Does The “Diet” Belong in “Diet Sodas”?

Let’s say that you–like me, and about 99 percent of the rest of the population of the United States–are always trying to lose a few pounds. Should “diet sodas” be part of your weight loss regimen? It’s a good question, and one that has produced lots of conflicting data. Some studies indicate that diet drinks are helpful, while others show the opposite.

The most recent study looked at the effect of diet sodas sweetened with sucralose on appetite. It concluded that, for women and people who are struggling with obesity, those beverages caused increased activity in the parts of the brain that control appetite and food cravings and also caused a decline in the level of hormones that communicate that “full stomach” feeling. Participants in the study consumed the same quantities of fluids–plain water, diet soda with sucralose, and beverages sweetened with sugar–and then had their brains scanned by MRIs to gather the brain activity data while they were being shown photos of enticing foods like donuts and juicy cheeseburgers (which really seems like unfair entrapment, when you think about it).

One of the researchers concluded: “By studying different groups we were able to show that females and people with obesity may be more sensitive to artificial sweeteners. For these groups, drinking artificially sweetened drinks may trick the brain into feeling hungry, which may in turn result in more calories being consumed.”

I used to be a regular consumer of diet drinks, but I’ve pretty much stopped–mostly because my tastes changed and I’m a cheapskate, besides. I try to stick to water and coffee, and if I really feel like I want something with a more distinctive flavor I’ll put a few drops of lemon or lime juice into my water glass. A cold glass of tap water or a cup of hot coffee are pretty satisfying, when you get right down to it.

Not Forgetful, But Efficiently Brainy

In A Study In Scarlet, Doctor Watson was astonished to learn that Sherlock Holmes did not profess to know whether the sun revolved around the earth, or the earth revolved around the sun. Holmes, unembarrassed by his unfamiliarity with basic astronomy, responded to Watson with a famous analogy:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

I thought about Holmes’ notion when I ran across this article about the relationship of intelligence and forgetfulness. It reports on a study that concludes that forgetfulness is important to “intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments.” As one of the researchers explained, the study demonstrates that “[t]he real goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.”

Intelligent brains therefore are quick to jettison memory of irrelevant or unnecessary information–which might be things like the names of people you haven’t seen in months, the details of a conversation that happened some time ago, or whether the sun revolves around the earth–to ensure there is space for relevant information that will actually be needed in your daily decision-making. And here’s some good news for those of us who have been around for a while: the study indicates that older brains forget accumulated older information in order to make room for newer information. So those “senior moments” aren’t a sign of approaching mental feebleness, they are just your brain efficiently sifting through the pile of debris and trying to get the limited space in your mental attic in order.

So Sherlock Holmes was right, and the study confirms the ultimate accuracy of his analysis of the human brain as like an attic with limited storage space. Of course, being Holmes, he probably wouldn’t read about the study in the first place.

The Nature Prescription

I ran across an interesting article recently about a new kind of prescription that some doctors are issuing. According to the article, rather than prescribing drugs, the doctors are prescribing . . . nature. In order to treat conditions like stress, asthma, obesity, and anxiety, doctors are instructing patients to get off their duffs, get out of their houses, and enjoy hiking, walking, or other activities in specific parks and green spaces. The “nature prescription” is apparently particularly popular with pediatricians who are concerned about the spike in childhood anxiety, inactivity, and increasing obesity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Studies show that time spent in nature is effective in reducing stress and addressing obesity. Neither of those results should be surprising; parks are quiet, less crowded, and far away from stress inducers like rude people, news broadcasts, and angry social media posts. And while you can’t be out in nature without getting at least some exercise, you also aren’t near the refrigerator, the snack drawer, or the jug of sugary soda that might otherwise tempt you.

Doctors who are using the nature prescription approach try to be specific with their patients. They identify a park or green space near the patient, and then discuss how often the patient should go to the park and the activities they should follow for a specific period of time–say, walking briskly for 30 minutes every other day. The doctors report that a specific instruction on what to do, and for how long, is more likely to be followed by the patient than a general admonition that the patient “get more exercise.”

There are obvious challenges with “nature prescriptions”–parks to hike in are a lot easier to find in Maine than in Manhattan, for example–but I think the notion of “nature prescriptions” is a great initiative. We need to get away from the idea that every condition can be addressed with a pill, and encourage people to be more active and to exercise more control over their health and their mindsets. I’ve been following my own “nature prescription” for years, and my experience with morning walks is that fresh air, exercise, and some quiet time to think can work wonders.

Project Hail Mary

Over the weekend I finished reading Project Hail Mary, the latest book by author Andy Weir. Actually, saying I read the book really doesn’t capture the process; you might say instead that I devoured it. Weir also wrote The Martian, and if you enjoyed that book (or even just the enjoyable Matt Damon movie version of that story, although I thought the book was better), I’m pretty sure that you’ll also enjoy Project Hail Mary.

The plot of the book grabs your attention from the very first page. The main character, Ryland Grace, wakes up from an enforced multi-year coma that has left him mentally sluggish and forgetful about pretty much everything. As he slowly regains his memory, he realizes that he is on a spacecraft and was part of a three-person crew that has been sent to a faraway star system. Unfortunately, his two crewmates didn’t survive the prolonged coma, and he is alone except for his robot caretaker. As his memories gradually return, he not only realizes things about himself, he also recalls that the purpose of the mission was to try to save the Earth by figuring out a way to eliminate the threat of astrophages–tiny organisms that are consuming the Sun’s energy and threatening to convert the Earth into a frozen waste that humans and other creatures cannot survive. His crew was sent on a one-way suicide mission to the Tau Ceti system because that star–alone among the stars in our solar system’s neighborhood–isn’t showing signs of its output being affected by astrophages.

I won’t spoil the book for those who might wish to read it; obviously, I thought it was well worth the read. I do want to say two general things about the book, however. First, the book–like The Martian–makes me wish I had paid more attention to science and math courses in high school, and actually taken some more math and science classes in college. In both books, Weir’s characters routinely use their scientific knowledge, and their deftness with math, to solve imponderable problems and develop practical solutions to fend off one potential disaster after another. If school boards are looking to incentivize kids to take more math and science courses, assigning the kids to read The Martian and Project Hail Mary would be a good first step.

Second, and despite the fact that the plot of the book has the Earth and the human species teetering on the brink of extinction thanks to the astrophages ravaging the Sun, the book presents a fundamentally optimistic view. The nations of Earth manage to come together to address the astrophage blight, and Ryland Grace, like Mark Watney in The Martian, also takes a positive, cheerful approach to his impossible situation and the immense challenges he encounters. As he remembers more and more about how he got to where he is, works to overcome every challenge thrown his way, and maintains his sense of humor in the face of unimaginable circumstances, it’s hard not to come to like the guy.

It was a pleasure to read a book that projected such optimism about the future, and human beings. It was a special treat to read the book right now, when positive news and cause for optimism can sometimes be hard to find.

The Scientific Scourge Of Fake Data

Almost 10 years ago, a significant study on personal honesty was published. It indicated that simple method reduced lying by respondents who were filling out forms: if people signed an honesty declaration at the beginning of the form, rather than the end, they were supposed to be less likely to lie in their answers. The study was cited by other researchers and featured in a bestselling book written by one of its principal authors.

Now that study is being retracted. Over the years, efforts to replicate the results of the study have been unsuccessful, but now a more serious issue has been uncovered. Academics who took a close look at the underlying data cited in the study have determined that one of the main experiments cited in the study was faked, and that the data related to that experiment is fraudulent. The researchers who published the initial study agree and have asked the journal that published the initial study–the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences–to formally retract it.

It’s ironic that a study drawing conclusions about personal honesty would be based on fake data, but it’s the latest high-publicity example of a significant problem in the scientific community. Some have called it the “replication crisis.” We remember from our high school science classes that the scientific method involved developing a hypothesis, creating and conducting an experiment designed to test the hypothesis, describing the experiment and honestly publishing its results, and then letting the rest of the scientific community challenge the hypothesis, the experiment, and the data. The last step, in which other scientists played the role of skeptic and fact-checker and verifier by trying to replicate the experiment and test its results, was a key part of the whole process. And in the past, peer-reviewed journals played an important role in ensuring that the results of the experiments could, in fact, be faithfully replicated and the conclusions drawn were credible.

But something has obviously gone wrong, as a number of high-profile research findings can’t be replicated and there is increasing concern that data isn’t being collected or reported honestly or accurately. The “social sciences,” which encompasses the honesty study noted above, has been especially affected by the replication problem. And in the case of the honesty study, no one seems to know how the faked data was created in the first place. Four of the five authors of the study say they weren’t involved with collecting the false data, and the other one denies that he had anything to do with it. So, how did it happen, and why didn’t the initial authors of the study carefully review the faked data and question its bona fides before publishing the results? Some observers wonder if the behavioral studies that are now a staple of news feeds aren’t being influenced by the desire to create headlines and achieve clicks, leading researchers to overlook questionable data or methodologies.

You see signs these days that say that “science is real.” That’s obviously true, but the replication crisis demonstrates that not all scientific results are real. There’s nothing wrong with having a healthy skepticism about groundbreaking studies or sweeping pronouncements until after the underlying data has been thoroughly vetted and other researchers have replicated the results. As our high school science teachers instructed us, that’s what should have been happening in the first place.

Short People Got . . . .

Short people have had a tough time of it since basketball was invented and Randy Newman sang a mean-spirited song about them in 1977. And lest you think I’m being heightist in saying so, I should point out that, from a basketball perspective, anyone who is less than 6’1″ apparently is considered short–which puts me squarely into the “short people” category.

Now short people have something else to worry about: a Singapore study concludes that shorter people (in this case, people shorter than 5’5″) are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. The study found that COVID-infected droplets that are expelled by a sneeze or cough tend to fall slowly to the ground, and the downward trajectory supposedly puts the height-challenged among us at greater peril of breathing in the droplets. The study recommends that short people maintain an even greater than normal social distance from taller people–two meters, which equates to a bit over 6.5 feet–to avoid being caught in the droplet fallout zone and wear masks, too. The study has been published in the Physics of Fluids.

Far be it from me to question a scientific study, but color me skeptical on this finding. I’m not sure that all sneezes and coughs propel downward, but in any case, isn’t there an easy way of testing this hypothesis? Has any seven-footer become infected by COVID? And are the heights of COVID hospital patients out of whack with the spread of heights in the population at large?

One of the problems with our current atmosphere is that alarming (and often dubious) information about COVID, and the delta variant, get published every day. Before we start telling short people that they are at greater risk of contracting COVID, shouldn’t we do a bit more research to confirm that we’ve got it right, rather scaring the dickens out of the portion of the population that tops out at below 5’5″?

The Delta Variant

The Delta Variant. It sounds like the title of a bad Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel, doesn’t it? And according to the news reports it is lurking out there, ready to pounce, and threatening to propel us into a mask-wearing, social distancing, stay-inside-your-house reprise of what we went through in 2020–like the situation found in Australia, where a Wall Street Journal article recently argued that the governmental COVID responses have returned the Land Down Under to its roots as a nation of prisoners.

Already we’re starting to see signs of what might lie ahead. This week the CDC and the Biden Administration reversed course on mask-wearing, saying even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in places with high COVID transmission rates. Only two months ago, the CDC said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks indoors. The CDC also recommends that everyone in grade schools–kids, teachers, staff, and visitors,–wear masks even if they are fully vaccinated. And the CDC’s abrupt reversal seems to presage additional policy shifts and concerns coming up. The CNBC article darkly warns: “The updated guidance comes ahead of the fall season, when the highly contagious delta variant is expected to cause another surge in new coronavirus cases and many large employers plan to bring workers back to the office.”

What caused the CDC to change its mind, again? The CNBC article linked above quotes CDC Director Rochelle Walensky as saying the change is based on “new science” and data showing that the delta variant behaves “uniquely differently from past strains of the virus,” suggesting that some vaccinated people “may be contagious and spread the virus to others.” But the description of the rationale sounds very contingent and conditional–and, frankly, perhaps the result of some guesswork. There seems to be healthy disagreement in the medical profession about just how dangerous the delta variant really is. And there definitely is disagreement about how to deal with COVID and kids, as a recent New York magazine article demonstrated.

Here’s the issue, as I see it: our health care experts and politicians don’t seem to realize that their credibility isn’t what it once was. They seem weirdly panicky and overly protective, and willing to reverse course and make sweeping decisions that disrupt the lives of millions on the basis of untested models and supposition, rather than hard science. They also don’t seem to take into account the cost and impact of their suggestions, whether it is the mental health impact of isolating people due to shutdowns, the health effect of breathing through masks for hours on end, or the economic effect of restrictions on activities. And their latest change also undercuts the impetus for the crucial public health initiative of encouraging COVID vaccination. Some who haven’t been vaccinated will reason that if even fully vaccinated people need to wear masks to protect the unvaccinated, what’s the point of vaccination in the first place? And if protecting the unvaccinated is the goal, how long will this latest round of mask-wearing rules last?

It’s obviously not ideal that there is growing distrust of the public health authorities and politicians, but it’s important that those people recognize that the distrust and skepticism and resistance to sweeping edicts exists, and won’t be going away. If autumn brings new calls for lockdowns to deal with the delta variant, the general level of skepticism about the need for that kind of draconian action will be heightened–and I expect that the level of acceptance and compliance among the general population will be affected, too.

A Texas-Sized Hailstone

Hail is one of those meteorological phenomena that is on the weird edge of the spectrum of weather. A storm rolls through, you hear the rumble of thunder and the crash of lightning and the patter of rain drumming on the roof and windows–and then suddenly the patter becomes a sharp, loud rattle because the rain has turned into hail. You look out your door to see what’s going on and are shocked to find that your patio and yard are covered with pea-sized icy pellets, even though the temperature is far about freezing.

What causes hail? The National Geographic explains:

“Hailstones are formed by layers of water attaching and freezing in a large cloud. A frozen droplet begins to fall from a cloud during a storm, but is pushed back up into the cloud by a strong updraft of wind. When the hailstone is lifted, it hits liquid water droplets. Those droplets then freeze to the hailstone, adding another layer to it. The hailstone eventually falls to Earth when it becomes too heavy to remain in the cloud, or when the updraft stops or slows down.”

Even small hailstones can cause a lot of damage to cars and roofs, and really bad hailstorms can be deadly: the National Geographic piece linked above notes that 250 people were killed in a hailstorm in India in 1888. If you’ve been in a bad hailstorm, it’s not hard to see how that could happen. If you’re outside when baseball-sized chunks of solid ice start hurtling down from the skies and one of them has your name on it, there’s not much you can do about it.

All of this is to explain why I was interested when I saw this story this week about the hailstone, pictured above, that set the record for the largest recorded hailstone ever to fall in Texas. This whopper, which fell near Hondo, Texas on April 28, weighed in at a hefty 1.26 pounds and was at least the size of small football when it crashed through a tree on its way to the ground. Fortunately, it didn’t hit a house, car, animal, or person.

It just goes to show you that things are bigger in Texas. And it also shows you why, during the thunderstorm season on the Great Plains and Midwestern United States, you want to be sure not to be caught outside when a bad thunderstorm rolls through.

Over Old Mars

I admit it: I’m a space geek. I avidly followed the space program when I was a kid and watched all of the launches and landings, I joined The Planetary Society when I was a college student and got some great photos of planets taken by exploratory spacecraft of the ’70s that I tacked up on the wall around my desk, and I’ve been hooked on space and planets and the technological advances made in our exploration efforts ever since. That’s why I think what we’re doing now on Mars is pretty darned thrilling.

The photo above is a picture of the latest Mars rover, Perseverance, taken by Ingenuity, the helicopter/drone that has been taking short flights over the surface of Mars. It’s not the greatest photograph from a technical standpoint, of course, but the amazing thing is that it is a picture of human technology taken by another item of human technology on the surface of a distant, alien planet. The picture was snapped on Sunday on Ingenuity‘s third, and longest, flight over old Mars, when Ingenuity was about 16 feet above the Martian landscape and about a football field away from Perseverance.

We keep making significant advances in the space arena, whether it is developing reusable capsules and rockets, sending drones to Mars, or seeing more entrepreneurs entering the space technology and exploration business. It makes me believe that the next few years are going to see some real landmarks established: space tourism, permanent bases on the Moon, and even human landings on Mars. But for now, a blurry, grainy photo of Perseverance is still a pretty cool thing.

The Middle Seat Muddle

This week the CDC released information about whether airlines should follow policies that block off the middle seat on their planes. The CDC announced that laboratory modeling showed that blocking off the middle passenger seat, in either single-aisle or double-aisle planes, reduced airborne exposure to infectious diseases from fellow passengers by 23 percent to 57 percent. Those in the airline industry promptly noted that “the CDC admits that the current studies quantifying the benefit of specific social distancing strategies in the cabin, such as keeping the middle seats vacant, are limited.”

I don’t know which airlines–if any–are still blocking off the middle seats of flights. We flew American to and from Arizona on our recent visit, and on our flights every seat, including the middle seat, was filed. The airlines not only take the position that the science cited by the CDC is “limited,” but also point out that the airline industry took a huge hit in the early days of COVID, when most people avoided travel, and they need to sell those middle seats to recover economically and become profitable again.

It’s a class example of the tug-of-war between public health and profitability. I’m convinced that, if the CDC had its druthers, they’d rather every American stayed in their homes and avoided any risks whatsoever. And when it comes to air travel, they’d rather people are more spaced out (cramped passengers wouldn’t mind that, either), everyone wears masks, no food is served, and aircraft are designed so that all potential disease transmission vectors are avoided. Of course, if the airlines followed all of the CDC’s guidance, the cost of air travel would inevitably increase, some airlines would go out of business, and people wouldn’t be happy about it.

I’m guessing the airlines will come out on top in the middle-seat muddle and will continue to fill those middle seats, unless the FAA or Congress actually mandates that middle seats be left vacant. But you can bet that the airlines won’t object to the public health requirements that don’t affect their bottom line–like requiring passengers to wear masks at all times, regardless of their vaccination status or COVID case data. I think air travelers are going to be masked for the foreseeable future–and maybe permanently.

Mixed Messages

We’re at a weird time in America. At the same time many of us are completing our COVID-19 vaccinations, getting our vaccination cards, and feeling like we are on the cusp of returning to some reasonable measure of personal freedom, and some states are beginning to loosen their restrictions, we’re getting dire warnings from national leaders and public health officials about a potential “fourth surge” of the pandemic in the United States.

(Would it really be only a “fourth surge”? I’ve lost count, frankly.)

The statement made yesterday by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the CDC, is pretty jarring for those Americans who hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, just ahead. After reporting on increases in the number of COVID cases (now topping more than 30 million Americans) and hospitalizations, Dr. Walensky went off script to confess, in emotional terms, to feeling a sense of “impending doom” and said she was “scared” that the country could be on the verge of a new surge as COVID variants infect the unvaccinated parts of the population. President Biden also said that “now is not the time” to remove masking and social distancing requirements.

The statements by Dr. Wallensky and President Biden have to rattle the confidence of people who believe a return to “normal” is not far away. The average citizen is getting pretty mixed messages right now. We’re feeling good that vaccinations are being made available to most age groups and seeing lots of social media posts with pictures of bared arms getting jabbed and vaccination cards, and we know that restrictions are being loosened in many places–but at the same time we are getting alarming warnings and, for many of us, we know people who are continuing to come down with COVID even now.

And part of the problem with this confusing mix of data and messages is that it is occurring against the backdrop of obvious pandemic fatigue and, in some quarters, a growing distrust of the pronouncements of our public health officials and concern that they are never going to let the world get back to 2019 normality. The CNN analysis piece linked above describes the unsettled situation this way: “The nation is caught on a ledge between triumph and a late game disaster in a fight against a pathogen ideally engineered to exploit lapses in public health, resistance to mask wearing mandates and the frayed patience of a country disorientated after a year when normal life went into hibernation.

These different perspectives necessarily inform how people react to the messages we are getting. When the doctor who is the head of the CDC admits to being “scared” and feeling a sense of “impending doom,” is she conveying a legitimate, albeit emotional, reaction to the latest data, or is her message part of the newest effort to keep people frightened, masked up, and in their houses indefinitely?

Now that we are vaccinated, we’re going to try to get about our lives–but prudently. I’m still going to engage in social distancing, and I’ll gladly continue to mask up in enclosed spaces. I don’t think we’re done with COVID-19 just yet.

Generational Monikers

I’ve never understood the silly urge to coin names for “generations” — which basically seems to exist because, once you name a “generation,” you can make grossly overbroad generalizations about the people who are members.

It started with the “Baby Boomers,” which in my view shows just how stupid the generational naming is. “Baby Boomers” include anyone born between the end of World War II and 1964. That’s my generation, although my personal experience as someone born in the late ’50s is a lot different from someone born in the late ’40s. I wasn’t at risk of serving in Vietnam, for example, I didn’t go to any Beatles concerts, and I didn’t participate in any anti-war protests. Nevertheless, I’m designated as in that “generation” that is supposed to be hopelessly narcissistic and self-absorbed and now has become the source of the “OK, Boomer” putdown that younger generations like to use.

I think the Boomers were the first example of a named “generation.” And because sociologists thought that was a good idea, they gave names to other generations–including the “Silent Generation” that came before the Boomers, with members who had somehow been able to live their lives without a generational name until somebody decided, post-Boom, to give them one. Then came “Generation X,” immediately after the Baby Boomers, followed by “Millennials” (also apparently known as “Generation Y”), then “Generation Z.”

Now CNN is suggesting that the little kids of today–as part of the as-yet unnamed generation coming after “Generation Z”–should be called “Generation C,” because their outlook on life has been permanently transformed (and scarred) by the COVID pandemic. You can make the same arguments about how stupid it is to generalize about an entire generation, some of whom may well have been traumatized by COVID while others have simply accepted the changes and gone on with their kid lives without much concern. But the core point is how unfair it is to give a generation a name based on a disease. The coronavirus period has been tough, but it shouldn’t define a generation of little kids who will now be expected, going forward, to all be brittle and hyper safety conscious.

Can we please stop giving “generations” stupid names and generalizing about their members and their experiences?

Broken Windows And Gutter Masks

As we inch closer to reopening America and trying to get back to the way things were before the Great Shutdown, here’s a thought for hopeful business owners, bar proprietors, and restauranteurs: remember the “broken windows” theory.

As long-time readers of this blog know, “broken windows” theory holds that the physical surroundings communicate important messages to people about social order. If you see a broken window in your neighborhood, and after a few weeks it becomes apparent that no one is going to fix that window, you get the message that your neighborhood isn’t as orderly as it once was, and it causes concern about personal safety and appropriate behavior. The same message is conveyed by the appearance of graffiti on buildings, and increased litter on the streets. All suggest a breakdown in the established social compact that will make people jittery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented broken windows theory on a national scale. Everything changed abruptly about a year ago. Many businesses closed during the initial shutdown, and some of them never reopened. There were fewer people on the streets, and many of those who were out were obviously fearful. Neighborhoods started to look more trashy because people who might otherwise pick things up and throw them away were afraid that loose trash and debris might be vectors for transmission of the disease. And all of those bleak visual cues have a compounding, reinforcing effect.

I was in downtown Columbus yesterday, and I thought about “broken windows” theory as I passed yet another gross, discarded facial mask in a gutter in front of a business. I think those gutter masks send a pretty unmistakable message that things still aren’t back to normal or even close to normal — because if they were, the business owner or a cleaning crew obviously would pick up that mask, and any other litter on the sidewalk. If I were a business owner trying to get the wheels of commerce to really turn again, I would go on mask patrol and make sure that the area around my establishment was free of dirty masks and other negative visual cues that might cause people to refrain from entering.

There are still a lot of nervous people out there. Many of them want the world to get back to normal, but they’ve been cautioned and conditioned to avoid risk. Filthy facemasks in the gutter subconsciously communicate that the risk is still out there.

Vax-O-Matic

Yesterday we went to get the first of our two-part COVID vaccinations at OSU East Hospital, just off Broad Street between downtown and Bexley. We signed up for an appointment as soon as we became eligible under the Ohio vaccination distribution protocols — age hath its (few) privileges — and when we arrived at the site we immediately became part of a impressively well-oiled machine.

As soon as we entered the building — masked, of course — our temperatures were taken, the results showed that we were clear to proceed, we applied hand sanitizer, and we followed a marked trail to the vaccination room. We got there early, and there was no line, although the vaccination room itself was full. Outside the room we showed our drivers’ licenses, confirmed our identities by answering questions, signed some forms, and then were guided into an open spot for two at one of the tables in the vaccination room itself. Every station was identified by a circular sign, depending on its status: “clean,” for open spots, “on deck,” for people who were waiting to get their shots, “COVID-19 warrior in training,” for people who were getting the shots, and “antibodies in training,” for people who had received the injection and were in the midst of the 15-minute post-vaccination waiting period to see if they had a bad reaction to the shot. As soon as the 15-minute period ended, the newly vaccinated left their spots, their areas were promptly and thoroughly disinfected, the signs were changed, and a new person came in as the process started all over again.

The person who guided us to our vaccination station changed the sign for our station, gave us an overview, and advised us to hold on to our vaccination confirmation card for dear life and “treat it like a passport.” Then we were met by a cheerful woman who asked us additional medical history questions, retrieved some forms that we had signed, gave us our timers, and then scanned some stickers that were placed on our vaccination cards to show which lot and dose we were receiving, distributed the vaccinations themselves, and changed our sign. Next up was our vaccinator, who entered more data, started the 15-minute period on the timers, and deftly gave us our shots after we rolled up our sleeves and bared our upper arms. The needle is long, but the shot was totally painless. After the vaccinator left, yet another staffer came by to change the sign, fill out our vaccination cards, and schedule us for our second shot in three weeks — which helped to fill up the 15-minute waiting period. We had no reaction tto the shots, so after our 15-minute periods ended we left our seats, which were then immediately sanitized for the next patient.

Kudos to the friendly folks at OSU East Hospital, who handled the entire process without a hitch and in very impressive fashion. All told, we were there for less than an hour, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. And we’re going to take very good care of our vaccination cards, too.

One other point to make about the vaccination room: everyone involved in the process was cheerful to the point of giddiness. I asked our vaccinator how she was dealing with the steady stream of arms to be injected, and she said that she believed what she was doing was the single more rewarding thing she had ever done in her entire medical career. All of the other OSU East people were seemingly thrilled to be playing a key role in the fight against the pandemic and the process of getting the country back to normal — and we were too, and so was everyone else who was there to receive their jab.

I don’t remember being this happy about getting my booster shots as a kid, but a pandemic has a way of changing your perspective.

The Great Unmasking

We all remember how the COVID pandemic started, as cases climbed and state and local governments closed businesses, put restrictions on activities, and imposed mask mandates. Now we’ll see how the pandemic will end — and how long that process will take.

On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an order, to take effect next Wednesday, that will end the state’s mask mandate and allow all businesses of any type to open at 100 percent capacity. The press release from the Governor’s office, linked above, recognizes that “COVID-19 has not disappeared,” but notes that more than 5 million Texans have been vaccinated and about a million vaccinations are being administered each week, and concludes that state mandates are no longer needed and reopening Texas “100 percent” is necessary to “restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans.” Under the Governor’s approach, Texans, and Texas businesses, will decide for themselves what practices they will follow.

Abbott’s decision has been strongly criticized. President Biden called it a “big mistake” that was the product of “Neanderthal thinking,” for example, and the CDC Director says “now is not the time to release all restrictions” because the next month or two will be “pivotal” in determining the course of the pandemic. And Texas businesses are taking different approaches to mask issues in view of the order, with some lifting restrictions and others still requiring employees and customers to mask up. Some businesses note that the Governor’s order puts them and their employees in an awkward position: if they decide to continue to require masks from customers because the CDC thinks that is the right course, they are putting their employees in a position of enforcing the requirement–and increasing the risk of confrontations with customers who refuse to do so.

One of the more interesting consequences of this pandemic has been the spectrum of risk tolerance we are seeing from businesses and our friends and colleagues. Some people have been out and about for months, traveling and dining out, others have stayed at home and are continuing to avoid any public places, and still others occupy every permutation in between. I think we’ll see a similar range of actions from state authorities, guided by the specific economic and health conditions in their states. Is an abrupt, total lifting of requirements the best course, or a gradual easing of restrictions, or keeping all mandates in place until it is crystal clear that there is no longer any risk whatsoever of a COVID resurgence? And do public health authorities really have the ability to give conclusive advice on when the pandemic, and the risks, have ended?

When you were a kid and scraped your knee in a childhood mishap, you put on a Band-Aid. After the Band-Aid did its work, you had to make a decision on how to remove it: rip it off, tug it off gradually, or do something in between. Texas’ Governor has taken the “rip it off” approach. Now we’ll see how that works out.