Bending the Covid Map

I re-read Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. This is the first time I’d read the book since the Covid-19 pandemic started.

An important feature of survivors is that they accept the world as it is, not how they’d like it to be. When the environment changes, they adapt.

Meanwhile, many people die before old age because they failed to adapt to the change in their circumstances. This is not just a matter of knowledge. As Gonzales describes it, we base our decisions on ‘emotional bookmarks.’ For example, I’ve touched a hot stove. That gave me the emotional bookmark that ‘touching hot stoves hurt.’ Therefore, I avoid touching hot stoves without thinking about it.

Emotional bookmarks formed in one situation may betray you in another. Gonzales gave the example of snowmobilers who drove up a slope during prime avalanche conditions–some died. They all understood, on an intellectual level, that going up the hill under those circumstances was likely to trigger an avalanche which would bury them. But they had old ‘emotional bookmarks’ which told them that taking snowmobiles up snowy hills was fun, whereas no avalanche had buried them before. The emotional bookmarks didn’t take into account that this was a different environment.

If you’re old enough to read this in 2022, you have many emotional bookmarks which predate the Covid-19 pandemic. I do too. They may betray us.

I also have some emotional bookmarks which may have directed me to make decisions which protected me from covid. Most notably, my infection with pertussis as a teenager left me with some emotional bookmarks. I know, in my gut, that a respiratory illness can be worse than a ‘common cold’ or ‘ordinary flu.’

It also left me with distrust of acquired immunity. Evidence available now shows that the pertussis vaccines which were available during my childhood in the United States are flawed, and that is a contributing factor to rising pertussis cases in the United States in the 21st century. Maybe pertussis evolved to better evade the vaccine. On top of that, pertussis infected me twice, about a year or two in between infections. Was my second case milder? Yes, much milder. It still happened. The first infection didn’t leave me with perfect immunity.

My body knows that vaccines and immunity from prior infection alone are not to be trusted.

Vaccines help. I recommend vaccinating all children against pertussis unless there is a medical reason not to. Though some will get pertussis anyway, many won’t, thanks to the vaccine.

Pertussis never put my life in danger. The case fatality rate for teenagers with pertussis is practically zero. I didn’t even need antibiotics (pertussis is a bacterial infection, therefore antibiotics are useful in severe cases). However, despite not threatening my life, despite not being severe enough to justify antibiotics, it still sucked. I had to lie in bed all day because I didn’t have the stamina to do anything else. Worse, I felt like I had lost control of my body–and no cold or flu has made me feel that way. A respiratory illness doesn’t have to be deadly to be worth avoiding.

The way that some people speak of Covid—that as long as the risk of killing you is low and you don’t need to go to the hospital, it’s not a big deal—feels wrong to me. Maybe these people never experienced a full-throated pertussis infection.

I also don’t trust vaccines or prior infection without other measures to protect me. (As far as I know, Covid-19 has never infected me, so I definitely can’t count on prior infection).

(Wow, I didn’t expect that pertussis anecdote to run that long).

Over and over, I’ve seen people choose to believe about covid what’s convenient for them instead of what the evidence shows. Alas, that includes the United States’ main public health institutions.

About a year ago, I had a conversation with someone who worked at USCF who told me that the covid-19 pandemic was ‘on its last legs.’ I expressed skepticism and asked ‘what about if there’s a new variant?’ I don’t remember what she said in response, but she wasn’t impressed.

Weeks later, Omicron came to the United States.

I would’ve preferred to have been wrong.

I encountered a Moderna study in early 2021 which indicated that the vaccines would only be effective for a few months and that booster shots would be needed to keep antibody levels up. I cited that study to multiple people who insisted that the vaccine would end the pandemic and there was no longer any need for masks or other counter-measures. They mentioned their credentials (which are more impressive than mine), then told me it was just one pre-print study and they doubted it. Well, to be fair, I wasn’t certain the study was right myself, but wasn’t it a possibility to take seriously?

That study was right after all.

I noticed the evidence. They didn’t.

Sometimes, I read articles about how we need to tell the public to keep up with their ‘annual Covid booster’? Um, excuse me? All the scientific evidence I’ve encountered shows that the boosters are effective for a few months, not a full year. What about all those months when people are effectively unvaccinated if they take ‘annual’ boosters?

That doesn’t mean I’m in favor of everyone getting a booster every 3-4 months: I’m not (for various reasons). What I mean is that we need measures other than vaccines for controlling covid.

If these articles made a case for why boosters should only be taken annually and what they would do about the period when people’s antibody levels are low, I’d listen. I’ve yet to see anyone make that case. To me, it seems that they are ‘bending the covid map’: they want covid to be just like the flu, so they assume it is, rather than recognized that covid is covid.

Likewise, more and more people speak of the pandemic being over. Scientifically, it’s not, but I care more about what practical steps I and others should take. Do we maintain covid precautions or not? With flu pandemics, we don’t know which wave is the last one until enough time has passed after the last wave without another one coming. The last wave of the 1918 flu in the United States occurred in 1920, and it took a few years for people to confirm that wave was the final one.

I’ve noticed that covid cases have dropped locally (not sure about national data). Since people are getting laxer about anti-covid measures and school is back in session, I assume that something has changed at the biological level. Have so many people here gotten BA5 that they have enough immunity to stave off more infections? If so, will the immunity last? Will other variants come? Is something else that I haven’t thought of going on?

It’s possible that the last wave is over… but I won’t believe it until we go through a winter with low death and low hospitalization rates.

Another factor in survival is getting comfortable in new circumstances.

I’m comfortable wearing respirators, and the risk of covid would have to be extremely low to persuade me to not bother.

While I was working on this post, I encountered this tweet which makes some of the same points in a more succinct manner (though I think it’s a little pompous).

2 thoughts on “Bending the Covid Map

  1. Right on. I had a “mild” case in August. This is not the cold or a flu. Despite the mildness of my case, it felt as if every major system of my body was being shaken up, tested, having the locks rattled, causing “minor” but noticeable (and alarming) symptoms like nerve pain in seemingly random areas of my body, for weeks after the fever had passed. So I’ll continue my routines to minimize exposure, continue masking, continue getting boosters at the pace my doctor recommends, thanks.

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