Let’s survive the coronavirus pandemic

An email conversation between a friend and me

A friend wrote to me yesterday for advice. She lives with her husband and two teenage children in New York City. They own a vacation house in a rural area that I’ll call “Lake Bliss” to protect her identity. Sarah’s not her real name.

Hi Rob,

If you were me, where would you stay? We are both working remotely now and likely will pull kids out of school. Blissville [town near her vacation house] has a large hospital. But large enough? Where do you think is a better place to ride this through? I value your advice.



Dear Sarah,

My biggest piece of advice: Get the kids out of school now. Don’t let them go Monday. That’s your biggest risk. There are almost certainly infected kids in their classes, and if your kids catch it, you will very likely catch it from them. The Chinese found that approximately 75% of covid-19 cases caught it from family members.

I don’t think it matters where you live for the next several months as long as all four of you avoid being physically close to other people and you disinfect items that come into your home. That means nobody goes to a store or movie theater or restaurant, etc. Even walking on the sidewalk might be risky, I don’t know, because you pass so many other people in NYC. You definitely don’t want to be on public transportation. Did I send you the paper about the guy on a Chinese bus trip who infected 11 other passengers?

Theoretically you could isolate yourselves this way in Brooklyn. But kids are kids and I’m guessing it will be easier to keep them away from other people if you are at the lake. You know better than me.

If none of you is infected yet (the kids may be almost asymptomatic so you might not know), and you really isolate yourself and disinfect, i don’t think you’ll catch it. But you have to be very compulsive and who knows how long you’ll have to keep it up. Months. I bathed carrots last night in bleach solution. I can’t imagine how hard it might be to make the kids comply.

I can’t emphasize enough how bad this disease is. People who think the panic is unjustified, etc., people who think the death rate is low, people who think covid-19 is like the flu — they misunderstand what’s happening. If the US were doing what Taiwan, Singapore, China (outside Wuhan), etc., have done, yes, very few people would die. But the US isn’t doing those things!!!!!!!!! The US is on course to duplicate what happened in Wuhan and Italy.

Blissville has a large hospital. But large enough?

In some parts of the US, no hospital will be large enough because even the largest hospitals usually have only a few dozen beds where critical cases of covid-19 can be treated. Such patients require isolation, ventilators, intensive nursing by specially trained staff, etc. Have you read about what’s happening Lombardy? The hospitals are turning away critical patients over the age of 65. They don’t have enough ventilators etc. for everybody. The same thing happened in Wuhan. Due to the US government’s incompetence, it looks pretty certain that this is going to start happening in some parts of the US soon. Whether it happens in Blissville, I don’t know how to guess.

I wish I had something more cheerful to say.



P.P.S. One more thing about the kids going to school on Monday. Ever since we started talking about covid-19, because I didn’t want you to worry unnecessarily, I’ve emphasized that kids rarely get severely sick But in case you don’t know I should tell you that kids do sometimes get very sick and sometimes die. The death rate in China for teenagers was 0.2%. One out of five hundred. Low but not zero. A larger number of teenagers got severely ill and required ventilation, which is an extremely unpleasant treatment requiring sedation, intubation, and sometimes restraints, typically for weeks.

Dear Rob,

Thank you. Plan is to pack up and head to lake today.



Dear Sarah,

Great. I’m relieved.



Dear Rob,

In packed car heading to Lake now. Just found out that someone in our office tested positive. I don’t know who but from the description of interactions I don’t think I was in meetings or other interactions. But I am self-quarantined now.



For all you folks out there in Internet land, did you catch that last bit? People are probably infected at your office too. People are probably infected in your childrens’ classrooms. The virus is everywhere now, and unless you live in China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore, your government has been incompetent, there hasn’t been enough testing, and you have no way to know.

If you can possibly manage it, even if it takes a financial sacrifice, it’s time to take your kids out of school and stop going to work.

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