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.

Is the Coronavirus in Your Story?

March 6, 2020

One of the big taboos of writing fiction (of which there are many) is reference to current events. Especially in mysteries, the conventional wisdom is that it “dates” your story in a bad way, plus it’s hard to know what people will remember about the time a decade or so later. Personally, I find it disconcerting to see events missing in a story that is otherwise dated by things like bell bottom jeans and primitive answering machines. A story that seems to take place in the early 1940s without a war in the background is downright jarring. I think part of the appeal of twentieth century historical novels, which are quite popular at the moment, is that real-world contextual details are included.

PD James went ahead and included the SARS virus in The Lighthouse to good effect. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was a 2002-2003 epidemic with life-threatening symptoms that appeared in 26 countries. The number of cases was considerably smaller than those that have already appeared in the Coronavirus. The quarantine on an island became a technique for keeping modern forensics out of the story, making it a plausible Agatha Christie-type whodunnit.

There are many many rules about what not to do in fiction (and narrative non-fiction). Show don’t tell. Don’t use adverbs. Avoid adjectives. Keep description minimal. You might think this a side effect of the cottage industry teaching “how to write,” with experts spouting these rules to seem like they’re teaching something that really cannot be taught. There’s a little of that, but professionals in publishing seem to have picked up some of these rules and are even guilty of establishing a few.

The Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith spends a lot of time telling the reader what’s going on inside the heads of his characters, a big no-no. Remember: show, don’t tell. I noticed recently that I read a LOT of British mystery authors, to the point where I know the streets of London and the universities in the small towns. I know enough about the food they eat that I could probably cook some of it. The draw is decidedly not the location. I’d like to go to Britain someday, but I’m not an Anglophile. It’s not my spiritual home (at least I don’t think so, never having been). So why do I prefer 21st century British authors? I think it’s because they don’t follow those rules so carefully. I don’t think they have to. Getting published in America is extremely difficult, and the publishing industry in New York seems to be sold on those rules. Otherwise, there would not be so much sameness in the 21st century American novel.

As I was at my desk writing earlier this week, reflecting on my dissatisfaction with the many rules of the game, I looked down at the street and saw a person walking a Smooth Fox Terrier, McCall Smith’s “Pimlico Terrier” in his Corduroy Mansion novels. I took it as a sign that it was time to stop letting other people tell me how to write. I’m not saying that I’ll necessarily write about a virus, but I won’t avoid it, either. The experts are teaching us all how to write the same novel, and that really isn’t healthy.