at least out here in the burbs. Pizza and Jimmy John’s has always been an option, but you really didn’t have a lot of stuff brought right to your front door before recently. Carlo just wanted pizza — you’d think he’d get tired of it, but no — and Anna wanted Panera. Allison ordered it. The food came quickly, dropped on the porch to limit contact.

The only hiccup was tat Panera forgot Anna’s cookie. Or maybe they were out and they credited it back to us? I didn’t look. I’m not supposed to be doing anything this evening. Not a major deal, but it’s the sort of thing that keeps me from giving in to the deliver/curbside everything ethos we’re quickly adopting.

I get it, and I know it’s useful and even necessary for people, but I’m sort of a control freak and a micromanager when it comes to shopping or getting takeout food or whatever. I like to pick out grocery store items myself (in the case of celiac-friendly items I have to, because the store choosing substitutes for me might result in unsafe food). If I had picked up Panera for Anna personally I would’ve scoped the bakery case to assess options. It’s probably kind of dumb on my part. Allison has been trying for years to get me to stop trying to do everything myself and let people do for me, but I don’t think it’ll every feel natural for me. I’m just not good at delegation. I sucked at it when I was a lawyer, I suck at it when it comes to chores around the house, and, as a writer, it’s almost never a thing that comes up.

All of that is neither here nor there because Carlo was happy with his pizza, Anna was happy with her soup and sandwich, and Allison and I cooked some simple things for ourselves. I was just kind of grumpy about feeling a little weak and helpless this evening.

I’m still not feeling great as I finish this up and get ready for bed, but I’m still pretty sure it’s something minor. There’s no fever or cough or anything like that. Just the scratchy throat, weakness and a some body aches.

Still: what’s the scientific word for “reluctance to Google medical symptoms during a pandemic?”

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.