The Delta variant has distorted our perception of risk

What was remarkable, despite all the confusion of last winter, was how relatively easy that consistency was to find. In part, this was because the people of Ibasho all believed in a common set of facts and figures based on scientific consensus: the virus spread through the air, the masks and ventilation worked, be out. the outside was better than not. With these shared assumptions, a surprising number of situations – a grocery run, an outdoor barbecue, a day at the office – could be summed up with relatively few parameters. In the spring, roommates were still counting their risk points (for personal responsibility and because the level of freedom fluctuates with the local case rate). But Catherine Olsson, the de facto project manager, told me that the column had helped her internalize what was safe. She knew, for the most part, what her hopes and needs were for each week, and what kind of points it would cost. The risk of a pandemic had become passive.

It was before the whiplash this summer, before vaccines seemed to mean the pandemic was over, until it wasn’t. Math is more confusing now, a little harder to guess. The delta and increasing case rates make each activity more “expensive” because the transmission is higher. But being around other vaccinated people also offers a reduction, as these people are less likely to have an active infection (and, potentially, to transmit the virus, although the latest data on this is more hazy). And as the Microcovid team explains in their July update, getting the vaccine also means a bigger overall budget, as the risks of death and hospitalization are so much lower. The question is how much more should our budgets be?

Establishing a baseline budget has always been tricky. This is important, because all activity calculations revolve around it, but it is also the least anchored in statistics. “It’s really a question of feelings,” Olsson told me at the time, as personal as it is scientific. For Ibasho, an initial budget of 10,000 microcovids per week was established by discussing what they thought about their personal risks and the risks to loved ones, as well as a sense of overall responsibility – which they could not. not live wildly as they were also contributing to the transmission of the virus beyond their pod. The variants and vaccines did not change these factors, although the balance between them did.

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I had no idea how I felt about my budget at all. I had not used Microcovid personally apart from my reporting. As a relatively cloistered young adult with a partner and no children, it just wasn’t urgent to get my risky affairs in order. But this week, feeling rushed by the sudden return to restrictions, I decided to do some math on the Microcovid site. I entered into my activities of the previous weeks: unmasked races, dinners at home, the dance floor. (The last one, as I ticked off the number of participants not left behind, ended up snapping a blood red code: “DANGEROUS RISK.”) So, would I do it all again next weekend? At current case rates, certainly not. Then I started to make adjustments: add masks (anyway required now inside San Francisco), remind myself that an indoor party could probably still take place outside, delete clubbing and reminding myself that eliminating a few big risks might help me feel better by taking smaller ones.

There is a sad sum in these calculations: this life, in August 2021, does not consist in living in the moment, but in the sum total of our experiences. It’s about reframing the risks of a global pandemic into a series of crossroads, not forgetting them like satellites buzzing above their heads. It’s hard to take more than 500 days after the initial shelter-in-place order from San Francisco – to type the pleasures of life into a calculator and calculate the damage, and recognize that its possibilities are limited. But it was like a healthy practice, spread it all out. And maybe she would hasten a return to a freer life. I had kept my budget tight as cases in California are climbing fast, but I also knew that as a person vaccinated I would loosen it up a bit when this surge wears off, as it eventually does. We will live with long-term viral risk, and with precautions against it. For me, this life will see a drop once the number of cases counts as well.

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