I should be in New Jersey today. But I’m not.
A few months ago a first cousin once-removed announced plans to hold a family celebration this coming weekend. It was a chance to see each other after three years of (mostly) pandemic-related separation. My plan was to start in New Jersey to see the house The Awesome Sister moved to and fixed up over the past couple of years, then on Saturday ride with her into New York for the family occasion, and on Sunday meet up with cousins from the other side of the family. After that The Awesome Sister would go home and I’d linger in New York a couple extra days to see friends.
But on Monday morning The Awesome Sister texted, “I do not have good news. I tested positive today for Covid.” She was having symptoms, and they were worsening. We agreed I should skip staying with her, so I made plans to stay at a hotel the night I arrived and go to New York early via train. If she felt better quickly and tested negative twice in a row, we’d meet in New York for the family celebration.
But her symptoms persisted. And then her partner fell ill with Covid. And then a cousin I especially looked forward to seeing (he’s taken the lead in dealing with the public administrator handling Cousin Bert’s estate) texted, “Unfortunate update. I wasn’t feeling well yesterday and tested positive this morning.”
Which reminded me of the recent experience a good friend had flying back to San Francisco from New York. She’s a highly-trained nurse and takes the pandemic seriously: she’s quadruply vaxed and wears a KN95 mask even when it’s not required. She stayed masked virtually the entire six-hour flight home, but a couple of days after she returned she came down with Covid. Worse still, she infected her husband before she tested positive, and he’s coping with other health issues. (They are both better now.)
If The Awesome Sister and her partner got it, and my cousin got it, and my good friend got it, what were my chances of avoiding it on a long plane ride with 250 strangers, many of them unmasked and some contemptuous of public health obligations? Or if not there, on the several train rides I’d have to take from place to place now that The Awesome Sister and her partner weren’t letting me tag along on their drive into New York?
A risk manager answers that question as dispassionately as possible by measuring the frequency and severity of the risk. To measure frequency, I went to the Johns Hopkins site for daily Covid testing trends. The seven-day positivity rate in California, which was lower than one percent as recently as April 13, has soared above five percent (and a local news report said positivity in the Bay Area is around seven percent). There are similar spikes in New Jersey and New York. So for every twenty people I’d encounter on the trip, at least one would be shedding virus. Multiply that times all the people in airports, train stations, etc., and it’s reasonable to conclude the risk frequency is high enough for me to catch Covid even with stringent self-protection, just as The Nurse Friend did.
There’s better news on the severity side. Thanks to vaccines (I’m quadruply vaxed also), anti-virals like Paxlovid, better medical protocols, and the omicron variant’s lesser virulence, Covid is highly unlikely to kill or even hospitalize me. Nationally, deaths have fallen below three hundred per day, or roughly 110,000 per year, down from 350,000 deaths when Covid first struck in 2020. (Provisional mortality data from the CDC indicate 415,000 Americans died of Covid in 2021.)
Just the same, I decided not to risk getting sick (and stranded) thousands of miles from home and, worse, becoming the cause of a super-spreader event my family would never forget — and perhaps never forgive, either. I want to see them, but I can wait until the next lull between surges. It shouldn’t be long. I just have to get the timing right.