A Journey Closer to the Hot Zone (C+66)

“Don’t forget your mask.”

I haven’t been in a place where people are actually expected to gather since March 6. I have so much to remember as I re-enter the world.

I have to remember to get all my keys. Where are all my keys? My car keys are on my dresser. One of my house keys is loose; it’s been off its ring since March because I take it with me when I go out running.

I haven’t been out running since the weather got hot. It’s routinely in the 80s, 90s, and even low 100s now. With humidity, it’s intolerable outside. The loose key has been sitting for weeks on a ledge by the front door, unused except for an occasional ill-conceived walk in the heat.

I gather up the keys. I pocket my phone. I get my face mask from the container in the kitchen. I say goodbye to Jodi. (“Don’t forget your mask!”)

My throat clutches a little.

I’m heading to a medical center, which is literally one of the last places I want to be right now. In the best of times, a medical building makes me twitch. During a pandemic, it makes my skin positively crawl.

The trip to my doctor, nestled in Dallas, in a county that has seen record-breaking rises in COVID-19 cases for weeks, is a journey to the edge of the hot zone. In my mind, I picture the majors hospitals of Dallas – Parkland, UT Southwestern, Baylor, Texas Presbyterian – as bright glowing red embers where the sickest of the sick flow in … and some never come out. Highway 75 weaves through most of these hospitals, and while I am going to a small medical center away from one of the main hospitals, I feel nervous heading into a county slowly being overrun by the infected.

Of course, my home county hasn’t been spared this pandemic. We have more cases every day, using the 7-day rolling average, than we ever had in April. It gets worse every week. We broke our own record today: 186 new cases in one day. (previous record: 140) The positive test rate is hovering around 10%, double what it was a month ago. Testing is slowly going up, but so are case numbers.

Going from Collin County to Dallas County is like going from the urgent care clinic to the emergency room: it will be more crowded and more people in your immediate vicinity are going to be sicker than where you came from.

My skin crawls.

It’s irrational. But the embers of infection in Dallas and fuel of my concerns are fed by the oxygen of incompetent leadership and bad public policy. When Texas abandoned its people to SARS-CoV-2 66 days ago, on “C-Day,” the current situation was obviously inevitable. Anyone with a basic working knowledge of the germ theory of disease and an appreciation for how poor human behavior gets when there is no guidance or expectations could see this coming. The epidemiologists certainly saw this coming, but any kid with 10th-grade biology and a measure of common sense could have figured out that taking the brakes off public health measures during pandemic will only make things worse.

As I drive down 75 to my appointment, my skin crawling, what is truly sad is that I am actually relieved to be doing this instead of what I had been doing: taking required online teacher training mandated by my university.

I’m not opposed to teacher training.

I’m not opposed to making a distinction between online and in-person teaching.

I’ve spent years exploring the balance of these very two things in my own teaching. What frustrates me is who has been forced to take this 20-hour online course: only faculty who opted to teach remotely in the fall.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

Why doesn’t this mandated training make sense? Why does it frustrate me? Two reasons.

  1. Standards: Why is my institution only now requiring faculty to achieve some minimum level of certification? Never before has my university expected me to carry any teaching certification of any kind. Why aren’t ALL faculty required to do this?
  2. Inequity: Why are faculty who opt out of in-person teaching burdened with this responsibility? Faculty are only allowed to opt-out of in-person teaching at my institution if they have a legitimate medical concern aligned with CDC guidelines. At least, when I applied for this exception those were the rules. I was only granted this option because we are (a) in a pandemic and (b) there is a serious increased risk of death or severe consequences from SARS-CoV-2 in my household. Why, then, are the most vulnerable – or those whose loved ones are deserving of this protection – given an undue burden to prove their value and merit? Basically, the assumption has been made that faculty who need to teach remotely don’t know how to teach at all.

What really made me upset about this teacher training was its mix of technical instruction (valuable for the fall) with teaching theory (arguably deserving of a separate optional course). The two are actually separable, but are made inseparable in the course. You have to wade through 40 years of information about teaching theory just to get to the exercises and finally the quiz. The course spends a lot of ink trying to explain why requiring rote memorization in students is only testing the lowest level of learning – “knowledge”. But then the exams are all 25- or 50- question tests based on regurgitation of rote memorization. (true/false, fill-in-the-blank, and multiple answer – precisely the thing 40 years of teaching research are not the best ways to assess learning)

So instead of suffering my way through one more quiz testing whether or not I know when to use the word “student” or when to use the word “learner,” I was actually looking forward to going to a doctor’s office … in the hot zone.

When medically necessary and consistent with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance, testing to diagnose COVID-19 will be available for students, staff and faculty…

From the institution’s fall reopening plan

I arrive at the doctor’s office and remain in my car. I call to check in. I am told to wear a mask inside and someone will meet me at the office door. I am ushered through reception and into a room. A quick patient intake is done. The main exam is delayed about 10 minutes while the doctor finishes up with other patients. When the doctor arrives, it’s a quick inspection and a brief conversation. I tell them just to guide me through what they want; I tell them I haven’t really been in a public place since March 6. We get on the conversation of how school’s like mine reopening in the fall. The doctor starts going on about “as long as they have lots of testing to catch cases before they get out of control…” I tell them no such plan is in place – rather, my university will only allow people to get tests for whom it’s “medically necessary” – no snapshot testing.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

The doctor doesn’t really know what to say to that. We seem to agree that the plan in place for now is going to simply lead to outbreaks and then having to shut down in-person teaching.

The delivery of high-quality, on-campus classroom instruction will continue … providing our students with valuable in-person interaction with faculty members and with each other. Additionally, high-quality remote instruction – often in tandem with in-person classroom instruction – will provide the University with the flexibility necessary to support social distancing while encouraging the use of innovative and creative technologies.  

From my institution’s reopening plan.

And what then? When all those faculty who opted to teach in-person (because it’s necessary for their class, or perhaps because they don’t want to take a 20-hour online teacher training course just to be allowed to teach remotely) are forced to go online because the campus closes under the strain of rampant SARS-CoV-2 spreading… will they have to take this course? Of course not! Who will have time in the fall … in the middle of an unfolding pandemic on campus?

Of course, who has time in the summer? I am paid in the summer to do research. June and July, my salary is paid by the American taxpayer via the U.S. Department of Energy. This is so I can be devoted to basic research with the potential to transform human knowledge. The taxpayer is NOT paying for me to take a 20-hour online teacher training course. I technically shouldn’t be required to take such a course until August, when I would normally prep for fall teaching anyway.

Many college faculty are not as lucky as me, especially lecturers and adjuncts: they are only paid when they teach; no teaching, no pay. Expecting those faculty to conduct university business when they are not paid in the summer is somewhere in the land of unethical… I’m just not sure where exactly. It make my skin crawl.

All of us who were granted remote teaching have to complete the training by July 31. So, I am forced to either take the class at night, on my personal time (uncompensated by my university), or take time away from vacation to do the course. I opted for the latter. I’m on vacation right now. I haven’t had a break since December, but I nonetheless burned two of my vacation days taking this teacher training.

We are looking forward to delivering the unique academic experience that defines [our institution], and to rekindling the energy our students bring to campus.

A message from our university leadership in April, 2020 and updated June 29, 2020.

This is faculty life right now. Like many college faculty, I am being told that I am expected to be on campus in the fall to “preserve the on-campus experience”. We know how to provide an education, regardless of the setting, so why pick the most dangerous setting?

Coronavirus doesn’t give a fuck about the on-campus experience, except in-so-far as 18-22-year-olds crammed into the same dorm assignments as before (seriously … not making that up) and not practicing the necessary social distancing and mask wearing will provide a perfect means to spread the virus. And while 18-22 year-old students don’t tend to suffer the worst consequences of the virus, people 40 and older do… those, of course, are the faculty and staff.

The University will open with standard housing occupancy driven by student choice.

From my institution’s fall reopening plan.

So to preserve the on-campus experience (the COVID-spreading experience), we will expose the most vulnerable to a large population of the most-effective spreaders.

Let that sink in. Higher education administration, folks.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

But to avoid this nonsense and teach online, I have to take a course when, at no previous point in my decade here, has anyone ever cared this much about how I teach. To avoid the disease, I have to prove something no in-person university teacher is asked to prove. To be honest, I am not sure what makes me more mad: the lack of teacher certification at the college level, or the inequity of this policy in the middle of a pandemic.

Take your pick. Heck… pick both.

I tried not to touch anything in the medical center. I got into the hot car, roasting in the midday Texas sun in an open-air parking lot, and popped off the mask. I sanitized my hands again. I started the car. I went home. There, I took a full Silkwood shower and sanitized my mobile phone.

And then I spent another 90 minutes finishing the online teacher training course. Afterward, I was angrier and sadder and more frustrated than I have been in a long time.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

Coda

Many clear-thinking universities have accepted the reality of the pandemic recently. University of Southern California reversed course a few days ago and decided to abandon their in-person fall teaching model for online-only instruction, even if a fraction of students return to campus. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton just announced the same basic plan: online instruction even with a determined but modest population of students on-campus.

We wait for a sensible decision to be made on our own campus.

References

  1. https://blog.smu.edu/coronavirus-covid-19/smu-cases/ – cases on-campus.
  2. https://www.smu.edu/News/2020/COVID-19/Plans-for-fall-semester-2020
  3. https://blog.smu.edu/coronavirus-covid-19/2020/04/30/we-intend-to-be-open-in-fall-2020/
  4. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/07/harvard-to-bring-up-to-40-of-undergrads-to-campus-this-fall/
  5. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/06/fas-dean-confirms-teaching-to-remain-online-for-2020-21/
  6. https://yalecollege.yale.edu/get-know-yale-college/office-dean/messages-dean/plans-fall-2020-yale-college-courses-june-22
  7. https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/07/06/princeton-announces-plan-fall-2020-guidelines-undergraduates-returning-campus
  8. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-07-02/usc-will-move-most-undergraduate-classes-online-cancels-reopening

Because not all have yet secured the blessings of liberty

On this July 4, when we are ravaged by pandemic and incompetent leadership masquerading as populist totalitarianism, it is good to remind ourselves of the declaration that was made in a different age – on July 4, 1776. Then, the Second Continental Congress adopted what is now referred to as the “Declaration of Independence,” establishing the reason that the 13 British American colonies viewed themselves as a distinct nation separate from the Empire.

This transcript comes from the National Archives. I highlight below in bold those grievances that apply today. This document is not perfect from a modern perspective; it is an old and terrible view that the native peoples of this continent were “savages,” a view propagated by the racist thinking of the day (which still permeates our institutions today). It literally applied only to “Men” at the time, and women would see their own slow slog toward equality stretch out over centuries. And of course, let us now forget nor diminish the fact that the Colonies, and later the United States, was a slave-holding nation. But learning from these many imperfections, and realizing that we again have many of the same grievances, we should contemplate the words of this document.

In Congress, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The vegetable aisle

We are taking our home garden a bit more seriously this year. The pandemic, and poor health practices by shoppers at the local grocery store, have made it more important to offset time spent in the aisles by planting at home. If C-day was the day Texas’ leadership abandoned its people, unarmed, to a new viral enemy, then this would be the resurrection of the small victory garden.

Some of the leafy greens in our small vertical garden.

For me, this started back early in the lockdown in March. I had already been told to remain away from my university campus starting March 6; I had just returned from CERN and my university had, earlier that week, banned all international travel. This gave me a small head-start on thinking ahead about what we might need during a longer lockdown, which came a couple of week’s later in Texas. At the time, I experimented with growing potatoes indoors. Two of those potato plants took off like weeds. The others I spent too long before planting, and they’re never sprouted actual plants.

Wilma, the first of my blue potatoes to sprout. The original potatoes were a gift from Jodi’s cousin, who has a beautiful and extensive garden in Wisconsin. Who knew they would become the seeds of our own little Texas garden?

The leafy greens took off fast outdoors. The potatoes indoors should be ready to harvest soon. I’ll keep some of the potatoes for new seed and replant the plants if they are still viable. We’ll have a small portion of food to eat and a little more freedom from spending too much time in the presence of average Texans who cannot be neighborly, nor show the empathy for a fellow person that is the hallmark of simple mask-wearing.

Testing vs. Recommendations: a Local Perspective

Since things have been getting grim in Texas, mirrored in the COVID-19 rise in my own county (Collin), I thought it would be good to learn about one of the things that can help mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) without a vaccine. That thing is testing.

Testing for COVID-19 in the community is one of the prongs of a necessary local and national strategy to control and minimize infections from the deadly virus. The three legs [1] of this strategy are:

  • Testing frequently to get a snapshot of transmission and spread in the community;
  • Isolation of infected and contact tracing to get ahead of the transmission of the virus;
  • Social distancing and measures to prevent the person-to-person spread of the virus.

I got curious about one aspect of testing: how much testing should the U.S. be doing each day to get the snapshot needed to make rational decisions about protecting the community?

The answer is basically: half-a-million to one million tests each day.

An example of this recommendation comes from the Harvard Global Health Initiative [2]. This source is cited by projects such as the Covid Tracking Project [3] and other institutions trying to track the virus while spreading information to help the community prevent its spread.

At the current moment, the HGHI recommends the U.S. execute at least 900,000 tests each day. This is the minimum required to achieve the one leg of the above three-legged strategy: testing, tracing, distancing. Previously, the HGHI recommended 500,000 per day as a minimum, but they determined this minimum was too little to do the job. They recently upped their guidance.

Charts of daily tests in the U.S. look like this one, made by the Covid Tracking Project:

Even in one of their recent Tweets, the Covid Tracking Project noted that the number on their charts (500,000 per day) is now an outdated minimum recommendation, and it was only EVER the minimum anyway. The U.S. only met this old minimum target in early June, THREE MONTHS after public health officials said that frequent and voluminous testing was a necessary component to survive the pandemic long enough to develop a vaccine. The lies of the federal administration are laid bare by the above chart; while it might have been possible for people to get a test, not enough testing was actually being done. Part of this was lack of reliable tests, or shortages of testing components, or overly strict criteria for who can get a test in the first place [4]. But the simple fact is that regardless of the reason, while other nations mustered the minimum required effort to stem the tide of the pandemic, the U.S. dawdled, then failed, and only recently seems to be achieving anything close to the bare minimum.

But what about at the local level? Sure, the U.S. is barely doing the outdated bare minimum now, but what about a local region like Collin County? Maybe the national testing minimum has been achieved thanks to a few well-funded and thoughtful regions of the country, while many other regions have simply not been doing what’s necessary or expected. Since states have been left by the federal government to fend for themselves, one expects a wide variation state-by-state. So let’s look at Collin County and the numbers.

The population of the U.S. is currently about 328.2 million people. The population of Collin County, TX is about 1.035 million people. So if the U.S. should be conducting a minimum of 900,000 tests each day, and tests should be evenly distributed across the U.S. by population, we can estimate the minimum number of tests per day that should be conducted in my home county.

The answer is about 2800 tests per day.

What are the actual numbers? The chart below illustrates the answer.

COVID-19 data for Collin County, TX. The purple histogram is the exact number of reported new cases each day. The pink link is the 7-day rolling average of new cases per day. The blue dash-dotted line is the 7-day rolling average of new tests per day. The straight dotted blue line is the recommended target tests per day for Collin County.

The reality is a crushing disappointment. Collin County is only reporting about 600-800 tests per day, almost a factor of 5 below the daily recommended minimum.

At the local level, my own county gets a failing grade. It’s also been lax in supporting the other legs of the three-leg strategy. People are not required to follow good social distancing practice, especially wearing masks to prevent others from catching any coronavirus you might be shedding. Very little information seems to be available about the contact tracing effort. In testing, we are falling far short of the bare minimum.

As I remind my students, doing the bare minimum earns you a C. Doing far less than that is F country.

Resources

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/php/CDC-Activities-Initiatives-for-COVID-19-Response.pdf
[2] https://globalepidemics.org/2020/05/13/ashish-jha-testimony-5-13-2020/
[3] https://covidtracking.com/
[4] For a representative example, see https://whyy.org/episodes/troubles-with-covid-testing/