COVID-19: A Missive From My Corner of the World

March 25, 2020

As we soldier through the Covid-19 pandemic, many are curious about how people are managing in various parts of the world. Here’s my report.

Photo: Greg Smith

New York State seems to be, outside of Italy, the epicenter of the virus, with most confirmed cases in this state. I say “seems to be,” because we don’t really know. New York is doing more testing per capita than anywhere in the country, but most people who are infected, probably even most people who are ill, have not been tested. When New York City has 17,000 positive cases and urban counties adjoining the city in other states are only reporting 500 to 3,000, the difference in numbers probably reflects the amount of testing more than actual cases.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been assertive in garnering resources to address the epidemic in the state. The state is now running 15,000 tests per day, with about a third of those positive for COVD-19. That’s a lot. Hospitalizations have been higher than anticipated at this stage, a cause for concern.

On Monday, March 16, the governor ordered schools and many businesses serving the public, such as gyms and theatres, to close, and declared that restaurants must stop seating people but could continue to offer food for takeout and delivery. On the same day, the library where I work part-time decided to close. Rationale behind this was clear: the virus could spread on borrowed materials, many people hang out at the library, and staff were vulnerable to infection through constant close contact with the public. I was opposed to the closure, because I thought people might not heed the advice to avoid crowded places if they could not obtain books and movies to forestall boredom at home, and because about a third of residents in the area do not have access to the Internet. I have to admit, however, that the closure made life easier and safer for me personally.

I have been following media reports about COVID-19 since mid-January, and I have always been nervous about this disease, in a way I never reacted to H1N1 and SARS a decade ago. I had been slowly stocking up on essentials since that time, anticipating a period of possible quarantine and panic buying. It was difficult to do this, not knowing how much I would need, since I was using money I felt I needed for dental work and car repairs. We are used to preparing for emergencies in the North Country, and I would have to stop sometimes in the midst of my preparations and remind myself that I was only preparing for a stay at home, not for electricity and Internet outages or road closures.

On Sunday, March 22, the governor ordered all businesses closed and all workers furloughed except those working in vital healthcare and infrastructure. This was for the whole state, not just the New York City area, and these mandates have been observed here as they have been in more populated areas. The ski resorts were already closed and the tourist industry is shuttered for the time being. We are having an early spring, and spring is when tourism is low here, so this shutdown comes at a time of least economic disruption.

The social distancing thing is a bit weird, but it hasn’t been bothering me psychologically, and I have plenty to do around the house. I live alone, so my exposure is minimal except when it becomes absolutely necessary to go out. The long cold snowy winters prepared me for isolation. So far, it’s been tolerable. Of course, I could still go hiking (more on that later), but we’re not supposed to be on the trails at the moment, because they become eroded if they’re walked on before the mud has dried up. Bummer.

Mid-March, people with second homes in the area began arriving, either to escape the virus or to take advantage of forced time off work or in the mistaken belief that they would circumvent the shop closures downstate. Such moves would have made sense if they had been taken in early February, but migrating northward at that point only spread the virus up here. Visitors have now been asked to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in the county, although I doubt that most are. People who live here shuttered their bed-and-breakfast businesses right away out of self-preservation, but people downstate with vacation properties have been advertising them as coronavirus getaways, to the consternation of the locals.

The capability of the local healthcare system to respond to the epidemic is concerning. I do not mean to disparage Adirondack Medical Center or Elizabethtown Community Hospital. We have a great rural health system here, but a rural health system is still a rural health system. Essex County, which is the second largest county east of the Mississippi, is sparsely populated, with only two ventilators and no intensive care units in the entire county. There may be more ventilators in nursing homes or private residences, but that’s all there are for the public. When patients are critically ill, the emergency rooms usually stabilize them and transport them elsewhere (as they should). Contact tracing would be feasible in a sparsely populated area such as this, but almost all testing is happening downstate. There are no test kits in the county and the few residents who have tested positive were sick enough to need medical attention elsewhere. This is not a place you want to get sick.

Another issue has been hikers coming up from the cities. There is concern about the concentration of people in parking lots and on the more popular trails, and a marketing system designed to sell the area as a vacation spot is going full gear into trying to persuade people to stay home. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the trails are fragile right now. A bigger concern is the possible strain of backcountry injuries on the precarious healthcare system, and the paucity of rescue workers for locating lost hikers. Spring is a particularly dangerous time to be in the woods, with flooding, ice, and cold nighttime temperatures.

One of the benefits of living in this area is the resilience of the community. People have been wonderful about pitching in to help the elderly and infirm manage social restrictions. The generosity of others with their time, money, and resources has been gratifying to watch. The library is continuing to pay me at the moment (fingers crossed), and I haven’t really wanted for anything.

One of the hardest things about this epidemic is all the uncertainty. I’m a numbers-oriented person, and there are a lot of numbers floating around that don’t mean anything. What is a 30,000 infection rate when most people in the state have not been tested? What is a 4% death rate when many people who have had the virus don’t know they were ever infected? I take a lot of comfort in the principles I learned through Al-Anon. The coronavirus pandemic is not my responsibility to solve, nor is it anything I can control. We all have a part to play, even if it’s not going hiking, but ultimately we have to let go. Today I have what I need and today I am well. I don’t know about tomorrow, but I only have to take care of today.

Samhain 2019

October 31, 2019

I must be the only person in my village who takes a broom to the front porch to tear down the spider webs on Halloween. I like the holiday, including the trick-or-treating, but for me it’s not about terror.

Ghost trees in a flooded field.

Trick-or-treating comes from an old custom of children dressing in rags to signify the poor departed souls who cannot find their way to the Otherworld. Householders would give the children treats to bless and mollify the spirits of the unhappy departed, reducing the chances that they would do troublesome things like emit strange knocking sounds or whisk things around in the wind. This was one aspect of the Celtic holiday, which was about remembering ancestors.

I sometimes wonder how mainline Christians would feel about Easter becoming a festival of terror and evil. After all, Jesus rises from the dead, so that’s a more plausible holiday for a zombie apocalypse. Keeping the spirit of the spirit of Halloween can be a challenge, because I certainly don’t want to be one of those Halloween Scrooges who turn off the lights and pretend they’re not home.

I’m looking forward to tonight. I do like seeing all the children. I get lots and lots of trick-or-treaters, so many that I wonder if some of the teenagers dare each other to come to my house on Halloween. But hey–this witch tore down the spider webs in front of the door.

Feline Easily Forgotten

October 11, 2019

In Divining with Animal Guides, I write about three momentous encounters with Mountain Lions, but I have also had encounters with the smaller wild cousin of the Mountain Lion, the Bobcat.

One of the things I like best about the Bobcat is that she doesn’t view me potentially as food. She is much too shy and small. The Bobcat is about twice the size of a kitty cat and weighs 20 pounds on average. She has tufts of fur on her ears like a lynx and a short tail that is the source of her descriptive name. Her fur ranges from tawny yellow to gray and her spots may be prominent or indistinct.

This Bobcat with hare gives a good perspective on size. Photo: Linda Tanner.

The Bobcat will run away rather than stand her ground with a human and is therefore rarely seen. The ubiquity of Bobcat tracks in the Adirondacks assure me that the population here is robust. I’ve seen a Bobcat in the Adirondacks in the middle of the day, in winter, though she is supposedly nocturnal. She was standing in a forested area along a highway. In the Sonora desert we did think of Bobcats as night animals, because they would creep into housing areas late at night, drinking from swimming pools and hunting domestic cats.

My best close-up encounter with any wild cat happened in the daytime in Arizona with a Bobcat. The house I lived in had a glass sliding door that opened onto a brick paving area, too small to be called a patio, with a spigot on one side. The Bobcat was drinking leisurely from the shallow well under the spigot. My cat Misha alerted me to the Bobcat’s presence by crying and pacing in front of the door. Misha and I sat in front of the glass watching the Bobcat for about five minutes, Misha’s tail wagging furiously the whole time. Certainly the Bobcat was aware of us sitting there, not even three feet away, with Misha crying, but she acted like we were invisible, or at least unimportant. I was surprised that Misha didn’t run away. Apparently both cats understood how doors work.

Northern Bobcats are darker. Those that I have seen have less prominent spots. Photo: Conrad Fjetland.

To me, one of the symbolic issues of the Bobcat has to do with deception. We hear so much more about the big cats – lions, cougars, leopards, panthers, jaguars – and even the Canada Lynx, only slightly bigger than the Bobcat, attracts more interest. It’s easy to dismiss the Bobcat, but the Bobcat is the wild cat most likely to be skulking around the margins of your experience.

Random Thoughts on a Busy Week

October 4, 2019

Pumpkin season is in swing, but I’m not putting one out until the last minute. The deer like to eat them. The deer and I will be spending less time in the woods now that hunting season is also starting up.

I have been trying to catch up on writing assignments. I have an important piece for an anthology due soon and another essay to get ready for a popular magazine. Also, I’m in the middle of another novel.

Here is a view from Mount Baker.

Always Exploring

September 27, 2019

This is Stony Pond in Essex County. The Adirondacks are famous for the High Peaks, but the trails lead to a plethora of enchanting waterholes.

Autumn Trails

September 20, 2019

Sometime soon I’ll put together a collage of photos I’m taking on the trail. Beautiful weather in the Adirondacks recently, perfect for hiking. Won’t last, so this is where my spare energy is going right now. This photo is from Pharoah Mountain (pronounced FAIR-uh).