October 23, 2020 (Updated: December 20, 2021)

Reflections in the midst of COVID-19

I've been thinking a lot lately how our opinions and behaviors are influenced by our first-hand experiences. I've been reflecting more on how I formed my own opinions on topics related to COVID-19, and after having this rattle around in my head for a few days, I thought it would be interesting (and perhaps a bit cathartic) to take a crack at writing it down.

In early January 2020, I didn't think too much about this new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 that was breaking out in China. It certainly seemed concerning, but I didn't follow it closely, and to some degree, I chalked it up to yet-another-scary-but-distant threat like SARS and Ebola.

Things around the world continued to get worse throughout January. Other countries, like Italy, started getting hit hard. I thought I had some N95 respirators laying around somewhere from when I was traveling in China almost a decade earlier for work (for pollution, not viruses), but I couldn't find them, so I ordered another pack just in case. My wife was pregnant at the time with our first child, so I thought it wouldn't hurt to err on the side of caution. (The respirators showed over a month later, once COVID-19 had already started spreading in the Seattle area, and the package included a handwritten note from the seller, "Saw you are in Seattle - really sorry about the delay!".)

On January 19, a 35-year-old man from Washington State checked into urgent care with a 4-day history of cough and fever. By January 21, the CDC confirmed him as the first known case of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States. For some reason, despite being in the same state where I lived, I wasn't too worried about it. It seemed like a fluke and that it was probably under control.

Toward the end of February, I remember hearing that someone from the CDC said something along the lines of "It's not a matter of if, but when, the new coronavirus will spread in the United States". That was a bit of a wake-up call for me -- as an engineer, we frequently face the reality that despite our best efforts and proactive mitigations, "things that shouldn't happen" happen all the time. I started paying a little closer attention.

Throughout February, I was flying back and forth between LA and Seattle for work, and as I sat on the plane, I wondered to myself, "Hmm, how risky is this?" My wife and I started talking about me cutting back on my work travel, because California also had confirmed cases of COVID-19. From my perspective, I was more worried about my role in potentially spreading it to others rather than the other way around -- I was living in the country's first known COVID epicenter, after all.

On February 29th, a man in his 50s died in King County, Washington, marking the first death in the US from COVID-19. "Uh oh," I thought, "that's really close to home." I started paying closer attention.

In early March, we had no idea what we were doing. There was ostensibly a burgeoning outbreak in my city and state, but my pregnant wife and I were still riding packed, standing-room-only buses to and from work every day, still spending all day interacting face-to-face with other people, still living life as usual. Every once in awhile, you'd see someone on the bus wearing a mask, but it was really rare.

On March 3rd, we got an email at work: someone at the company was confirmed to have COVID-19. And unfortunately, they worked in my office building. We were told that if we had come into contact with the individual, we would have been notified. Nobody on my team had been notified, so I thought, "well, that's relief." But now what? We really weren't sure what to do. A few of my coworkers proactively started working from home. I remember wondering to myself what criteria would need to be met in order for me to proactively start working from home.

I spoke to my mother that night. She's a champion worrier, but to her credit, she said, "Evan, I know that you work at a very large company with many office buildings, and I know that this case was most likely not anywhere near you." Unfortunately, in this instance, I had to tell her that her concern was justified. There was a reasonable chance I could have shared an elevator with this individual going about my business as usual.

Things started happening quickly after that. The next day, on March 4, we received official guidance from work that all of us who were able to work from home were recommended to do so until the end of March. In a way, that was a relief - it was nice having explicit guidance. Companies all over the city were doing the same, especially in the tech industry where our jobs typically can be done anywhere with a computer and high-speed internet. I encouraged my wife to do the same (which her company later recommended the following week), so we both started working from home at that point. We've now been working from home for the past 8 months, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

On March 19, I saw something that, for the first time, made me genuinely start fearing COVID-19. Not for myself, per se, but for us humans in general. I was browsing Reddit that night, and I saw a video from a hospital in Italy that showed the hospital overflowing with COVID-19 patients who, to my non-medical eyes, were sprawled out gurneys in hospital hallways with some type of respirator bags over their heads (warning: discretion advised for viewing that linked video). Doctors and nurses wearing head-to-toe PPE couldn't keep up with the demand. That's when it hit me: these looked like regular folks you'd see around town, but they were incapacitated, languishing, and dying in the hallways of an overrun hospital. These were normal folks who couldn't even get into an open hospital bed despite the severity of their illnesses. I'll never forget the images in that video.

Throughout March, more bad things continued to happen. The one that resonated with me the most was that one of our nursing homes in the Seattle suburbs got hit with COVID-19; 66% of the residents and 47 staff members fell ill, and 35 people died. A bunch of first responders were infected while providing life-saving measures, and because they didn't know how to properly deal with this disease, they likely spread it further. That instilled in me a great worry: what happens when this hits other nursing homes? What happens when this hits the nursing home in my hometown?

(Unfortunately, we later found out: As of October 13, 14 residents and 1 staff member have died at the Bottineau Good Samaritan Center. When you consider that this facility only houses around 40 individuals, that's 35% of your total residents dead within a few months.)

In April, I got a phone call from a friend who lives in North Dakota. He went straight to the point, "Evan, Washington State is a mess with COVID. You have a pregnant wife. You should get out of there for a while, head back to North Dakota and ride this thing out. You'll be safe here." I really appreciated his concern, and honestly, the offer made sense to me. I have always considered North Dakota to be a safe haven from natural disasters, nuclear attacks, zombie outbreaks -- anything. Its remoteness, low population, and inherent distance between people and towns seemed like a huge advantage for something like a virus outbreak. But we felt comfortable staying in Seattle, we felt safe working from home (and were fortunate to have jobs that could be done remotely), and we were lucky to have great grocery and food delivery options, so we stayed put.

And then a lot of time passed; it seems like a blur in hindsight. My wife and I got the hang of working from home, and I made a lot of improvements to our home offices which easily paid off: desks, laptops, webcams, microphones, better internet, lighting. I spent more time with my friends, except we did it over voice and video calls and playing online games. I read a bunch of books, and spent a lot of time trying to understand what happened during the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (and I took a lot of notes, which you can check out if you're curious). My team and I at work had to make major adjustments to our plans to launch a new type of grocery store, but we made it work and it turned out awesome -- it was super rewarding that our work was directly helping get food delivered safely to folks during a pandemic. Like a lot of people are doing nowadays, I continued to re-evaluate my relationship with alcohol, and decided to extend my "Dry January" experiment into a long-term thing; I haven't consumed any alcohol in 11 months now and have never felt better. After not doing any real exercise for a decade, I established a regular workout routine (using simple dumbbells and a recumbent exercise bicycle in my garage) and have exercised 3-4 times a week for this entire year. And in September, we had a beautiful baby girl, which will always be my brightest memory from 2020.

Meanwhile, over 200,000 people died from COVID-19 in the US.

In early October, I got another call from that same friend from North Dakota who had called me seven months earlier in April to encourage me to leave Washington and ride this thing out in North Dakota. "It's a complete mess here," he said. It was a full reversal of our conversation earlier in the year. North Dakota was getting hit with a terrible outbreak of COVID-19, our local nursing home was seeing rising infections and deaths, and things seemed only to be getting worse. North Dakota now led the country (and the world!) in COVID-19 infections per capita for weeks, with death rates predictably increasing two weeks after spikes in infections. The last several days have seen record-breaking infection rates, and with high confidence, we'll see correlating spikes in deaths over the next several weeks.

A few days before he called, I had already made up my mind: it was time to get my at-risk mother out of North Dakota. Back in April, I never would have imagined taking her from her safe, small town in rural North Dakota and bringing her to a city like Seattle with a metropolitan population of almost 4 million people. But despite dealing with COVID-19 infections just like everywhere else, Washington state has managed to keep things relatively under control, albeit tenuously. Looking at yesterday's COVID-19 data from October 19th, 2020, North Dakota leads the country at #1 with 685 cases per capita over the past two weeks, while Washington State is #45 with 60 cases per capita over the past two weeks. It was the pragmatic thing to do.

At this point, I take for granted that masks are now super common in public in Seattle, social distancing is the norm, schools and work are for the most part virtual, and all of our businesses and restaurants have done an amazing job adapting to providing take-out, delivery, and enforcing social distancing. It's not perfect, and there are lots of challenges, but it's making a huge positive impact. Perhaps by getting hit hard early in the year, and having no idea what we were doing at the time -- maybe that gave us a healthy respect for this thing, which combined with good leadership at the state and local levels, gave us a better chance of success. I'm also fortunate that we personally had the means and everything else necessary to, on short-notice, move an at-risk family member across the country.

Waiting in line at a mass-testing site in Washington State to get my mother a COVID-19 test after she arrived from North Dakota. She tested negative.

My mother has now been out in Seattle for a week. She impressed me with her wherewithal and grit to pack up and fly across the country by herself during a pandemic. After two (negative!) COVID-19 tests and a week of self-quarantine, we're super excited to be able to see her in person and I'm relieved that she's comparatively safer out here. I hope she'll be able to head back home eventually, but we're not sure when that's going to be. And it's certainly a much appreciated side effect that she can spend this unexpected time with her new baby granddaughter.

A long time ago, someone told me that engineers shouldn't use the word "hope" because it implies that they don't have control over a situation. Unfortunately, at this point, all I can say is that I hope for the best for everyone out there, including my friends and family.