The Top of the Curve Is In Sight

According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), we are less than 2 weeks from a peak of both hospital usage and deaths due to coronavirus. The peak is reportedly even closer for just Washington state: our hospital usage peak is estimated for April 11 and the daily death count is expected to peak at 22 ±14 just four days from now. While it’s important to note the huge uncertainty bands around these numbers, I have renewed confidence that the severe changes we’ve undertaken to combat COVID-19 are having a beneficial effect.

As of April 4, in King County, there are 2,898 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 200 people have died from the disease. The county’s dashboard of COVID-19 statistics shows a relatively flat curve with low numbers of reported deaths per day.

It’s been one month to the day since I started working from home. I’m still often distracted by the major news events of the day, particularly from New York, and at some point I should just stop receiving alerts on my iPhone from The New York Times for the sake of my attention span. I’m still grateful that my coworkers and leaders at work have been both pragmatic and compassionate towards employees. My CEO, for example, has publicly stated that he would enact no significant layoffs for three months and has encouraged other business leaders to do the same. My days now include far more phone calls and videoconferences, including social ones, than ever before, and now I actually look forward to such interactions. Many of my team meetings at work now include a little slack time at the end to catch up and speak freely.

At the same time, though, I continue to see some frayed nerves online, where I lamentably spend too much time on social media. An outbreak of Hepatitis A among homeless people in Seattle has renewed and intensified calls to forcibly cull homeless encampments near me. I ended up deactivating my Nextdoor account after realizing how tall the waves of indignation have grown against the homeless. Dozens of “name and shame” groups related to COVID-19 exist on Facebook, a famous hosting provider for antisocial mobs, and these focus a mix of local and global outrage against a mix of corporations and people who are accused of violating new guidelines. Some friends and family are trying to relax with funny COVID-19 jokes and memes, although I don’t find most of them to be funny, and some of them “punch down” against the less fortunate.

Most of the retail shops in my neighborhood have closed down for the time being. Restaurants that aren’t serving delivery and take-out customers now have signs on their front doors reading “no cash, no booze, no food” to deter burglars. Plywood barricades also serve this purpose, and some of them now sport colorful murals, but it still makes me very sad to see a once-vibrant commercial district so desolate and unwelcoming.

Trips to the supermarket now have a grim sense of purpose. I used to drop into my local Trader Joe’s on my bike ride home to pick up a few essentials for $10 or less, but on a recent Thursday afternoon there was a 15-minute wait to enter the store and, once inside, I felt compelled to buy as much as I could carry just to limit the number of shopping trips I’ll need to make. Compared with March 2019, I spent half as much on dining out and more than three times as much on groceries in March 2020.

Left unsaid in the press conferences and media releases is what our endgame for the shutdown will look like. As with the 1918 flu pandemic, a second curve of cases is likely once people are again free to gather socially. Will people have to carry identity cards stating that they have antibodies against SARS-CoV-2? How many restaurants and bars will be permitted to open, and at what percentage of their normal occupancy? Will vulnerable populations continue to shelter in place, whether by executive order or out of their own caution? Our first curve will likely reach a low steady state by summer, but life after it remains a mystery.