Fear? Or, Caution and Respect?

Call the email exchange spirited. Each side marshalled evidence in the form of research. I was one side of the two-sided correspondence.

I don’t fear Covid-19, per se. I do take precautions; I have tried to learn from the missteps of the Pandemic of 1918. I respect the fact that Covid-19 has done tremendous damage; and will, or can, do a whole lot more as the season changes.

People have grown tired of the lockdowns. I get it. But too many are ignoring health warnings. Why is it so hard to understand, for example, that a face mask goes over one’s nose? Why do people think because they are outside, the danger is non-existent? Social distancing exists for a reason, and recent research questions whether six-feet is enough distance.

The biggest frustration I see, however, is among people with children. There is a palpable anger over the fact that schools aren’t open and back to normal.

It appears when it comes to Covid-19, there is a growing, yet dangerous, attitude which looks like this:

That’s how the email conversation started. The correspondent’s basic premise was, decisions about opening schools should be made with local data and nothing more. If a local community does not have a cluster of illnesses among children, and no community children have died since March, why keep schools closed?

For me, it’s the potential of illness and death. I noted I would rather err on the side of the greater good. We know children are asymptomatic carriers. A study out of Georgia shows just how rapidly Covid-19 can spread from asymptomatic children. One death from Covid-19 connected to the reopening schools is concerning for me. The emotional toll would be enormous.

But there are other dangers to Covid-19; it can leave behind long-lasting health problems. The term for people suffering from those potentially long-lasting effects are called long haulers. I noted for my correspondent that football players at Ohio State who had weathered the virus showed signs of lasting heart problems. There is also research showing some people post Covid-19 have significant neuro-psych issues.

But since my correspondent saw none of these problems close to home, they shouldn’t impact local decision-making.

Essentially the exchange ended as an agree to disagree détente; but the exchange obviously still troubles me.

To be charged with fear-mongering during a pandemic is quite unsettling. And, the correspondent told me it was troubling to know I was guided by the utilitarian theory of the greater good. How could that be troubling? How could watching out for the health and safety of students; and all those who come in contact with students; be troubling; or even as implied, amoral?

I referenced the Pandemic of 1918. People also became complacent. Undoubtedly, the complacency then, and now, stems from people growing weary of being locked down and having to wear masks. But, we need only to look to history, and what happened in Philadelphia, to know that we should be cautious, and respect the potential that Covid-19 can come roaring back this fall.

The first cases of influenza in Philadelphia appeared on September 7, [1918] when sailors from Boston arrived in the naval yard. By early October, hospital beds in Philadelphia were full, public meetings and church services were banned, schools were closed, and there was a severe shortage of coffins. Beginning in September 1918 and until spring of 1919, the weekly number of influenza-related deaths in Philadelphia dropped below three figures only once. In October alone, over 11,000 Philadelphians died from influenza.

By the end of October, public services and meetings, including school and church, were re-opened. In early November, influenza in Philadelphia had reached its peak and the number of deaths slowly declined. A reported 12,162 people had died by November 2, 1918. The end of the second wave for most American cities, including Philadelphia, came in mid-November. Philadelphia had a small resurgence during the third and final wave during February 1919. By the end of the pandemic, a huge number of people had died. A general estimate for the total number of deaths is 50 million, though estimates range from as low as 25 million to as high as 100 million deaths worldwide. Over 1.5 million of these deaths were in the United States. Whichever way the true numbers run, the loss of life is truly astounding.

https://histmed.collegeofphysicians.org/for-students/influenza/

And one of the reasons for the resurgence in Philadelphia was due to an event called the Liberty Loan parade.

 To bolster morale and support the war effort, a procession for the ages brought together marching bands, Boy Scouts, women’s auxiliaries, and uniformed troops to promote Liberty Loans –government bonds issued to pay for the war. The day would be capped off with a concert led by the “March King” himself –John Philip Sousa.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/philadelphia-threw-wwi-parade-gave-thousands-onlookers-flu-180970372/

Pandemic weary Philadelphians flocked to the event and the consequences were great, indeed.

The parade became an opportunity for mass infection. Within days, influenza had become so widespread that Philadelphia and state officials essentially shuttered the city. By the third week of October influenza, or “the grippe” as it was called by many, had afflicted tens of thousands of people and claimed the lives of more than 4,500 Philadelphians.

Few American cities were hit harder.

“The Liberty Loan decision was one in a series of decisions that, I think, contributed to the death toll,” said historian John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza.” “When you mix politics and science, you get politics.”

https://www.phillyvoice.com/100-years-ago-spanish-flu-philadelphia-killed-thousands-influenza-epidemic-libery-loan-parade/

And it didn’t take long for people to become infected and die.

Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500. With many of the city’s health professionals pressed into military service, Philadelphia was unprepared for this deluge of death.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/philadelphia-threw-wwi-parade-gave-thousands-onlookers-flu-180970372/

So, label me an amoral, fear monger; but, I have been reading the Covid-19 research and pandemic history since March of this year. I suggested to my correspondent that maybe the lack of illness in our community was due to the precautions in effect, including opening schools with remote learning. And, testing that hypothesis was not something I was willing to do.

We certainly are living in interesting (and frustrating) times; although my correspondent insisted these are not unprecedented times–we’ve apparently seen worse. I don’t know; these last six months have felt unprecedented to me.

And by the way, the phrase: May you live in interesting times is not a curse. Just ask the Quote Investigator.

4 thoughts on “Fear? Or, Caution and Respect?

  1. CDC: COVID-19 spread in schools much lower than in rest of community
    https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2021/01/26/CDC-COVID-19-spread-in-schools-much-lower-than-in-rest-of-community/9331611688346/

    COVID-19 Cases and Transmission in 17 K–12 Schools
    https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7004e3.htm

    There is a golden mean between closing down everything and saying that people should stay in their houses 24/7 and having a parade in the middle of a pandemic. I think a lot of folks are just asking that we get closer to that mean, and away from the former of those two extremes.

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  2. Getting closer to the mean is near impossible when there are still people who won’t wear masks; or, if they wear them, only wear them over their mouths. People are still gathering in crowds. I am waiting to see what happens between now and 14 days after Super Bowl Sunday. Quite honestly, if parents want to make a decision to risk the lives of their children, that’s one thing. But parents risking the lives of others because they want their own kids in school is irresponsible in my opinion. And you know, school districts are not all the same. There are beautiful new schools with amazing HVAC systems in some parts of the country; and in other locales, students learn in schools that were built 100-years ago. One can’t make policy without considering those disparities. Finally, during this pandemic, the nation’s health institutions–the CDC and NIH– have shown themselves to be self-serving and conveyors of mixed messages. There is a monolithic view of education inside the beltway and down in Atlanta.

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    1. You seem to be at “schools shouldn’t be open at all until covid goes away.” I’m at “we should re-open with sensible precautions in place.” So I see we don’t agree here. I just don’t think we can justify keeping schools completely closed at this point. Schools have been opened in some countries since May 2020, and they have been fine. And please keep in mind, there are a good number of children for whom school is the only safe, quiet space that they have to learn, study, and interact with peers. For them, home is loud and chaotic.

      I do agree that we should not be having indoor Superbowl parties now.

      Are you going to look at and respond to the study that I sent you? It’s rather disingenuous to push it away, saying that the CDC has been self-serving etc., when you yourself cited the CDC in your original post. (“A study out of Georgia…”).

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  3. I have read all the studies about opening schools, including those from Europe, and those written by physicians in the JAMA journal of Pediatrics. There are glaring variable problems in all of these studies. Researchers believe all school districts look alike. I can tell you with absolute certainty that’s not the case.

    The study out of the UK noted that the success of opening schools depended on the compliance of the community in terms of social distancing and wearing masks. A recent study out of Paris looked at daycares run by hospitals. These studies never identify variables like age of buildings, quality of HVAC, number of students the buildings house, etc. etc. etc.

    The fact is, around the US, school districts are all different. New communities have more modern schools. Urban areas often have schools which are one hundred years old and have been modified, but are still lacking. There are districts with modern HVAC systems and districts with heat, but no air conditioning.

    During the 1918 pandemic–which I wrote about in May 2020, NJ school districts, for example, were given carte blanche in terms of how best to serve the community. That’s not the case during this pandemic. Everyone wants a one-size-fits all open up 100%.

    Schools were not designed to address the needs of families during a pandemic. Schools in most places operate on a 180-day year. And, teachers should have as much say about their own health and safety as anyone else. Teachers are traditionally not front-line workers. To wave an invisible magic wand and declare otherwise is not possible. Districts enter into union contracts with employees for three year periods. Amending a contract to fit the needs of a pandemic is not something that can be done instantly.

    Social distancing in old buildings is a challenge. And there was a period of time in this country when, in order to save money, schools were equipped with what is called a multi-purpose room. The room serves several functions. Often it is a cafeteria and performance space. But sometimes, it’s a cafeteria, gymnasium and performance space.

    Districts operate under a load of mandates from state and federal departments of education. Write now, the collective DOE brain trusts think testing students during a pandemic is a great idea. I don’t think so.

    I get the problems. I get the Flat-Stanley learning teachers and students are living through. I get that there is going to be a lot of remediation to do once people are vaccinated and returned to classrooms safely. It just is what it is given the constraints imposed by those higher up the educational food chain.

    And let me ask this: What responsibility do parents have for their children? Public education was not designed to be daycare. And, if that’s what communities want, then there needs to be a lot more funding in place to turn schools into what is referred to as a community school model–schools that provide not only learning, but healthcare, access to washer-dryers, food pantries, and other kinds of services schools have not traditionally provided. There are districts which have had to provide masks for students who couldn’t afford their own.

    And wait. Before the pandemic hit, schools were asked to become fortresses to protect against shooters. Some districts are still struggling to comply with those mandates.

    Honestly, how to operate schools has become a moment-by-moment decision. It’s a roller coaster no one wants to ride. But ride we must. Many schools are operating on a hybrid model based off of social-distancing requirements. Some districts are on full remote. I am aware of a PK-8 district of 496 students which operates out of one building. At the moment, instruction is fully remote.

    At the end of the day, I think districts need the latitude to make decisions based on the variables they are faced with in terms of facilities, staffing, budgetary constraints, and the restrictions imposed by union contracts, and state and federal DOE mandates.

    There is no one-size fits all here.

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