Hiking in the dark

Dear Willow,

I don’t have enough information.

As we try to reopen, not just our economy but our lives, I honestly don’t know what to do.

A recent poll from Gallup shows that most Americans are on board with wearing masks and social distancing, but that we may be loosening up what that looks like in practice. Maybe we’re not adhering quite so strictly to six feet of distance. Maybe we’re taking walks with friends. We’re starting to wonder if we can see our parents and our nieces and our neighbors with any degree of safety.

From the beginning, I have been adhering to all of the restrictions and recommended health practices. A week before anyone else in my neighborhood, I was wearing a scarf tied around my mouth and nose when I went outside. I wiped down envelopes. I Clorox-ed my phone every day (good idea). I Lysol-ed green peppers (bad idea).

But like much of America, my sense of EMERGENCY is starting to fade, and I find myself trying to make calculated decisions based on still-limited, inconsistent information.

A concrete example, and a confession of hypocrisy.

I’ve been going hiking on the weekends. Wearing a mask, staying as far from other people as possible. Mostly, I’m doing trails that are long enough to weed out the casual hiker, so I don’t see too many people, and it feels pretty safe for everyone.

Plus, in past weeks, there has been some reporting in the news that if you’re outside and being sensible, you’re unlikely to inhale a large enough quantity of the coronavirus to become infected, or exhale enough to spread it to others. This makes sense to me, based on my almost non-existent knowledge of germs and the physics of aerosols and droplets.

To steal from Stephen Colbert, it smacks of “truthiness.”

So once a week, my friend and I—she lives alone, sees almost no one, and was sinking slowly into madness as the days passed—we don our masks, I make her sit in the back of the car, and we head out to hike. We both wear the masks for the whole trip, even when that starts to get really gross (which is about five minutes in). Almost no one else on those trails is doing the same, which is…disconcerting.

About my mask. It’s got a floral print, and my mom made it. The fit isn’t perfect, and I’m conscious that it’s probably not doing a whole lot to protect me. But at the very least, it’s stopping most of MY particles from joining the larger effluvium. So, it’s a protective measure for everyone else, just in case my seeming good health is hiding contagion.

This feels ok. The risks seem small, and the personal benefits have been great. Fresh air, vibrant young greens, getting to witness the budding of the season, the simple pleasure of a couple hours spent in the presence of a person who doesn’t share my bathroom. It has been good for both body and spirit.

But.

I don’t really know if it’s truly “safe.” Because I don’t have enough information.

Here’s what I need to know.

  • Is the danger truly significantly diminished simply by being outside? Is anyone testing this? And not in laboratory conditions, but in real-world experiences.
  • How much viral load can a generally healthy person take on before getting sick? I know the factors will vary widely from individual to individual, just like smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer in everyone, but having a baseline would be at least a little helpful.
  • There’s an image that’s been going around social media, showing that if two people are wearing masks, and one of them is infected, the chance of the corona-free person catching the virus is only 1.5%. If this is real, is it true of all masks that are worn across the nose and mouth? Or just N95s? I so wanted to believe this one, which is always a red flag to be extra skeptical. (And I’m glad I was, because the CDC has stated that there’s no data to support the claim.)

I am frustrated by how little I really know. I am frustrated that the guidelines I’m hearing are inconsistent at best and dangerous at worst. I’m happy I live in a state where the governor has a plan to start to re-open things, a schema that is based in data and the best scientific understanding currently available.

But even so, this plan is mostly about businesses and schools. It doesn’t tell me anything about hiking. It doesn’t tell me when I really need to wear the mask, and when it’s probably ok to leave it off. It doesn’t help me gauge my risk of infecting my mom if I see her for Mothers’ Day. It doesn’t tell me what I need to do, personally, in my day-to-day behavior.

Here’s what it does tell me:

  1. We’re not out of the woods yet.
  2. It’s still imperative to protect yourself and others.

All of this is to say I am being powerfully reminded that reliable information is the only basis for making good decisions. What my gut says won’t hold up against the hard realities of science and the probabilities of viral spread. I am absolutely dying to be confident that the choices I’m making really are minimal-risk, to myself and to others. Or, to put it more positively, that they are beneficial and not harmful.

But if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t have that confidence.

And until I do, I’m hiking in the dark, and I’m only willing to risk so much on my gut and a roll of the dice.

 

Yours in information-shortage,

Jenn

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