Signs of a botched pandemic response

Here’s a sampling of client emails that were awaiting me when I exited the field late last week, with commentary below that:

(Names have been changed in the interest of privacy.)

From Sam

After much deliberation I have reluctantly decided to forgo my participation in the Colorado Adventure this year. I am aware of the disruption this causes with planning, logistics and finances on your end but — as the numbers rise — I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the travel involved. I think the hike itself will be low risk, but for me it’s not the year for plane flights, rental cars, motels and various exposures.

Ben

Due to my personal situation I will need to drop out of the September trip. I was really looking forward to it. The training curriculum was great.

As you may have seen in the news, the virus is spiking here in Arizona. I’m not sure if things will calm down before September. To top it off, I got laid off from my job yesterday. I know this is your business and how you make a living, so I feel bad about cancelling. Things are just too uncertain for me and my family right now.

Sally

(July 17) It’s approaching the end of July and my thoughts are turning to the Utah trip. I’m wondering what thoughts you have going into the 11+ week countdown as coronavirus numbers are not going down like we all had hoped (back in March when we postponed this trip to October from April), but going up in many places…

(July 27) For reasons primarily related to travel risks for Covid-19 infection along with some additional concerns, I am writing to let you both know that I am canceling my reservation for this trip.

George

After long, hard (really hard) thought, I’ve decided to withdraw from the Colorado trip in August. My partner and I are healthy, but my partner cares for her elderly parents who have medical conditions. Also, I had expected COVID-19 infections to be declining or at least stabilizing. In many places, including out here in California, infection rates are still increasing significantly. To me, the opening of many businesses seem to be driven more by economics/social issues than health issues. Moreover, while I take the recommended precautions, I cannot be assured that others will do the same in a time when such a simple thing as wearing a mask has become such a political issue.

I hope you understand that this was a REALLY TOUGH call for me. At the end, it comes down to what my “gut” is telling me is the right thing to do. I hope this does not inconvenience you too much.

Tyler

I’ve been agonizing quite a lot — both because I don’t want to leave you guys in the lurch, and because a week in the mountains sounds like exactly what life requires right now — and I’ve been hoping for case counts to dip. But it’s looking increasingly questionable to fly across the country from D.C. these days, particularly since getting to the region would require a flight transfer and would be on American or United.

I’m very comfortable with the safety precautions you have in place for the trip, but the travel itself (not to mention car rentals and hotels) feels somewhat irresponsible. I’m having a lot of trouble envisioning getting on a cross-country flight at the moment.

Brett

I still work half-time as a family doctor. Covid is projected to peak in late September in Arkansas and we are presently experiencing quite a surge. We have had two group trips cancelled already just due to concerns. I never get sick, but if I had a significant contact at work 14 days before the trip, I would have to cancel for the group’s safety. I think the smart thing would be to wait until after the first of the year, when this dies down or a vaccine is available.

Oscar

After much consideration I’ve concluded that I’m not willing to risk participating in Yosemite this September. I’ve watched the rising C-19 infection rates throughout the country and in Yosemite, and can’t justify the risk to my wife and me. 

Commentary

These particular emails are from the past three weeks only. I have a stack of similar ones from April, May, and June.

You may have your own way of gauging where we are and where we’re going, such as comments made by friends or the fraction of people wearing masks at the local grocery store. If you’re a fellow small business owner, you most definitely have a measure or measures, with one certainly relating to your revenue and expenses.

These cancellation emails are my most telling indication that we’re botching our response to this pandemic and that there’s declining confidence in a trajectory change. For seven months we’ve known about the novel coronavirus and for five months we’ve known that it’s here, yet there is little change in the fear, uncertainty, and pessimism that they convey. It sounds like they still don’t know what to believe and that they still don’t have or know of a plan.

As other countries have demonstrated, it didn’t need to happen this way. Our nation’s response to this pandemic has been infuriatingly deficient.

For good reason, some might tell me to be thankful, and I am.

  • No family members or friends have contracted Covid-19.
  • My wife and I can both work from home, and she still has her job.
  • With Covid protocols in place, I can operate my business with acceptable levels of risk to me, my guides, and my clients.
  • With lots of hard work, we’ve been able to keep trip rosters mostly full, and we were able to launch an online course to help offset the loss.

Assignment of blame tends to reflect your politics, but the reality is that few (no?) heroes have emerged from this. On solid ground you can absolutely blame the President, who still acts like there’s nothing to see here; the Democrats, whose policy prescriptions are generally underwhelming; the media, both MSM for being sensationalist and right-wing outlets for being equally skewed, and sometimes for just making shit up; and elected and un-elected officials at all levels of government, from city councils to health officials to governors, who have generally failed to get their poop in a group to address this crisis in a pragmatic way.

We also need to blame ourselves, the American public, or at least the fraction it that can’t think critically, that can’t discern facts from fiction, and that has little sense of national duty, thereby allowing this virus to spread freely. Again, no side is perfect. On one hand, I was told by a Trump-voting acquaintance that coronavirus is being caused by the deployment of 5G. On the other, trail users in Boulder, Colo. (which voted for Clinton by an 80+ point margin) often give me a berth of 10 or even 30 feet as I run quickly past, an action that is driven only by unfounded fear, not science.

Yesterday the Federal Reserve said in a statement, “The path of the economy will depend significantly on the course of the virus.” The same could be said about our country. I thought it was an important and simple reminder about the central issue — if you want the old normal back, address the virus.

At this point, that probably means learning to live with it. But I’m still waiting for individuals who have a loud megaphone and who can influence policy (like, maybe, our President, and behind him our governors) to honestly admit this to their constituencies and to simply explain how this can be safely done.

Until that happens, the status quo reigns, and it’s essentially a race between herd immunity and a vaccine. I hope my business (and yours, or your employer’s) and our health is still intact on the other side.

Posted in on July 31, 2020
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19 Comments

  1. Ben from Minnesota on July 31, 2020 at 11:05 am

    Sadly, I feel the election has played a role in the “fear to govern” mentality. Great post. Wish I had the finances to join you in Colorado as my fear of the virus itself has faded. I can’t trust anything I read anymore.

  2. Nabeel on July 31, 2020 at 11:56 am

    Well put. A great summary of the situation. I enjoyed my Yosemite adventure trip. And felt very safe, other than once in a while when others wanted to lean in to tell me something. Or to shake my hand at the end of the trip. Fortunately I did not need to fly.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 31, 2020 at 12:06 pm

      I check in with the guides yesterday for post-trip evals, and it sounds like they really enjoyed having you. In fact, your group sounded great. Thanks for joining us.

  3. Jack Strahwl on July 31, 2020 at 12:19 pm

    If everyone completely quarantined themselves for 14 days, the virus would be gone. Literally. It would die out on their own.

    Yet somehow social spacing and mask wearing is a political issue, rather than a civic one. What throws me is you’d expect the right wingers to be more on the side of civic duty, but they are not.

    We are pinning all our hopes on waiting for a vaccine, when 50% of the country is saying they won’t get it.

    I predict that this is going to go on for a long time, and it will be about 2 years until we are in a new normal.

    • Lyle Gordon on July 31, 2020 at 12:31 pm

      Not really on topic for a backpacking blog but to eradicate the virus in 14 days, I think, would require everyone to quarantine in isolation, which probably isn’t practical. Imagine, I have just caught the virus and I proceed to quarantine in my small apartment with my wife, the virus begins to replicate and before I show symptoms my wife catches it over the next week as we are quarantined together. She then slowly incubates the virus over the next 1-2 weeks but likely your proposed 2 week quarantine will be lifted and newly infectious people will emerge. Even worse in larger multi-generational households. This doesn’t consider essential workers (infrastructure, health care, food, agriculture, etc). If we had more quarantine resources, massive and rapid testing and contact tracing maybe we could get out of this (with suitable leadership).

    • Rob on July 31, 2020 at 1:18 pm

      I know someone with “long-term Covid” who’s had a fever, positive tests, and other symptoms for 130 days now.

      The quarantine isn’t the key, the key is avoiding selfish behavior, like not wearing a mask, not washing hands, going places with big groups of people engaged in the same selfish behavior.

      • Jay C on August 1, 2020 at 6:34 pm

        “The quarantine isn’t the key, the key is avoiding selfish behavior, like not wearing a mask, not washing hands, going places with big groups of people engaged in the same selfish behavior.”

        I sendom comment on these sorts of posts, but had to – that comment from Rob is spot on. At this point, we know how to limit the spread and mitigate the grown of covid (and get back to “normal” life once the numbers drop) – we just can’t seem to collectively get it together to pull it off.

  4. Jonathan Kanovsky on July 31, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    I am a NY based client scheduled for the CO2 trip. I remember during our early zoom meeting and other communication trying to warn others of that it was only a matter of time until the virus would spread to other parts of the US. It is obvious and sad that elected officials in other parts of the country did not have the foresight or courage to learn from what happened in NY before and after the flattening of the curve. During trip to Ridgway, CO last week..95-98 % mask compliant in town and all considerate either mask/social distance on trail. Simple solutions to contain the spread. Still can’t figure out why there is so much resistance to the solution..(insert head scratch here)

  5. Ginny on July 31, 2020 at 12:36 pm

    Still COVID negative here despite not working from home—in a hospital. I am thankful for coworkers who take the mask wearing and hand hygiene seriously and for those out in the community who wear masks and avoid situations that put us all at risk. I flew (with N95/face shield) on a crowded flight earlier this year. I was dehydrated because I didn’t drink on the flight but managed to avoid getting sick. This is going to be the new normal for the foreseeable future. If people aren’t willing to mask up it will just prolong the restrictions. And yes, I did get a test just this week. I’m still planning on UT in Oct barring extreme circumstances.

  6. Jeff on July 31, 2020 at 11:43 pm

    Are you seriously trying to equate people who think that coronavirus is caused by 5G deployments with people who give you more room than necessary?

    • Andrew Skurka on August 2, 2020 at 4:40 pm

      Yes, I am. In the right context, I think they can be equated. If you spoke with an epidemiologist and asked about the risk of transmission during a split-second interaction with a passing runner/biker while you’re outside and when you’re 10 feet feet away, they’d say the risk is about zero. They shouldn’t promise that there’s no risk, because the risk is not truly zero, but it’s effectively zero. Similarly, if you asked that same person whether 5G has played a role in the pandemic, they’d say probably no. They shouldn’t say absolutely not, because they don’t know enough about 5G to say definitively, but based on what we know this is probably not the case.

      In both instances you have groups of people who are not acting on the basis of facts. I sympathize with them — lacking a consistent message from our leaders, everyone has basically been forced to find their own set of “facts” that make them comfortable.

      Of course, if you had to err on one side or the other, I’d rather than everyone give each other a 30-foot radius, instead of ignoring the problem and letting 150k people die. But again, that’s a different comparison than I was making.

      • bcap on August 3, 2020 at 7:22 am

        Hah. 30 ft? My wife keeps having the crap scared out of her while running on the mesa trail when she hears crashing noises way off in the woods. Instead of an animal is keeps turning out to be people giving her 50+ ft…

        In general we try to indulge the fears of folks when we are out and about by wearing masks and giving plenty of clearance. (To be clear, we always follow the CDC guidance and the established rules.) But it is getting a little crazy these days… the guidance is to wear a mask when indoors, or outdoors when you cannot stay socially distanced (6 ft). What happens in reality now is that I need to wear a mask AND avoid being within 15 feet of most folks I pass on the sidewalks or I get angry people telling me that I am a terrible person who wants them to die…

        On a related but different note, I know that the health of trails are not priority these days, but I cannot help but to think of how these illogical distancing reactions are going to (very unnecessarily) turn single track trails into road width scars in short order.

      • Emily on August 6, 2020 at 7:56 pm

        Maybe the person giving you extra space on the trail has their own risk factors (or family members with risk factors) that make them extra cautious right now. Their caution does not harm you. That’s quite a different scenario than the 5G conspiracy theory person.

        • bcap on August 7, 2020 at 9:13 am

          Broadly, the narrative of ‘their caution does not harm you’ seems not quite inaccurate, but instead, wildly incomplete to me.

          On an individual basis, I always go out of my way to try to respect folks paranoia (justified or not). I get the impression that Andrew does as well. Frankly, I’ve only witness one or two jerks on trail in the past 6 months in Boulder.

          My issue is more basic. A lot of folks appear to be concerned about being 6 ft from someone wearing a mask (i.e. someone practicing the accepted guidelines). This means that they walk wayyy off trail every time they have to pass someone. This has been causing significant and rapid damage and erosion to the trail systems. (I’d wager a pretty penny the same folks will be complaining about the state of the trails in 18 months.) These folks are choosing to place themselves in situations where they are forced to decide between erosion/trail damage and feeling safe. Forcing that choice is completely unnecessary. There are plenty of places in Boulder where you can easily walk in a beautiful area and can easily stay quite far from other people. To me it seems like the rich white privileged selfishness of a typical Boulderite is what makes them decide to enjoy Boulder’s narrow and busy trails and then stomp off trail to pass everyone. But of course, this is just my opinion.

  7. Greg C. on August 1, 2020 at 4:21 am

    Well said Andrew, the “Commentary” especially. Lack of leadership and general passivity from professionals, coupled with truly silly and adolescent political displays is really disheartening.
    The Economic distress is apparent and now being reported in the Financial press. However the Psychological pressures are far more subtle but more of a long term problem.
    Thanks for your efforts to post on Insta and write up your personal encounters.

  8. Jim P. on August 1, 2020 at 2:30 pm

    Spot-on, straight shooting, sober-minded, even-handed, honest take on the realities of the challenges facing each of us as individuals, and as a nation. Hang in there. And, thanks.

  9. Nate on August 3, 2020 at 10:24 am

    Of those in the U.S. who have been infected(4,601,526), 3.3%(154,002) have perished(from the CDC). It’s hard for me to worry when I see the number so low. I’m also assuming that a majority of those deaths are from the elderly or those with preexisting conditions. I do take reasonable precautions though, especially with elder family who are obese.

    I have an acquaintance, in his 20’s, who has had a miserable time with the virus and who’s had it for close to 40 days with perplexing symptoms. He has been at home and not needed to go to the hospital and should pull through. Just some thoughts.

    • Ginny on August 3, 2020 at 1:35 pm

      Nate, this is why we should all be more worried…the mortality rate is only a piece of the puzzle. Your acquaintance–who I would assume is generally low risk as a 20+ year old, despite not needing hospitalization, may have long-term sequelae from the infection. The sickest people I have seen to date have been otherwise healthy, young, pregnant patients, several of whom required ECMO, one of which coded on three separate occasions. They are alive, but with a significant recovery (to include HUGE hospital bills) ahead of them. I don’t think we can reduce this down to just the number of dead.

  10. Vicki Wilson on August 5, 2020 at 8:54 am

    I just finished a trip on the HST. It was fantastic. The best quote was from someone we passed on our way Wallace Creek. “Out here it feels normal.”
    Once we hit Wallace Creek and the PCT/JMT sections it felt less normal. Lots more face mask wearing – despite the ability to stay 6 ft apart.

    Your class helped set me up for a successful trip. The summit of Mt. Whitney was fantastic.

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