July 21, 2022

Virus here, virus there, virus virus everywhere… And it’s not just coronaviruses making the headlines anymore. Although Covid-19 and the continuing pandemic makes for the most concern to the greatest number, there are other disturbing trends out there. Today, there was a confirmed case of wild polio in New York, this follows on cases in the UK. This follows hard upon the exponential spread of monkeypox which, while not the disaster Covid-19 has been, is definitely out of control and spreading quickly. What worries me about these news stories is that they come on the heels of willful political attempts to attack and disable the public health infrastructure as being against ‘freedom’. Right wing groups are bringing court cases and lobbying state legislatures to gut public health laws that prevent gatherings in a public health emergency as being against freedom of worship, prevent contact tracing as being antiprivacy, and mandating face coverings or other sanitation measures as being undemocratic or some such. The current attempts to march back to the nonexistent good old days of seventy years ago by undoing social legislation in either the legislative arena or the court system is going to bring back other sights and trends that we all thought were firmly in the past. I’m assuming those who are behind the anti-public health campaigns will finally be satisfied when we return to rows of children in iron lungs from poliovirus or dead and disabled children from rapid spread of measles encephalitis.

A case or two of polio is not yet cause for immediate concern, but if it gets into a rabidly antivaccine or antipublic health community of some sort, whether left or right wing, we could be in for a world of hurt. Monkeypox is a bit of a different story. it’s definitely seeded in the US and Western Europe. The antipublic health press is trying to cast it as a sort of ‘wages of sin’ disease due to its early appearance in gay male populations, much in the same way that the early HIV epidemic was brought to public attention. Monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted infection. It is transmitted by close contact, which could, I suppose, include sex, but it could just as easily run through the very heterosexual crowd at a spring break type pool party, or a crowded dance floor, or a cheering throng after a football game. If you’re over fifty, you need not worry too much about monkeypox. The US regularly vaccinated for smallpox up through 1972 and the generations born prior to that point lined up for vaccines without a good deal of complaining or bias (their parental generations having grown up in a time when epidemic disease carried off quite a few young and healthy people). Smallpox vaccine cross reacts with the monkeypox virus and creates a relative immunity to infection or serious clinical symptoms.

For the most part, monkeypox doesn’t make people sick enough to require hospital treatment, it gives fever, body aches and all those other delightful viral symptoms along with the blistering pockmarks that characterize this family of viral infections. It clears up and goes away on its own within a couple of weeks but you feel like hell while that is happening. If you’re symptomatic with it, you’re infectious so stay home. There is a vaccine against monkeypox but it is in relatively short supply. It doesn’t do any good to get the vaccine after you develop the disease, you have to have had it before hand. I suppose the biggest issue with it as it starts to spread more and more into the general population is that it’s going to knock even more people out of the work force for a while which is already spread too thin. And the continued slow collapse of the health care system and access to health care as the insurance companies try to recoup their covid losses by jacking rates (most plans are expecting to post about a 10% increase this next year) pushing more and more people off the rolls which isn’t going to do anyone much good.

So back to the continuing saga of Covid-19. We’re definitely into another surge. Numbers in our local hospitals are going up quickly both in general beds and in ICUs. They aren’t at the heights of last winter but they’re about five times what they were a month ago. More and more people are going out sick and on quarantine making it difficult to cover duty rosters given the short staffing that exists everywhere. We have four faculty out in my division having come down with it this past week. Several of the nurses I depend on are out. The consensus from friends who have gotten sick is that the BA 5 strain currently marching across the land is making even the vaccinated and boosted very ill for about three days and overly fatigued and washed out for another week after that. And BA 5 is so good at evading immunity, whether it’s from vaccine or prior infection, that you can get reinfected in as early as four weeks from your last bout.

I had a call with my editor this evening. The book version of Volume II of these Accidental Plague Diaries is coming together and we are in schedule for it to come out some time in September. And we’re discussing a possible Volume III. When I began these writings, I had no idea what they were becoming and, when it was clear that Volume I was a book, I was pretty sure it was going to be a one off as the pandemic would slowly dissipate with the introduction of the vaccine in early 2021. As we all know, between politics and biology, that’s not what happened and I continue to churn out these essays. I’m not sure what they are. Personal ruminations? Political analysis with a health care bent? My hope for them is that someone will pick up a copy in fifty years, read it, and have a better understanding of just what was going on in American society and how it changed because of Covid.

We are changing. I’m not sure that any of us has been able to grasp yet what those changes are and how they are going to continue to manifest themselves over the course of the next decade or so. Just like the flu epidemic of 1918-19 created the conditions that allowed for the Roaring 20s and the Depression and War that followed, Covid is creating the conditions for something different. Some fear that that difference is going to be Civil War of some sort. I’m more optimistic than that. I’m still hoping that it’s going to continue to teach us new ways to be that may be healthier in the long run. The discovery that many jobs can be done from home or in a hybrid home/office dichotomy is, I believe healthy in the long run, allowing for better balances between work and personal life. The simplification of wardrobe and dress due to zoom calls replacing face to face meetings is healthy as it frees up purchasing power for other things. The need for parents to have become more and more aware of their children’s educational needs is healthy. I don’t think it’s always manifesting in healthy ways as certain groups of parents try to push their personal religious moralities on everyone but at least they’re not abdicating parental responsibilities to the education system in quite the same way.

I think I’ll end this evenings musings with an anecdote about a previous viral pandemic. This one is from 1968 and was what was known as the Hong Kong flu as it was caused by an influenza strain that first appeared in that city. I caught the Hong Kong flu that winter. I was six years old and in first grade and it laid me low. I think I was out of school for about two weeks. I don’t remember a lot of the gory details other than I was having difficulty keeping anything down, upchucking even the ginger ale and saltine crackers that were my mothers mainstay for her children with upset stomachs. I came down from my sickbed one evening to the family dinner table to find that my mother had made sloppy joes. These were my favorite and I was exceedingly upset that I would not be able to partake. My brother, who was a baby, wasn’t eating them either as he was still on baby food and my sister, then a toddler, was wearing more of hers than she was eating. I finally demanded that I have one too. My mother was concerned that if I ate one, it would just come right back up but I didn’t care. So she made me one and I ate it. And it stayed down. It was the only thing that stayed down all week. I think it was sheer will power.

Masks on, hands washed, get boosted, and eat your sloppy joes.

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