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Modernity of Social Distancing

Los Agaves Mexican Grill, Iowa City, Iowa at lunch time on Friday, March 13, 2020.

When it comes to “social distancing” Iowans know what to do. We tweak our normal behavior. Many of us are not socially close by nature so it’s not a big step.

Epidemiologists are using the term “social distancing” to refer to a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people and hopefully slow community transmission and spread of the coronavirus.

A grade school friend and I met in the county seat on Friday. His nonagenarian mother lives in an assisted care facility which was quarantined after he arrived in Iowa to visit her. He spoke to her on the phone, but couldn’t pay an in-person visit.

It was a tweak.

More tweaks are coming.

Last night Governor Kim Reynolds’ office issued a press release which said, “The Iowa Department of Public Health has determined, based on the new COVID-19 case and the announcement this evening of community spread in Omaha, Neb., there is now community spread in our state.”

The release continued to explain:

Community spread occurs when individuals have been infected with the virus in an area and cannot specifically identify the source of the infection, or do not know how or where they became infected.

Due to the detection of community spread, there are new recommendations for individuals with underlying conditions, and all Iowans should be prepared for cancellations and disruptions in routine activities.

Mitigation measures should be implemented immediately to have the most significant impact on slowing the spread of the virus.
Leaders of institutions and organizers of events should begin to act on their contingency plans related to large gatherings, including church services. Iowans should not hold or attend large gatherings of more than 250 people, and consider making adjustments for smaller gatherings with high risk groups.

It appears the governor is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines which include monitoring the progress of community spread and under certain conditions, making recommendations for social behavior. For now, school can continue, but not church where there are large congregations.

There is a political aspect to the coronavirus pandemic and it appears our state is taking reasonable actions if the federal government is lacking in its response. Regular communication and compliance with CDC guidelines should reflect positively on Reynold’s handling of the global pandemic’s mitigation in Iowa. As a former six-year member of our county board of health I don’t see a benefit to criticizing the governor as the state works to understand the progress of the disease and take appropriate action.

For our small family, it doesn’t take much to be socially distant. Yesterday I decided not to attend a legislative forum 10 miles from our home. I went to town to mail a package. On the way home I stopped at the pharmacy to see if I could buy a bottle of 90 percent isopropyl alcohol. They we sold out of all alcohol and sanitizing items. We’ll make do with what we have. Today I’ll go to the farm for our weekly seeding session.

A late winter snow fell, covering everything except the driveway and roads, which were too warm in this meteorological spring. For a day it was still winter by the calendar and by the weather.

There is never a problem staying busy at home. I completed the U.S. Census on my mobile device after reading in social media our state senator did his. It took ten minutes even after I had to re-do it. Between reading, writing, cooking, laundry, and preparing for planting, there was plenty to do. I put some bird seed out on the front door landing but they hadn’t found it by sunrise this morning.

While we were isolated, it didn’t feel that way. Iowans are used to working in isolation and with modern communications it is easy to stay in contact with friends and neighbors.

The news about the coronavirus from Europe, the Middle East and China is pretty startling. We really don’t know how many people are infected, although public health officials seem to be tracking the number of deaths.

Estimates of the impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic range widely yet are relevant. Global population was between 1.8 and 1.9 billion people at the time. The estimated number of deaths ranges between 17 and 50 million, maybe more. In the United States, the death rate was between 0.48 to 0.64 percent of the population or toward 650,000 deaths at the high end.

If we use the lower number in the range (0.48 percent) to determine how many deaths the 1918 pandemic would cause in the 2020 U.S. population, it would be more than 15.8 million. We are nowhere near that and likely to see only a fraction of that number with coronavirus. There is a modernity today that didn’t exist in 1918, with advanced public health and research organizations, better communications, and a resulting ability to coordinate between government and non-governmental agencies.

The phenomenon of social distancing looks to create a positive result. People will die of Covid-19 and the loss will hurt families. It will hurt us all. At the local level, we do our best to understand the pandemic and live our lives accordingly. We not freaking out. We are learning.

We’re sustaining our lives in a turbulent world that’s becoming infected by coronavirus. This may not be the last pandemic in my lifetime, so I hope we learn from it.