The Delta variant disrupted our perception of risk


What was remarkable, for all the confusion last winter, was how easy it was to find that consistency. In part, this was because all the residents of Ibash believed in a common set of facts and figures based on scientific consensus: the virus had spread through the air, masks and ventilation were working, so it was better to be outdoors. With these assumptions, a surprising number of situations – store operation, outdoor barbecue, office day – could be encapsulated with relatively few parameters. By spring, roommates were still adding up their risk points (for personal responsibility and because the level of freedom varies with the local case rate). But Catherine Olsson, the de facto project manager, told me that the column helped her internalize what was safe. She knew, for the most part, what her hopes and needs were for each week and what points it would cost. The pandemic risk has become passive.

That was before this year’s whip, before vaccines The pandemic seemed to be over, until it was over. Mathematics is now confusing, a little harder intuitively. Delta and an increasing number of cases make each activity more expensive because transmission is higher. But staying close to other vaccinated people also offers a discount, as these people are less likely to have an active infection (and, potentially, transmit the virus, although the latest data on this are unclear). And as the Microcovid team explains in its July update, vaccination also means a higher overall budget, because the risks of death and hospitalization are so much lower. The question is how much should our budgets be?

Setting a basic budget has always been difficult. This is important because all activity calculations revolve around it, but it is also the least grounded in statistics. “It’s really about feelings,” Olsson told me at the time – as much personally as it was scientifically. For Ibasha, an initial budget of 10,000 micro-viruses per week is drawn from a discussion of how they feel about their personal and loved ones’s risks, as well as their global responsibilities – that they can’t live unusually because they also contributed to transmitting the virus outside their pod. . Variants and vaccines did not change these factors, even if the balance between them changed.

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I wasn’t at all sure how I felt about my budget. I have not used Microcovid personally outside of my reporting. As a relatively closed young adult with one partner and no children, there was simply no pressure to get my risky things in order. But this week, feeling shaken by the sudden return to restrictions, I decided to do some calculations on the Microcovid website. I’ve been getting into my activities from the past few weeks: disclosed commitments, dinners at home, dance floor. (The last one, as I increased the number of unmarked participants, eventually bled the code blood red: “DANGEROUS HIGH RISK.”) So would I repeat everything next weekend? According to current case rates, definitely not. Then I started making adjustments: adding masks (which are now needed indoors in San Francisco), reminding myself that outdoor fun could probably still happen outside, stopping clubbing, and remembering that removing a few big risks could help me to feel better when taking extra smaller.

There is a sad sum in those calculations: that in August 2021, we do not live in the moment, but in the sum of our experiences. It is about reshaping the risk of a global pandemic into a series of street crossings, not their exclusion like satellites buzzing harmlessly above us. It’s hard to go more than 500 days after San Francisco’s initial shelter order — to record life’s pleasures and tabulate damages, and to acknowledge that someone’s capabilities have limits. But it seemed like a healthy practice, it was all out. And maybe that would speed up the return to a freer life. I kept my budget restrictive because cases in California are increasing rapidly, but I also knew that, as a vaccinated person, I would loosen it up a bit when this jump falls, which it will eventually be. In the long run, we will live with viral risk and with precautions against it. For me, life will involve a decline as the number of cases increases.

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