S1: This is the waves. This is the way, this is the way. This is the way. This is the way. This is the waves.
S2: Welcome to The Waves, Slate’s podcast about gender, feminism and the latest wave of coronavirus. We’re all doing this anxious flooding all over again. Every episode you get a new pair of women to talk about the thing we can’t get off of our minds. And today you’ve got me, Shannon Palus, a senior editor at Slate, focusing on health and science,
S3: and me, Rebecca Onion, a staff writer at Slate.
S2: Today, we’re going to be talking about the Delta surge and how it’s put us all back in a position of having to navigate very difficult family decision making situations for a while of mental load of the pandemic seem to be gone. Now it’s back. How are people dealing with the narrative switched back to, quote unquote, starting to worry again? How is that flip getting reflected in relationships? And how is this period of negotiation different from 20 20? Rebecca, why were you interested in talking about this?
S3: Who isn’t thinking about this right now? I’m not sure. I just kind of personally overwhelmed by the switch, as I think a lot of people have been. I have a child who’s four and a half who has been out of preschool for 17 months. We’re lucky enough to be able to have a place to send her back to, which is not a given, considering then that state of the child care industry. And we have been in a relative hibernation, I guess I should say. So I’m a Vermont worker. I always have been. And during the duration of the pandemic last year, my husband was a stay at home dad. So we didn’t travel. We had very, really small social life and actually we were pretty happy with it. And then this summer, of course, the my husband and I both got vaccinated. We saw everybody. We went to New Hampshire. We saw my whole family. We went swimming in lakes. We ate ice cream. We felt renewed. And now I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t know how to feel. I’m also just really professionally interested in family decision making around children’s risks and how people do it and how people sort of way risks when they when they are really afraid. Why are you interested in besides the fact that you’re editing reams of content on the pandemic talk?
S2: Well, I’m so excited to be here with you because I’ve been thinking about this pandemic from a bunch of different angles. And I feel like as a childless person, I’m super curious about how parents are feeling right now and how you’re thinking through all of this and what that feels like for you. And personally, I’m I’ve been in Denver for six weeks living and working out of a two bedroom in a RV with its own private entrance. So I don’t have to see people in the hallways. I live in New York. Typically, we’re going to be returning to our New York apartment soon, which is a one bedroom in a very large building. And I had this fantasy of, you know, we got a little bit of like vaccinated time in New York at the beginning of the summer. We come out here, we really, like, let loose and then we go back and, you know, I put on a nice first day of school outfit and go back to the office where I am greeted by a sea of colleagues and I’m grinning and even a lipstick person. Now, that is just not going to happen. And I’m I’m trying to puzzle out along with my boyfriend, who is at higher risk of the virus, what looks right and feels right. And it is rational for our our unit to be doing and engaging in. So coming up, we’re going to be unpacking what the new normal of parenting and family life is as we all learn how to cope with Delta. First, we’re going to be talking about how we’re thinking about protecting kids right now. Rebecca, what is it like to have a small human that is not vaccinated in your midst?
S3: Oh, my gosh. You know how they say if you have, like, a book idea or like a movie idea, you’re supposed to have like a little like a short elevator pitch to, like, present to people if you meet them and they’re interested in, like, publishing your book. I feel like I come up with that. But for the state of kids and Delta and for myself like every day, because I’m just trying to distill to myself what the situation is. The biggest problem for me right now is, I mean, what isn’t a problem? But my biggest issue is trying to process the information and distill it for myself in a way that gives me and my family a takeaway. And I spend so much time on the Internet. There have been sort of like a glut of pieces that are basically interviews with people who work in pediatric hospitals or like in pediatric excuse about what’s happening in children’s hospitals across the country, especially in the south. I just I feel like I spend a day like maybe once every six hours. I Google Delta Variant and children evidence to try to see to try to see if there is some way to present to sort of balance out these stories about hospitals and what’s going on in them with numbers that mean anything to me. And I would love to hear from you as a person who edits science coverage, what you’re sort of take away on kids and Delta is right now,
S2: I’m going to caveat this with I have not written or edited anything specifically, I’m confident kids yet in this cycle. I’ve just done a bunch of reading my main takeaway, just as like a smart human in the world who is reading the news, is the risk of anything bad happening to kids is low right now, like actually quite low, but it’s real and it’s reasonable to be very worried. And I keep thinking about, OK, the death toll over this whole pandemic for kids has been in like the low to mid hundreds. And when you compare that to the overall death toll of hundreds of thousands of Americans, that seems really, really small. But if, you know, four hundred kids were kidnapped in the past year and brutally murdered, sorry, this is so dear. My goodness. Like like that that would be like really, really concerning and like reasonably concerning. And I feel like we really have have learned to accept something about Covid and that like we might not in other arenas just because the toll for folks who are not kids is so extreme.
S3: That’s interesting. Yeah.
S2: And I don’t specifically I think that it is a little it is a question mark. I was reading a piece by Emily Anthos in The New York Times about kids and covid, and it’s just kind of like this shrug or not shrug, but it feels a little bit like a where scientists are like, oh, well, we kind of need more data to say that if these infections are worse or not. And in the past, as a science reporter that like, oh, we need more data to really show that this is worse, has signaled to me, hey, this might be an unreasonable worry because scientists are saying that we don’t have any evidence that we need to worry about it right now. And and if there’s no evidence that we need to worry about it, well, we could be worried about literally anything like, you know, I could be sitting here worried about the chemicals and in my sofa cushions and saying, well, we don’t have evidence yet that we should worry about it. But and with Covid, I feel like that instinct has just been turned on its head where I feel like every time I’m like, hmm, maybe that will be OK. Often it’s not. And and that’s kind of where I am and processing that. Where are you?
S3: This is my problem with coming up with the elevator pitch to myself every day is that there’s all these back and forth. Like obviously the infections are touching more kids. And as we’ve had to like, teach ourselves over and over throughout this whole pandemic, if you have a super infectious thing that touches a lot of people, like more people are going to have a bad time of it because there’s just more people in like the general population there are getting it. But then I guess the question is, among those kids who are getting it, is the variant actually affecting them worse than it would have if an equal of equivalent number of kids had gotten alpha? And that’s what they’re saying. They don’t know, right?
S2: I think that’s right. And I want to be clear that I think part of my the bottom line on kids is the experts are saying. That schools can open safely with precautions like masks and ventilation and teachers getting vaccinated, and that if were really good about doing all of those things and providing schools with resources to do those things and not, say, banning mass mandates in schools, that it can be really safe. So it’s kind of a situation of concern is appropriate, but also that that concern could be met with precautions.
S3: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Maybe we’re, again, in the position where if you’re vaccinated and you’re worrying about your kids like you’ve already done, the thing that you can do in some ways besides the masking at school, like arguing for your district to not ban masks, please. At the very least, like when I see sort of like parental worry about it online, maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like a lot of it is among vaccinated people who are like very covid cautious. And I worry a little bit that we’re going to a place of like protecting our own kids and not worrying about the kids who are actually at risk, which is like a very common parental position in the United States where you’re like constantly like worried about very small risk to your own kid and like not thinking about big risks to other kids, which is like an exhausting place because it’s obviously sort of like an emotional default in some ways. And there’s a way where it’s also kind of like, well, what can I do? I can’t make people get vaccinated, but I can, like, yell at my husband about not making my child wear a mask into the store or whatever. Like that’s one little place of control
S2: like this sounds like me shirking responsibility. And there’s only so much that you can, like, batten down the hatches on your own life before. It’s not it’s not helping any longer.
S3: Well, I think that’s part of the reason why I were so overwhelmed right now is trying to figure out whether we’re minding our own business or trying to figure out whether you’re Minding Your Business or minding someone else’s business or what you know, what your actions are actually doing for the bigger situation.
S2: So how does it feel having a kid growing up, watching this mass individualism run our country into into another covid wave?
S3: I feel like this has been a cliche since like early April 20. Twenty to say. But, you know, Covid has really brought to light a lot of things that we all sort of knew but has made them like really obvious. And for me, for a long time, I’ve sort of been struck by the degree to which our society is both like very worried about children in some ways and not worried about them all at all in other ways, like sort of whiplash effect about kids. So like very concerned about what movies they’re consuming or very concerned about stranger danger, like these kinds of panics, but not concerned about hunger and not concerned about car culture, which is like a huge threat and also a way that we curtail their lives in a way that’s like not good for them. And this is just like another thing like that. Like I’m just kind of like, well, of course, like like when it really came down to it, Americans did not want to sacrifice for children and they still don’t want to. And in some ways, the dynamics of this disease and the way that it affects children or doesn’t have been the worst for that because people have been able to read the tea leaves and come up with almost anything. You know, we were talking in Slark recently about how the word abuse has been sort of a way for both sides to label, like what’s going on with kids and covid. So the right will say, oh, wearing masks is child abuse. And then the left will say, like, look at look at this picture of a kid on a ventilator. Like this is child abuse. It’s just, you know, another aspect of our hyper partisanship, culture, war kind of stuff where it’s like, you know, how how do people think of, like, safety in childhood? People think of it really differently when they’re on different sides of the political spectrum, like, imagine telling someone you’re doing the wrong thing for your kid. Like it’s just like very irritating in every situation. So I’m not sure I’m not necessarily sure that the vaccination situation is going to be very different.
S2: Like parenting advice is always kind of coming in from all sides. And like, you know, you’re feeding your kid wrong. You’re sending them to preschool at the wrong time. They’re like letting them watch PG 13 movies. By the way, you’re also like doing the wrong thing with your own body. And even if the last one is right, it’s not Susan. Yeah.
S3: Yeah, that’s a that’s a really good way to put it. I mean, I don’t know. I was sort of overwhelmed recently to find out that I have some colleagues, you know, so I live in a small college town, as you know, and my most of our colleagues live in big cities. And I have colleagues I found out recently who won’t have never driven a car with their children in it like they don’t drive cars because they live in the city. But they’re afraid that if they drive a car with their child in it, there will be an accident and then something will happen and they’ll never be able to forgive themselves. Are you know that the situation will be so horrible? And I’m thinking, my God, like I drive a car with my child in it, like daily, if not twice a day. You know, that’s just like a way of life here. Now, they’re not very long trips and it’s not very traffic, whatever, but there’s always going to be sort of like risk tolerances around parenting that are really a wide range. And I think that the Covid situation is no different.
S2: And I just want to close out with one thought. It’s so hard to square the idea that, like, OK, well, we have different risk tolerances and so we can make we can each make different decisions about how to live our lives based on this risk chances. And yet at the same time, there are a few things that we really should all be engaging in. It’s called public health for a reason. It’s the health of the public. It’s not health like the one person. And I keep thinking about just how much I crave vaccine mandates and mandates, because I think that if we can all do a couple things in unison that will make everything so much better. And yeah, masks are being made into this like, well, it’s a personal choice. If you wish to wear one, you can.
S3: I mean, this has been the debate for like since again since April 20, 20 years since whenever they first started talking about like we should all have masks. That has been the thing, right? I don’t know. I’m not sure how to make, quote unquote, make those people see the light. Like, I just I feel like the vaccine thing is so tied up with the the politics in general. I mean, you know, this it’s obviously it’s like not just like a scientific information question. It’s like a it’s a it’s a total world view. And it’s the same thing with arguing that you should do it for your kids. Like, I know people should change their minds and act more collectively, but I’m trying to be realistic about what like how it seems like unvaccinated parents are thinking about it, which is to say really differently from the vaccinated.
S2: I think on that note, we’re going to take a break here. But if you’re enjoying the waves, we would love it if you would like and subscribe to the waves wherever you get your podcasts. All right, we’re back and we’re going to talk about the sheer confusion and whiplash of being in yet another covid wave and how that is burdensome. And I do want to open this one up by underscoring how much better things are. And a lot of ways the vaccines are really, really effective as public health folks have been shouting about for months now, and they remain effective even in the face of Delta. We’re all hearing anecdotes about breakthrough infections, but it’s actually pretty rare to get a breakthrough infection. And while they can make you pretty unpleasantly sick, that’s also pretty rare in the Provincetown outbreak that happened July 4th weekend. No one who was vaccinated died. And that’s really huge for a big event that involves lots of indoor partying and being close to strangers. So I think one thing I’m really struggling with right now is just calibrating my brain to the nuance of all of that. The idea that I am quite safe and, you know, you’re quite safe and kids and are immunocompromised, loved ones are quite safe. And yet we’re still dealing with this thing and there can be events and we’re also still very much dealing with it as a society.
S3: Yeah, you shared with me earlier today a really good newsletter by Charlie Warzel, who used to work for The New York Times and now has a substory, and he titled his newsletter, I Need to Stop Scrolling, which is exactly how I feel. I’m just like sort of ruled by anecdote right now. I think I now know three or four vaccinated families that have had breakthrough infections. And of course, my problem is that I know a lot more vaccinated people than unvaccinated people. And so Charlie is sort of take away point in his substory piece was about the problem with reading a lot of Internet about Covid, which back in summer twenty 20, when obviously what we should be doing was staying in as much as possible, only seeing other people outdoors wearing a mask, you know, not traveling unless it’s absolutely necessary. All the things that we were told last summer and also supported by the government to do in some cases like last year, parental leave was part of the Carers Act. The government was constructing policies to encourage us to do what needed to be done. And now that we have the vaccinations, which, as you say, are working really well, still everyone has sort of a different opinion. And a lot of the the content that’s that’s coming is either is anecdotal and speculative, as we were saying earlier. And we were talking about the hospital pieces about kids. It’s like bad signs and not really data yet. And so what Charlie was saying is that sometimes he thinks that he’d be better off if he didn’t read all the, like, incremental stories and just once a week read the takeaway stories, given that he’s vaccinated and plans to be relatively cautious and that if you could try not to like plague and burden your mind with so much reading about it, then maybe you’d be better off. Now, on the other hand, I think to myself, people are suffering and it’s like my duty as a human to know what’s going on. You know, like if there’s like a whole section of the United States where people are suffering, not everyone who didn’t get vaccinated because they didn’t want to you, but also people who didn’t get vaccinated because they couldn’t or or, you know, didn’t have their barriers then like it’s somehow my duty to know about that. But then in knowing about it, I drive myself crazy.
S2: I really liked that newsletter entry by Charlie Marza as well. And I think I want to push back a little bit on it’s your duty to know about it. I think that there is a better middle ground between it’s my duty to know about it by Googling Delta variant data every every six hours versus like trying to check in once a week or even once a day and just get a top line summary of where the country is going as a general trend. And I think the that is actually each of our duty is in each of our duties as members of society, is to pay attention to the top line public health rules, like getting vaccinated, like having vaccine passports. I think paying attention to, like the top line public health stuff is really important and that that’s what matters more than just ingesting anecdote after anecdote after anecdote. But I actually. I think that trying to temper your news and take it gives me more energy to do the annoying things that I have to do, like wearing a mask when I go indoors. I guess I want to ask you, like, do do you think it is helping you?
S3: No, I mean, I think I think that’s I mean, that’s a major sort of difference between me and my husband when we’re making what we’re talking about. The Delta surge, one of his main things is like he just is like I’m just like I just can’t like people who don’t want to get the vaccination. I can’t read about it anymore. I don’t want to know. I’m just, like, done with them. Like, he just like is able to write them off in a way that I feel like unable to do. Like, I just feel like I’m like if I could just find the perfect thing to do to convince them, I could convince them. I’m like, yeah, but no one’s reading. No one who’s unvaccinated and could be convinced is reading Slate. I don’t know. Like I just the breakdown in in belief is so much bigger than me.
S2: I feel exhausted, more than angry right now, but there are a pair of pieces that I attended recently that have really helped me get a grip in the past week that I’d like to talk about. And both of them look at things in terms of cold, hard numbers and have equations in them where you can actually plug numbers in yourself and get a feel for what’s going on. And the first one is, what does it really mean when the headline says, seventy five percent of cases occurred and vaccinated people? And that’s by a mathematician named Gary Cornell. And it’s decoding this scary headline that we’ve seen in relation to the province Cheyna outbreak and in describing the cases in Singapore where many people are vaccinated and it really breaks down. What denominator’s you need to look at you need to look at the overall population and what portion is vaccinated and what portion is unvaccinated. And it works through the fact that even though when you see, quote unquote, 75 percent of cases occur to vaccinate people that like on a gut level, kind of sounds like, well, the vaccine isn’t working very well or like I’m still a pretty high risk. But when you actually do the math out, if you’re talking about a population that’s heavily vaccinated, as those populations are, you’re actually at much higher risk if you’re unvaccinated and very, very low risk if you’re vaccinated. So kind of looking at the numbers and that, like, I knew that I was pretty protected with vaccines, but like really looking at the cold, hard math, like, helped me feel it. And the other one is by a pair of epidemiologists, Eleanor Murray and Ruby Mayors. It’s titled Heleno When it’s Finally Time to Stop Asking. And it’s about really looking at how spreadable Delta is and how to make it less spreadable through interventions like vaccines and masking. And it kind of walks through and very like rational numerical terms. OK, we were in a place where Covid was not spreading as rapidly and it made sense for vaccinated people to stop masking. And now we’re in a place where Covid is spreading a lot more. So therefore, to contribute to getting covid spread at the population level lower, it’s time for us to start asking indoors again and it kind of gradually AGYEMAN to like the group project that is Maskin is precautions and made me feel like, all right, I personally am not worried about my covid risk right now, but I am worried about society as a whole. And here is something that I can do to like move the needle of this equation a little bit.
S3: I need to read those because I am just like overwhelmed by sad stories. I think I don’t know what to sort of talk about this in terms of maternal decision making. Again, I remember this feeling from when I had a really small baby and I read a lot of stories and and studies about SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I remember just being like just kind of overwhelmed by how OK with the risk of SIDS. My husband was not OK with it. Like it wasn’t like, oh, he putting her to bed on her stomach or something. Like we always did all the things that you were supposed to do. But I just like I found myself unable to like, stop kind of passing things and reading, reading stories and reading sort of like edge cases. And and I felt kind of like resentful of him that he was able to to look at the math of it and be like, well, it’s not going to that’s probably not going to happen. And I’m always like, but what if it does? But what if it does? And this sort of feels like a similar situation, at least in my household, where he’s sort of more able to look at those numbers as as you do and say, I just don’t think the risk of this is worth me panicking. I really don’t mean to make it sound like that is a gender divide, because I feel like that’s very sexist of me. But that’s the way it splits in my house. And I sometimes wonder about the gender divides of other people’s houses when it comes to Covid cautiousness and whether there are like more maternal fears of kids getting it and getting sick from it than paternal fears of it.
S2: When you’re when you’re part of a marginalized population, as women historically have been looking to anecdotes, is kind of how you save yourself, because in women’s health there’s not there’s just not as much data about how we experience our bodies. And so we looked at it as a survival mechanism. I think with that we have to throw it to recommendation.
S3: Oh, shit. And I really like the way you saved me right there. I am not a sexist. I’m just participating in a historical cultural trend. It’s very good.
S2: You’re so good.
S4: Where, where, where,
S2: where, where, where, where. Before we head out, we want to give you some recommendations, Rebecca, what are you doing right now?
S3: I’m going to recommend the television show Evil, which is such a good name for a television show. And this is Paramount plus show. But it’s the first season is on Netflix, which is where I’ve been walking, watching. It is created by Robert and Michelle King, who also did The Good Wife. And it stars a woman I’ve never seen in anything before named Coccia Herbers, who’s really good as a forensic psychologist, and Mike Culter, who’s a very handsome man, who was Luke Cage as a priest. And they together with another a third person, Ben Shapiro, who’s played by OSF Maanvi, they investigate happenings that could be caused by demons or angels, but could also just be a psychopath. And like, I have a hard time because I don’t believe in demons a little bit with this kind of show. And so, like, I loved the show Supernatural in some ways, but I also just was, like, never scared by it. But the way that the show handles the sort of line between everyday evil and demon created evil is wonderful. There’s a lot of sort of critique of the Internet. There’s a lot of sort of involvement of phenomena like viral videos and virtual reality and the sort of the the interpenetration of the virtual and the digital and like real life is like ever present in every episode. And it’s wonderful. And Mike, culture is amazing.
S2: Sounds like nice and absorbing right now. Oh, my God. Way to escape the real horrors.
S3: One hundred percent of the world. What’s your recommendation, Shannon?
S2: I’m recommending why a novel called They’ll Never Catch US by Jessica Goodman. It’s about a pair of sisters who are cross country stars on their high school team. And they live in this town where there’s a history of young women going missing and their bodies are found later when they’re out on runs. And there’s a murder mystery that’s the center of the book. But a lot of it is just about what it means to be a young woman who’s super competitive and also at risk when ever she goes into the woods to do this thing that she loves and that fuels her and that represents her future. And I love it because I’m a runner and I’ve been around her for a long time and I, you know, recognize a lot of the interpersonal dynamics of being on a high school cross-country team. And also just the feeling of, oh, I have to remember that I’m always a little bit at risk when I go on a run. I tried to pick a Slate piece once after there was one of those like big young woman goes missing while on a run and her body is found weeks later. This late patch was supposed to be it’s not actually that to be a woman, a runner. And I just looked at the numbers and I was like, oh, no. Oh, dear. Oh, no. I think in the sense of, you know, like a pretty anomalous event, but nonetheless, one which I would extremely like to not meet that fate. So I’m willing to, like, kind of think hard about how to prevent it. And it just it grapples with that in a satisfying way. And, you know, it’s a way and novel also, like some of the moral takeaways are like they’re blaring on the page. But I found myself highlighting the like, you know, reasoning of the girls getting mad when the town policeman says, like, not to run in the woods alone and like, why the boys don’t have to like you about advice. It was just good, good escapism as I’m trying to get back into reading after being too fatigued from from the days to read for fun.
S3: I love your escapism. Also involves calculations of risk.
S2: Oh well yeah. Oh well there are some find that there is like a God like, like love story at the end. So it redeems itself with some like high school flirting with help. That’s our show this week. The Weaves is produced by Shannara.
S3: Susan Matthews is our editorial director with June Thomas providing oversight and moral support.
S2: If you like the show, be sure to subscribe and review wherever you get your podcasts. And please consider supporting the show by joining Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast and bonus content of shows like this one. It’s only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate dot com, slash the waves plus.
S3: We’d also love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at Slate Dotcom.
S2: The waves will be back next week, different hosts, different topic, same time and place.