How Not to Behave In a Pandemic
- The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my alma mater, has developed an incredible, unprecedented Covid-19 testing program, one that has administered more than one million tests so far. (That’s more than 10 states.) It’s an incredible achievement, and it has allowed them to stay open, for in-person classes, while many other universities have been forced to shut down or offer only virtual classes. It’s an amazing system that has been deployed in efficient, intelligent fashion; at one point, they were responsible for roughly 2 percent of all tests in the entire country. I’m incredibly proud of my school.
Still, the University was unable to avoid an early outbreak, back in September, even though its test-and-alert system was able to isolate cases and warn those with the virus that they were infectious. Why did the outbreak still happen? A chemist at the U of I who worked on the testing system explained:
When we put the whole program in place, we did a bunch of modelling to try to understand how student socialization was going to integrate with the fast, recurrent testing. We modeled that they were going to go to parties and that they probably weren’t going to wear masks, and it would lead to some level of transmission. What we didn’t model for is that people would choose to go to a party if they knew that they were positive. The overwhelming majority of our students have done a great job, but unfortunately, a small number of students chose to make very bad decisions that led to a rise in cases.
2. Texas Monthly’s Emily McCullar has a fantastic story today in which she interviewed wedding photographers in Texas about what they experienced during wedding season this summer, in the middle of the pandemic. There are many jaw-dropping stories, but the most staggering one is right there in the lede:
The wedding photographer had already spent an hour or two inside with the unmasked wedding party when one of the bridesmaids approached her. The woman thanked her for still showing up, considering “everything that’s going on with the groom.” When the photographer asked what she meant by that, the bridesmaid said the groom had tested positive for COVID-19 the day before. “She was looking for me to be like, ‘Oh, that’s crazy,’ like I was going to agree with her that it was fine,” the photographer recalls. “So I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And she was like, ‘Oh no no no, don’t freak out. He doesn’t have symptoms. He’s fine.’”
The photographer, who has asthma and three kids, left with her assistant before the night was over. Her exit was tense. The wedding planner said it was the most unprofessional thing she’d ever seen. Bridesmaids accused her of heartlessly ruining an innocent woman’s wedding day. She recalls one bridesmaid telling her, “I’m a teacher, I have fourteen students. If I’m willing to risk it, why aren’t you?” Another said everyone was going to get COVID eventually, so what was the big deal? The friend of the bride who’d spilled the beans cried about being the “worst bridesmaid ever.”
After the photographer left, she canceled her Thanksgiving plans with family, sent her kids to relatives’ houses so they wouldn’t get sick, and informed the brides of her upcoming weddings that she’d be subcontracting to other shooters. A few days later she started to feel sick, and sure enough, tested positive for COVID-19. She informed the couple. “But they didn’t care,” she says. They didn’t offer to compensate her for the test, nor did they apologize for getting her sick.
3. A friend of mine teaches at a rural school that has been open throughout the pandemic and does not require masks for its students or its teachers. She has had to provide all self-protection on by herself, constructing a plexiglass shield around her desk and pushing desks as far away from each other as she can. The school has provided no information on the number of positive Covid-19 cases among its students and teachers and has rebuffed inquiries requesting that specific information.
On Monday, in the middle of the day, one of her students, the son of a fellow teacher at the school, was pulled out of class by school officials. They then went down the hall, to the room where his father teaches high school sophomores, and made him leave as well. It turned out that the father — who, I repeat, is a high school teacher — had been feeling sick the week before and gotten a Covid test on Saturday. On Sunday, it came back positive, as did his son’s. And then, on Monday, knowing all this, he went ahead and went into school to teach, unmasked, regardless. The only reason the school knew he’d tested positive was because a public health official saw his results and happened to remember he was a teacher.
He was angry they made him leave. He found it a grand injustice that he was forced to leave his class. My friend is now worried she won’t get to have Christmas with her family because she was exposed 11 days before the holiday.
4. On Wednesday afternoon, Politico reported that Health and Human Services adviser Paul Alexander, back in July, wrote a memo to his bosses saying that the only way to control Covid-19 was to let everyone get it. He wrote:
“There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD. …Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk….so we use them to develop herd…we want them infected … [I]t may be that it will be best if we open up and flood the zone and let the kids and young folk get infected”
This is what Paul Alexander looks like, by the way, in case you come across him on the street and want to make sure to avoid him.
Don’t worry, you’ll recognize him: He won’t be wearing a mask, after all.
These are four stories, and there are surely hundreds of thousands of more like them. I know that the federal government’s response to the pandemic has been nearly non-existent, and that we had the absolute worst possible person to be in charge at this particular moment in history. They made it so much worse.
But we have to do our part too. It is difficult to wrap your mind around the sort of person who would test positive for a fatal, infectious disease and then decide it’s still cool to go to that party, or to get married in front of hundreds people, or to still teach class. I do not know how to deal with those people. I do not know how to fix the problem of people legitimately not giving a shit about any other person but themselves. Do you? I’m honestly asking. Because I’ve got no answers.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.