Our Pandemic Learning Curve

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S1: Remember back at the beginning of this pandemic when that video was going around of a doctor meticulously cleaning his groceries?

S2: Now this side of the table is going to be my clean side and we’re going to consider the other side of the table as a dirty side where we’re going to put our groceries from outside the house.

S1: The upshot of his advice was simple. Think of the coronavirus like glitter. It’s going to get everywhere. You’ve been warned.

S2: And imagine that disinfectants and soap, they have the power to dissolve that glitter.

S1: This doctor keep its fruits and veggies and soapy water. He wipes down cardboard boxes with sanitizer and the intent here is good. But a few months later, I don’t know about you, but I’m not doing this, not even close.

S3: I think we were all in such a panic and so worried that everything that we heard made us take it to the extreme levels.

S1: Apoorva Mandaville. She’s a science writer over The New York Times. Since the beginning, she’s been marveling at the ways in which we are trying to apply science to our lives right away.

S3: So, you know, somebody coughs and sneezes. That droplet can fall on a surface, became immediately, oh, my God, the postman is going to deliver a package and I’m going to touch it and I’m going to get sick and die. So they’re just all of the steps in between of, well, how long ago would he have needed to cough on it and how long after that did I need to touch it and how much virus there need to be and how much of the virus was still alive. And all of those subtleties got lost in the panic.

S1: As a reporter trying to understand what we definitively know about this virus, it means accounting for all these little subtleties so you can cut through the panic and the stakes are high. Rinsing off groceries sounds paranoid now, but some people still think mask wearing is paranoid. And once a belief like that gets cemented in place, it can be hard to change.

S4: And I just sort of wonder for you as a reporter what that feels like, where you want to report facts and you’re used to kind of reporting things when they’re decided. But with this, it’s almost like you can’t do that.

S3: Yeah, no, that’s right. It’s all been evolving kind of fast, actually, for science and moving really fast. And there are just a lot of things we’ve learned along the way. But interestingly enough, I think a lot of the things we’ve learned are things we should have known and should have expected. It’s been kind of strange to watch as things that are true for other viruses are being acknowledged for this one, as if we were expecting it all to be different.

S5: Huh? That’s really interesting. What do you mean by that?

S3: Let’s say, for example, we were really shocked that people can be infected and not be symptomatic, but that’s true for a lot of viruses. And then we were really shocked that kids can transmit. Well, of course it can be transmit everything else.

S6: Why not this one today on the show, six months in some things we really should have known about covid and why we didn’t figure them out sooner. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S4: I’m going to tick off a few of the headlines of the stories you’ve written because they’re intense, like you’ve written these articles you just started at The New York Times the last couple of months. And your articles have headlines like Even asymptomatic people carry the virus in high levels. Children may carry coronavirus at high levels. Coronavirus cases are much higher than reported in parts of the US study shows. It’s like I listen to them all together. And I just wonder, do you miss right? Do you miss writing hopeful stories?

S3: Know on my Facebook feed, when I share some of these stories, I do get some, you know, friendly teasing about how I’m so often the bearer of bad news. And I do really try to also report on positive things. So, for example, some of the stories about how almost everybody who’s had the infection has antibodies and probably some strong T cell responses as well. So most likely they are protected for some period of time. So that was good news, and especially because it showed that that study that I wrote about showed that even people who are only mildly ill can also produce these antibodies. So that was good news.

S4: I mean, you did a deep dive into the debate over whether the virus is airborne. And I wonder if we can talk about it in a little bit of depth, because I thought it was really interesting to look at your reporting and think about all the reasons why we seem to miss this possibility in the beginning. And some people still seem to be missing it. So how did you first get interested in the idea of why, you know, the virus being airborne seemed to be something that people weren’t picking up on or talking about as much?

S3: So one of my colleagues and dear friends, Roxanne Kansi, actually first broke the story in Wired magazine, and she did that a couple of months before I did. She wrote about how among the aerosol scientists there was a pretty clear sense that this virus is, in fact, airborne, but that there was a lot of resistance to the idea. And so she she dug a lot more into sort of the historic studies that show how this has been true for flu and other viruses.

S4: I remember her article because it came with this graphic of two people talking at each other and you could see the bubbles of particles and air sort of intermixing in front of them. And you just realized, like, how the virus could be suspended and exchanged pretty easily.

S7: And it makes sense, right? I mean, it’s absolutely logical. So that was really the first inkling that there wasn’t enough conversation about this. And then I have a little bit of an investigative streak to me. And I started asking people whenever I was interviewing them for other stories about where they stood on this and what did they think about the evidence. And I started to hear that it was pretty firmly divided into two camps, people who understand how biology works, how viruses move through the air, and people who are from the sort of mindset of droplets and coughing and sneezing and surfaces like that’s the be all and end all transmission. And the conversation kept coming back to the WHL, the World Health Organization, as being the sort of driving force of the resistance to the idea. And so I concentrated all my focus on that because, as you know, the show is hugely influential and they’ve been front and center in this epidemic. They had daily briefings at the time and everything they said was being reported widely. So I became fascinated with the idea of why this global health organization was not open to the idea of airborne transmission being important. And as these stories often, and that it’s about a few opinionated people who really hold up the progress. And that’s the story that I ended up hearing, is that, you know, the internal committee meetings, there were just a very few people who really, really believe in handwashing and really believe in the idea that droplets are the only bigger droplets from coughing and sneezing, but the only way that somebody can get sick and that aerosols which can kind of travel farther and stay in the air don’t really matter. And it seemed like the conversation just stopped there. So these experts, these two hundred and thirty nine experts were trying to change that, which was mind. And they became kind of the protagonists of my story, if you will.

S4: We think of scientists as driven by logic and rigor. But when you describe them how they were just big believers and handwashing or surfaces or it sounds almost like a religious belief.

S3: Well, I’m not sure I would go that far. I think what’s happening with some of those people is that they really. I want to see a lot of evidence before they will change course. It’s not that they are religiously believing in handwashing, it’s that they really take the science moves slowly, things very seriously, and they want to see a full randomized clinical trial, which is the best way you can do a clinical trial with all of the evidence sort of irrefutable, and then they will change their mind. So they were just setting the bar for when science will correct a little too high.

S4: Well, that’s interesting, because when you look at the show, there have been a couple of different instances where what they’ve said has seemed to run contrary to scientists who are looking at, I don’t know, maybe earlier evidence, like for a long time, the show really was against people wearing masks. And also for a long time, they sort of had a real reticence to talk about asymptomatic spread. So when you look at that, I wonder if you think it’s a problem or more of a. A scientific problem.

S7: Well, it’s a little bit of both. I think it’s the kind of scientific expertise that the WTO specializes in. They are a certain kind of scientists who are cautious and slow to move. I think in this pandemic that has not served them well, but I don’t want to take away from all the great work they have done. But you’re right that they were also a little hard to understand on the math issue and on the asymptomatic transmission. And I think the maths issue, again, came back to this idea of hand washing. And they were people who just thought if you tell people to both wear a mask and wash your hands, then they won’t be able to prioritize both. And they really wanted to stick with the hand washing. This is what I’ve heard, by the way. I don’t have conclusive proof of any of this. And also, I think they were worried about the availability of masks. They think about all of these low and middle income countries all over Africa and Latin America and Asia. And so they’re not just thinking about countries like the United States that presumably should have the resources to supply us, although we haven’t. And so they were thinking more in terms of what can we recommend. That’s easy for people to do. And they did not want to recommend masks and have a run on supplies of that kind.

S1: What I see when I look back at the past several months is I see masses of people trying to act fast to avoid a disaster. And they’re looking to scientists, scientists, they move slowly. That’s kind of their whole thing. Don’t get out in front of the data.

S7: It’s a completely natural conflict. But I think it’s one that we have to find out how to resolve because this isn’t going to be our last pandemic. So when the dust settles, we may really need to think hard as a society about how we process this kind of information quickly and how will we make decisions quickly. I mean, on the mosque issue, for example, the idea that you wouldn’t recommend them because the evidence for them isn’t very strong, just doesn’t make a lot of sense because it’s it’s inexpensive. It’s easy to do. And even if it just reduces the risk, it’s worth doing.

S4: There’s the story you co-wrote this week that I have to admit kind of surprised me a little bit because you’ve written so much about kids as possible covid spreaders. But you wrote about how New York is actually positioned to reopen schools safely. Did you feel like you were changing your mind writing that article, or did it feel like that was a change to sort of go that route?

S3: No, not really. I mean, I think all of the reporting that I did leading up to that New York piece, all of those were really trying to say, hey, just because kids don’t get visibly sick in front of you, don’t assume that they don’t have virus and they aren’t infected and they’re not putting it to anybody else. But the New York piece is very specific. It’s it’s a very low transmission area. And we do have a very low case count right now. And we’ve done pretty well since the horror of the spring, keeping things under control.

S4: What do we know about kids in the coronavirus at this point? Because I feel like the story has changed a little bit. So what do we actually know from the science?

S3: I think what we know so far for sure is that kids, if they get infected, don’t get sick as often as adults do, that the vast majority of kids will have very mild or no symptoms. But with the kinds of numbers we’ve had in the United States, we are seeing more kids hospitalized. And there was just a paper that said among hospitalized kids, a third of them will end up in the ICU. So it’s not that kids can never get very sick. Some some do. But for the most part, the majority of kids will be fine even if they’re infected, at least in the short term that we know of.

S4: So in the United States, there are just so many people getting infected that we’re seeing more kids.

S3: That’s right. The numbers are overall going up because everywhere else that the outbreak came, they took many more precautions and kept the kids at home. Or if they went to school, they did it with all kinds of precautions. So they just did not see the same numbers of kids get sick as we are seeing in the United States.

S4: So if opening schools is a little bit of an experiment, I kind of wonder how parents and administrators should be preparing for it and whether your sources are telling you what we should be doing now. So the opening is successful, I think.

S3: Yeah, there there’s there is a lot of conversation about the right kinds of precautions to take. And I do think that it’s really important that any school district that decides to reopen has a plan in place. I mean, that’s what all of the experts have said for weeks now, is we need to have a plan before you reopen. So that’s not just for precautions. Like will the kids wear masks or will only teachers wear masks? But also the idea that inevitably there will be a case found in a school that’s just going to happen in most places because there’s community transmission in most places. So it’s really important for schools to have a plan in terms of what will they do if one case is detected when they shut the school down then or will they only quarantine that class? What will they do if there are two cases? There are so many good reasons for kids to be back in school so that that whole conversation is just not simple in some extremely complicated. I think what really needed to happen was that we needed to be having these conversations early in the spring and really coming up with plans for reopening that prioritized schools above restaurants and dining, outdoor dining or indoor dining or any of the other things, shops and all of those things. Most important things should have been schools, because if you think about all of the components of society contributing some proportion to the overall transmission, schools contribute some part. Now, what else can we close in order to keep the schools open? That should have been the conversation.

S4: Yeah. When you when you say that when you say that we really needed to have been thinking about the bigger picture, not just bars and restaurants and shopping malls and motorcycle rallies, but schools and kind of integrating everything and prioritizing schools in there, who do you who do you hold accountable for that?

S3: I think the governments at every level, one of the only examples I’ve seen of this kind of thinking came from Seattle, where they did a modeling study and they estimated that their activity in the community, shopping, going to church, all of those things would need to be at about 70 percent of the pre pandemic levels in order to do certain things. Is this idea of a risk budget, if you will, where you take X amount of money or risk in this case from one pile and you put it into the other? So if schools have this much percent, we should be bringing that down. But that’s about that risk. Budget will probably look different for each community or each school district. But I think they could use a lot of help from state governments and from federal governments to have access to the right experts to at least get some top level priorities that they’re working with.

S4: A few months ago, we did a show about our pandemic summer and how this summer was going to be so strange. But I wonder if now that we’re in the heat of summer, people like you are thinking about our pandemic winter and what that will look like and whether whether we know if there’s a way to control that at all now.

S3: Yeah, it’s a really good question and a really sad and scary question. I don’t think we have learned the lessons that we needed to learn to face the coming seasons with any feeling of security. I think we’ve squandered a lot of time in getting ready and keeping things under control. Having said all that, though, I do think that it’s also important for us to give ourselves a mental break and a physical break. When things are nice outside in summer, it’s it’s possible to be outdoors. I have been telling friends and family to get outside and enjoy it as much as they can to have physically distance social gatherings in parks or wherever, because come fall and come winter, it’s going to be like the spring again, where we may have to spend weeks at a time without seeing other people.

S6: Apoorva Mundanely, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for having me. Apoorva Mandaville writes for The New York Times, and that’s the show.

S1: What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Danielle Hewett with help from Daniel Evers’. We are led by Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedict. You can find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.