What are we doing?

November 2020 National Geographic

Chicago had its first documented Covid -19 case almost 11 months ago. I have taken some time to reflect on what has actually changed. Sadly, not a whole lot. On the news I still see long lines of cars waiting to be tested for the virus. People are still fighting over mask mandates or business shut downs. Unless you are hospitalized with respiratory symptoms of the virus, you likely will fight it alone at home with no guidance. Can people get reinfected? In seems unlikely, but we don’t know. Is there long term damage to some patients? It seems this way, but might be too early to tell. How will we bounce back?

Centralized data collection is fundamental to knowing how different sectors are responding to the virus. How many students have become infected causing community spread? How many restaurants have had outbreaks? How many people have responded positively to steroids? How many people have become infected at church? How many youth sports leagues have suffered outbreaks? I ask all of these questions for two reasons: one, I doubt anyone has answers on a large scale, and two, every single one of these sectors has denied being responsible for outbreaks. Every email I receive starts with, “Even though we know virus outbreaks don’t stem from….”. But do we know? I have seen anecdotal data from here and there, but nothing universal to really guide decision making.

Schools are one place that have really struggled with managing the virus. Not that they are doing a bad job – who could determine they are doing a bad job? In the absence of an organized federal response, the onus was left to the governors. In the absence of knowing what to do and while fighting for resources among themselves, the governors passed “the school problem” to the individual towns and districts. If you happen to reside in a well funded town, you are lucky. Chances are your child has excellent remote learning and a variety of options for getting back into the classroom. If you live in a less fortune district? Children are lagging further behind. After spending so much of my career in high school classrooms, I can only imagine what this is doing to our most vulnerable learners. Locally, the K-8 schools are only offering remote learning, but the high schools are a hybrid schedule of remote and in-person. In other districts, the opposite is true. The lack of guiding data and an organized response at any level has created a situation where you receive different virus information depending on which district you may reside – even if you are only separated by a handful of city blocks.

Testing is still a mess. The tests seem more accurate if you are willing to wait several days for results. If you want a rapid test, which seems the most logical in stopping the spread, you will take a test with questionable accuracy. Long lines of cars await a test right now because so many people want to spend Thanksgiving with loved ones or traveling. I would be hard pressed to trust these results before spending a weekend with my family, but I understand the emotional weight people are under. I also know that people are struggling financially, and having a warm home and meal from a family member waiting for you is very appealing.

Youth sports have shut down in my state (and many states across the country) for at least a few weeks. Once again, I received the email that “although they are not responsible….” they are taking at least a 3 week pause. We are fairly certain that our exposure came from youth sports, but since we are not sure we aren’t passing judgement. It is hard to weigh the pros and cons of keeping my children safe from a virus while giving them an opportunity to see friends and engage in physical activity. Even after recovering, my daughter immediately returned to her sports. Considering my daughter and I are immunocompromised, there are probably people who think my kids should have refrained from activities altogether. Until we have better answers as to where infection and spread is happening – how can anyone make an educated decision for their family?

Restaurants and bars are another enigma. Originally it seemed many infections were stemming from indoor dining and drinking. Once restaurants reopened, there were so many restrictions in place that I imagine it had to slow the spread of the virus. Did anyone pay attention? Did anyone care to collect any data? Although restaurant associations across the country have also sent the “although we are not responsible…” email, it is also clear they are very motivated to save their businesses. I don’t blame them. Without federal relief money, restaurants are in a difficult situation. Even when open, many restaurant owners and employees report significant dips in business and patronage. People don’t know where they are most likely to contract the virus so they pick and choose their risks, and sadly, restaurants are another place that didn’t make the cut.

So where is everyone catching the virus? I am guessing a little bit of everywhere, but wouldn’t it be nice if we had real data to use as guidance? National data? Statewide data? Anything? I have definitely read about pockets of people trying to collect data about schools and restaurants. They struggle to get the information they need to look holistically at what is happening in various industries. In a time when so many people are out of work, imagine the jobs we could create right now collecting information and compiling data. How many previously infected people were never contacted and just walked away without us learning anything about how they contracted the disease or their response to the virus. We are letting valuable information slip through our fingers.

So I ask again – how we will ever get out of this if we continue to forge a path of ignorance and blindness? How will we ever know where and how to protect people? How will we ever bounce back? A vaccine might save us from Covid-19, but what about the next virus lurking around the corner? Will we be prepared for that?

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