The Galapagos Islands are located 600 miles west of Ecuador and offer some of the most spectacular wildlife found anywhere in the world. Nowhere else on this planet will you find penguins which live on the equator (The Galapagos Penguin) or iguanas which swim and feed in the ocean (The Marine Iguanas)!  Because these islands have only recently been invaded by man, the literally 1000s of animals that inhabit these islands have never learned to fear us. This means that you can literally walk right up to hundreds of blue-footed boobie birds, red-footed boobie birds, masked boobie birds, albatrosses, penguins, land iguanas, marine iguanas, lava lizards, sea lions, fur seals, red-chested frigate birds, flamingos, finches, tropic birds, lava gulls, giant tortoises, and flightless cormorants.  Ask ANYONE you know that has been here and they will tell you it is FANTASTIC!

The COVOD-19 Pandemic Through the Eyes of a Biologist

General information;

This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we just started the race.  This probably will not be over until we have a vaccine.  Realistically, that will not be until sometime in 2021 and that is the best case.

 

Pandemics are not new – we just haven’t had one in our lifetimes.  Anyone that says there was no way of knowing this was coming or that nothing could have been done to prepare for it has never read the book “The Coming Plague,” which was written in 1995.

 

Pandemics spread exponentially.  The number of cases between day 1 and day 2 may only be 2 or 3 but the number of cases between day 30 and 31 could be 2,000,000 or more.  Therefore, the sooner actions are taken to slow the spread, the better.  Countries/areas that took actions early will have fewer cases than countries/areas that did not.

 

Dealing with a pandemic is not rocket science but does require everyone to cooperate and follow scientific principles.  Countries/areas that are more disciplined (whether due to the type of government OR the culture of the people) do better than countries/areas that are less disciplined.

 

Wearing a mask probably helps slow the spread.  It certainly does not hurt.  The person who wears the mask is doing more to prevent spreading the disease to others than they are in protecting themselves from infection.  Not wearing a mask shows you don’t care if you infect others.  Therefore, to reduce the spread of the virus, everyone should wear a mask when out in public.

 

Because people are listening to politicians instead of scientists, when the politicians say it is OK to go to a restaurant, then people think is OK to go to a restaurant.  To paraphrase the words of Dr. Fauci: “The virus will determine when it is safe to reopen.”

 

The number of cases quoted in the media is very inaccurate because of the lack of testing.  The actually number is far greater.  For example the number of confirmed cases in NYC is currently at 205,000.  However using a very common sampling technique to estimate the true number of actual cases indicates number is closer to 4,000,000. (see info below for how that number was calculated)

The Unknowns

How contagious is it?  This is a brand new virus so no one really knows exactly how contagious it actually is.  If it is so contagious that we will get it if we are outside and we pass within 10 feet of an infected person while wearing a mask, then it is so contagious that we are all going to get it no matter what we do.  It is highly unlikely that it is this contagious.  Therefore, it is highly unlikely you will be infected by being around other people if you are outside and a safe distance from them.  Wearing a mask adds another layer of protection.  Your highest probability of being infected occurs when you are inside and in close proximity to an infected person for an extended period of time.  The air exchange of the inside space is also a factor.  The better the air exchange, the lower the chances of infection.

 

What is the mortality rate?  Many people who contract the virus are asymptomatic so you cannot tell by looking at someone whether or not they are infected.  The problem is compounded by the fact that people are probably infectious before showing symptoms, so even someone without a fever is a potential source of infection.  The only way to know for sure if someone has or had COVOD-19 is to test them for the active virus or the presences of the antibodies in their blood.  Because many people are asymptomatic, we do not know how many people have already had it or how deadly it really is.  This lack of knowledge is severely compounded by the fact the US is so far behind on our testing.  One recent study tested 3,000 random people at grocery stores and other public locations in NYC, and found 21 percent of them had antibodies for coronavirus.  This indicates that they had, at some point, been infected.  This is a pretty good sample size and indicates that about 4 million people in NYC have had it.  Many/most of those people never showed symptoms (or had only mild symptoms) and recovered from it.  Currently, 16,500 people have died of COVID in NYC, which means - based on these numbers - the mortality rate in NYC is 0.4%.  The mortality rate for influenza is about 0.1% which means COVID is four times deadlier than the flu. It also means 99.6% of the people who contract it survive.  As is the case with all infectious diseases, older people, people with pre-existing medical conditions and poorer people are most at risk of dying.

When will it end?

Viruses run their course.  They continue to replicate and spread until they run out of hosts.  Then, like a fire without any wood, they burn out.  The virus will run out of hosts when;

 

1.  Enough people gain immunity by building antibodies against the virus so that the spread can no longer be maintained.  Immunity can be acquired naturally though infection or artificially by vaccination.  Once a certain percentage of a population has immunity, then there are not enough hosts to keep the virus cycle going.  This is known by biologists as “herd immunity.”  Biologists believe that we will need 70% - 90% of the population to be immune to COVID-19 for herd immunity to kick in.

 

2.  When enough people take all the necessary precautions that need to be taken to prevent spreading the virus or catching the infection.  Based on what I am seeing on TV, it is probably unrealistic to think this will be how COVID will end in the US anytime soon.  Hopefully, after the second wave of illness occurs, enough people will start to listen to the scientists and we will all work together to put an end to it.

 

3.  Viruses mutate.  If the mutation is great enough, then the antibodies that are effective against the earlier version will not work against the newer version.  This is what happens with influenza.  We do not know if this will happen with COVID but, if it does, it is probably here to stay.

What is happening right now?

Many people in the US are tired of the lockdowns and want to get back to “normal.”  Because our efforts have been successful in slowing the spread of the virus, it is easy to think the worst is behind us when, in fact, it is not.  It also possible that the worst IS actually behind us.  Based on what I have observed happening on the news over Memorial Day weekend AND the current situation with the protests here in the US, we will soon know which is true.  I hope I am wrong but I think we are going to see another big spike of infections in the coming weeks.

Potential explanations for local observations;

Henderson County has a LOT more cases than other counties. 

Maybe!  People living in close quarters are more likely to get infected. Older people who are infected are more likely to get sick.  Due to a lack of testing, only people who are symptomatic or have been exposed to someone who is symptomatic or someone who tested positive are tested.  Therefore, it is to be expected that elderly care faculties will have an above-average rate of people being tested for COVID and some of them will test positive.  Most of the positive cases in Hendersonville are in long-term care facilities.  The reality is that, due to a lack of testing, we have no idea the infection rate for the general population of Henderson County.

 

Transylvania County has the fewer cases than other counties. 

Maybe!  Again due to lack of testing and, because we only test people who are sick enough to seek medical care, we have no idea the infection rate for the general population of Transylvania County.

 

Macon County (Highlands) is seeing a spike in cases.

True.  Highlands did an excellent job of controlling the spread of the virus early and that kept their numbers way down.  It is my understanding that they had the roads going into the town closed in March and were only letting residents into the town.  They have since eased restrictions and now their restaurants and hotels are open.  Therefore a spike in cases is not unexpected.

There is good news. 

You can take action to protect yourself and by doing so, you are part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.  And as an added bonus, these same measures will reduce the spread of other infectious diseases like the common cold and influenza.

 

Several potential vaccines have shown some promising early results.  However, don’t get too excited yet.  We are a long way off from mass production and mass distribution of a vaccine that has been scientifically proven to be effective.

 

Early results show that treating very sick people with the antibodies derived from the blood plasma of people who have recovered is a promising new treatment for people who are very ill. 

Ways to protect yourself against exposure;

Wear a mask when out in public.

Avoid places where there are lots of other people, especially if they are indoors and/or other people are there who are not wearing masks.

Plan ahead so you can minimize your trips to stores.  Try to go during times when fewer people are out.

Try not to touch your face while out. 

Wear eye protection when entering a high risk area.

Wash your hands frequently.

Try not to bring the virus into your house.  Viruses cannot replicate by themselves, and typically are not stable for long periods of time outside of a host.  Disinfectants and UV light will very quickly destroy viruses.  Whenever possible, leave items outside for a few days before bring them inside.  If this is not possible (as is the case with food), wipe down the containers with a disinfectant or expose the items to direct sunlight before bringing them inside.  After shopping, remove your shoes before entering your house.  Expose the soles to direct sunlight. 

Wash your unpackaged produce with water and wash your hands frequently during the entire process.

 

Remember that you also need to be concerned about your mental health and this stuff is stressful for many people.  You can still socialize with people and that can even be done safely in person.  Just limit the number of people, keep your social distance, and do it outside.  Be thankful you are in Lake Toxaway where there is plenty of open space and nature surrounding us.

So, what do Carol and I do …..

 

We spend a lot of time outside.  We hike, or at least take a walk every day.  We social distance when we pass other people on the trail.  We also avoid trails where there are lots of cars at the trail head.  We put on masks when we see other people approaching us. 

 

We will get together with friends as long as it is outside and only a limited number of people. 

 

We will not eat in restaurants, but we will order take-out.  When we get the food home, we take the food out of the containers before bringing it into the house, and we put it on our own plates.  We put the containers in plastic trash bags and seal them.  Then we wash our hands.  We microwave the food to heat it up (which also serves to destroy any viruses).

 

We buy our groceries at Ingles in Brevard.  We plan ahead so we only need to go shopping once every 2 or 3 weeks.  We go at 7 AM when they first open (I assume that overnight they do some kind of disinfecting, but I do not know that for a fact).  There are not many people in there at that time and almost everyone is wearing a mask.  Before we go in we put on our masks, surgical gloves, and eye protection.  We only take in our Ingles Card, a touchless credit card, and our lists.  The lists are organized based on the layout of the store.  As soon as we enter, Carol and I each get a cart and wipe it down with sanitizer.  Carol goes to the right (towards the fresh produce) and I go to the left (toward the dairy).  We get everything on the list and end up meeting in the middle of the store.  Then we check out using a touchless cc.  We spend as little time as possible inside of the store.  We load all the groceries into the back of the SUV, then strip off the gloves and wash our hands with soap and water that we keep in the back of the SUV.  We remove our masks and then use a sanitizer to wipe anything we may have touched while wearing the gloves (i.e. the cc, our phones, the door handles of the car, etc.).

When we get home, we sanitize everything before bring it into the house.  Shoes come off before going into the house and are placed with the soles facing the sun.  Fruits and vegetables are washed with water and then set aside to dry.  Then we shower and do the laundry. 

 

It is a lot of work but we only have to do it once every couple of weeks and it is a lot better than getting sick!

 

Stay well.

Ken