Saturday, February 19, 2022

State of Decay

Well, the U.S. has essentially come to the consensus that they're sick and tired of COVID-19. They're done with it. Over it. So therefore, COVID is over. Masks off! No more restrictions!

This isn't over. I don't know if it ever will be. But the decisions that have just been made are going to result in a lot more deaths.

I had an appointment in Hazleton this week. It was the first time I've been there in many years. Hazleton is an oddball city: one of the largest cities in Luzerne County, but isolated from much of the rest of the county and situated practically on its southern border. It was once a wealthy city. A self-contained city, a place where you could be born, grow up, and die, all while being convinced you hadn't missed out on anything the world had to offer. It was also, I am told, once a Mafia-infested city, and the departure of the mobsters who once ran the place and propped it up financially can explain much of the sudden economic downturn the city has experienced.

About twenty-five years ago the ethnic makeup of the city started to change. Up to that point it was majority Polish and Italian, old-timers who had worked in the mines and ran the mines and owned the mines, and their families and their children who hadn't yet fled for greener pastures. 

The newcomers weren't there for mining. Many were immigrants from Mexico, looking to work as laborers in some of the remaining industries in the area. Their arrival was greeted with hostility. One local politician built his career on trying to drive out the immigrants. His efforts failed, repeatedly, at tremendous cost to the local taxpayers. These failures have not dissuaded him from continuing to run for public office - allegedly he is next planning to run for governor. Had he succeeded, Hazleton would today be a depopulated ghost town, as the old residents have died and their children have moved out of the area.

Hazleton has been a COVID hotspot from the start. There are several theories as to why. Regardless of the reasons, such a place should be approached with tremendous caution. At the endodontist's office I was the only one, aside from the doctor and her assistant, wearing a mask. I watched people go in and out of the pharmacy next door without masks. We're not gonna make it, are we?, I wondered.

There are two basic ways to get between my house and Hazleton. One is on Interstate 81, the major highway that runs through Northeastern Pennsylvania on its way from near Chattanooga, Tennessee to the Canadian border with New York. The other is PA Route 309. I took 81 there and decided to take 309 back. It's been years since I've taken that road, even longer since I took it in the daytime. I remember it as a scenic route through the mountains south of my house. (The other route, I-81, gives some beautiful views of the Wyoming Valley, though there are no scenic overlooks where you can park and really appreciate this.)

I got on 309 going the wrong way for a few miles. I realized I was going the wrong way when I spotted a landmark I've never seen before: an enormous, steep-sided culm bank located feet away from the road, feet away from at least two houses (one of which appeared vacant.) How can this be legal?, I wondered. And then I thought: This is Hazleton. This is NEPA.

It's over a quarter of a mile in diameter at the base. The sides have a slope of about 45 degrees. It's right up against Route 309. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

https://www.timesleader.com/news/1244206/another-tax-break-request-for-mine-scarred-site-coming-before-luzerne-county-council

I turned around and pointed the car home. Route 309 goes through the heart of Hazleton. Once upon a time Hazleton was a big, wealthy city, awash in coal money. Schools were big, churches were big, office buildings were big - by NEPA standards. That money dried up when deep mining in this area died in the aftermath of the 1959 Knox Mine Disaster, though some surface mining continues in the area to this day. Even twenty years ago, Hazleton still retained some of its veneer, though the end was on its way. On that day what I saw was a city that used to be: Schools still standing, their names seen only as shadows where there once were letters. Churches converted to new denominations, or standing empty. Vacant office buildings looking ready for business except for the orange plastic fences blocking access.

The ride out of town was just as bad. That part of NEPA has always been a bit odd, with residential houses freely mixed with businesses along the side of Route 309. But now many of those businesses are closed. For every two or three houses, it seemed, there was an empty business.

NEPA is changing. Everyone in this area knows that. When I went to college in Scranton in the mid-to-late 80s it was like a big, broken-down, abandoned amusement park. There were demolition sites everywhere as old, run-down buildings were torn down. Decades later Scranton has experienced a renaissance of sorts. Wilkes-Barre sustained horrific damage in the flood of 1972. It was rebuilt and revived in the 70s and 80s, experienced a decay in the 90s as Scranton's fortune rose, but has gradually worked itself up to a new state of prosperity. In both cases the fortunes have been largely tied to the rising fortunes of the University of Scranton, and King's College and Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. Hazleton, on the other hand, feels like a city that has had its plug pulled, like a place where the people who once propped it up have taken their money and left. Where will it go from here? Time will tell.

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The Omicron surge has largely passed. New cases have dropped, and deaths are finally dipping. Still, cases and death rates are still as high as or higher than they were during the initial surge in Spring 2020. Nevertheless, many states are giving in to the demands of the "REOPEN EVERYTHING NOW!!!" crowd to drop any mask mandates and other restrictions that might in any way present an inconvenience. More people are going to die, especially the most vulnerable: the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. As restrictions fall away, anti-maskers are taking a more aggressive approach to those who are still wearing masks - some of whom have no intention to put up with any of their crap. 


Cases are dropping dramatically, in the U.S. as a whole and in Pennsylvania as well. In both graphs, case counts exceed where they were in Spring - Fall 2020 and much of Summer 2021:



Deaths, not so much:



And in the face of all this, everyone is declaring "RETURN TO NORMAL."

The world that we knew in 2019 and before is gone, along with millions of people we knew back then. COVID-19 and all its variants are here. Welcome to the new normal.


Friday, January 14, 2022

Filling in the gaps

Sometime in late 2020 I realized that while the COVID-19 graphs provided for free by the Financial Times were wonderful, flexible, versatile sources of graphic information, they had one flaw: While you could easily specify a starting date for the x-axis, you had no control over the ending date - it was always the most recent day for which data was available. Which means that, in the event something like the Omicron variant came along and dwarfed all previous y-axis values, you permanently lost the ability to look at the detailed variation of the past data. I realized this early on when data from early March 2020 was rapidly compressed to insignificance by the enormity of the numbers coming in beginning in late March 2020.

Unfortunately, my blogging hiatus in the second half of 2021 meant that the last set of graphs I posted before the end of the year were from July 10, 2021. Nearly six months of data, including the rise of the Delta variant, the failure of the Great Unmasking, and the coming of the Omicron spike were just...missing.

But not really. Just because I hadn't been posting these graphs didn't mean that I hadn't been saving them. Here are the relevant ones, the ones that tell the story, and present the data before it got crushed  to nothingness.

July 16,  2021, six days after my penultimate 2021 post.
The Delta wave was here, taking advantage of the summertime Great Unmasking.



July 22, 2021. Where just weeks before it looked like we were on a trajectory to grind COVID-19 into the ground, the Delta variant combined with the end of mask mandates to undo two months of progress.

July 31, 2021: while the nation was on an upswing, it wasn't affecting every state equally. This graph displays new cases per 100,000 people. The top states by far were in the South, while Pennsylvania was lurking near the bottom. This would change a lot by the end of the year.

August 7, 2021: The same sort of breakdown shows things getting worse everywhere, but continuing to be especially bad in the Southern states.

September 4, 2021: New mix of top states, still all from the South. Pennsylvania is climbing its way up.

December 5, 2021: The same sort of graph, but now the top spot is held by New Hampshire, with Southern states dropping low, and Pennsylvania vying for the top spot.

September 6, 2021: A tale of two countries, the United States and Norway. Cases per 100,000 people. Norway has consistently done better than the United States in dealing with COVID-19. Maybe we should try to do what they're doing.

September 4, 2021: Deaths per 100,000 people attributed to COVID-19 in the United States and Norway. We really should have been doing whatever the hell Norway is doing. 

So that's it. I wish I had captured more graphs. The data is still out there, waiting to be analyzed.

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The latest, using the same sort of graphs that are displayed above:

New cases in U.S. as of January 13, 2022. Continuing to set new records every day.

New cases by state, per 100,000 people. Sates in the Northeast now dominate, with Delaware just missing the cut below New Jersey, and Pennsylvania lagging a few spots behind. For some reason, Florida is right up there between New York and Massachusetts. Maybe Ron Desantis can explain. (He'd probably blame Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for visiting her mother in Florida last week.)

Norway vs. the United States, cases per 100,000 people. Norway actually led the U.S. by a considerable margin from early November through late December, but the U.S. raced ahead after that.



Norway vs. the United States, deaths attributed to COVID-19 per 100,000 population. Obviously Norway is doing something right that the United States is not. We need to find out what.


Sunday, January 09, 2022

On the Last Day of Christmas

Well, Christmas is over, officially, by almost every measure.  Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and in the Catholic Church that's the end of the Christmas season. (Some older traditions push it to Candlemas Day, February 2nd, but I don't know if anyone follows that anymore.)

Yesterday was "Russian Christmas," Christmas as observed by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which uses the Julian calendar. By tradition this is the last day to have lights on, and many people in this area light everything up in solidarity with the Eastern Orthodox celebration. Traditionally it always snows for Russian Christmas, and this year was no exception. We had our first decent shovelable snow of the season on Friday, a light fluffy powdery inch of snow that brushed away with little effort. That was followed today with a thin layer of ice which required an application of salt to sidewalks.

Today was undecorating day for the Christmas Tree. I was very happy with this year's tree, even though in reviewing pictures from last year it doesn't seem substantially different from last year's tree. It was a pleasant thing to have in front of me throughout my work day, and I'll have to think hard of what to put in its place.














All now carefully sorted, boxed up, and going into storage until the tree goes up the weekend after next Thanksgiving, November 26 or so. God willing.


Saturday, January 08, 2022

Goodbye, Wayne

One of my classmates from high school was buried today. He died of COVID, the first of our class to do so, as far as we know. I didn't go to the funeral, or the memorial.

I did go grocery shopping this afternoon. About half the shoppers and all of the employees were wearing masks, which is a big improvement over the last time I was there. I wanted to grab the unmasked people and say "We buried someone I knew in high school today. He died of COVID. Do you think you're safe? Do you think this is over?" I didn't. Instead I got my groceries and got the hell out of there as fast as I could.

COVID deaths in Pennsylvania, as in all of the U.S., continue to climb. This isn't slowing down. This isn't over. Get vaccinated. Wear a mask.


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The Omicron variant continues to make hay of all previous graphs. This variant is allegedly "milder" than previous versions, but can also walk through walls - vaccinations provide very little protection against getting it, but they do minimize its effects, allegedly. Even masks and social distancing seem to offer little protection. The official line is "everybody is going to get Omicron," which means that we've basically entered the "Fuck it, whatever" stage of the pandemic. (And the new catchphrase now is "It's no longer a pandemic, the disease is now endemic," which is a distinction meaningless to most of the people uttering it.) Schools are open, while at the same time many local (and state, and federal) offices are closed. Many people are being ordered to return to the workplace, where it's impossible to avoid being exposed to infected coworkers. These are the same schools and workplaces that closed in March 2020, when COVID cases and deaths were so low they don't even show up on current graphs.

The other view is "Not to worry, if you've been vaccinated and aren't disabled or have other comorbidities, you'll be fine, so everything is OK," which is not at all comforting to those who are disabled, have those comorbidities, are immune compromised, or are unable to get the vaccine for medical reasons. It feels like they're being written off as an acceptable loss.

Sometime soon this graph will be unreadable without a logarithmic y-axis.
The logarithmic version. I first started using this when it looked like cases were going to drop so low that the day-to-day variation would be unreadable. Now new cases are rising so high that the previous variation may soon be unreadable with a linear y-axis, much like the March 2020 data is now.



Far more cases of a less deadly variant have resulted in a fairly steady rate of deaths. It's math.

There was an upturn to the slope from December 2020-March 2021, and a downturn from March 2021-August 2021, but overall this has been a fairly straight line since April 2020. Assuming the dynamics continue as they are, we'll hit one million deaths by June 2022.
But it's not a safe bet that the dynamics will continue as they are.


Sunday, January 02, 2022

First post-apocalyptic grocery run of 2022

Something seemed off as soon as I left the house.

I hadn't meant to go shopping today. Sure, sometime this week - I had a coupon worth $5 off a $25 order that needed to be used within two weeks of December 23 - but I still had half of a half gallon of milk left, and really didn't need much else. But my mom told me she needed bananas, and a refill for hand soap, and large Band-Aids, latex-free, so the hunt had begun. I drew up a list of a few other things we needed, geared up, and set out.

I heard a commotion in the distance as I walked to the car. It sounded like a crowd of people all shouting and arguing at the same time. The sound seemed to be approaching, and gradually took on the tone of a great many dogs barking excitedly.  I looked up and scanned the sky. Soon I located the lopsided V of geese high overhead, flying south. On January 2nd. Better late than never, I suppose.

The parking lot at the supermarket was crowded, but less so than on recent trips. I strapped on my mask, grabbed a cart, and headed in. I immediately started seeing faces - unmasked faces, customers and employees alike. As if there were no pandemic going on. As if Pennsylvania were not having its highest infection rates ever.

Pennsylvania is having its highest COVID-19 infection rates ever.

But that wasn't the weird thing. Not wearing masks has been the standard around here since the summer, when it looked like maybe we were about to beat this thing and the state dropped the mask mandate. No, what was weird was what I saw as I made my way past the pastries and baked goods, past the fried and rotisserie chicken, to the fruit displays - the empty fruit displays. Not all empty, just some. Maybe some fruit was now out of season, even for import, and the displays were being changed over for whatever would take its place? No big deal. All I needed were the bananas my mom had asked for. I headed for the banana display in the back.

No bananas.

No onions or potatoes, either. The whole area was empty, as if some accident had happened requiring everything to be thrown away.

Not to worry. There was another grocery store about a mile away. I could get bananas there. Maybe.

I ran through my list. I found almost everything on it. Store brand hand soap refills were nowhere do be found, but I was able to get a more expensive jug of the Softsoap brand. Still, among things I didn't need, there seemed to be random shortages. No frozen chicken, or so I heard. No My-T-Fine lemon pudding and pie filling. No Reddi-Wip whipped cream. No canned cat food, or almost none. I had promised my cats as I was leaving the house that I would get them something from the store, so I went to the cat toy section where I had just been the day after Christmas. The same things that were missing that day were missing today, including the catnip satchels that the cats had gone nuts for on Christmas. I remembered I wanted to pick up potato sandwich rolls. There were none. Well, none of the brand I usually buy, or my first or second alternate brands, or anything other than a lone orphan pack of generics that had apparently been rejected by everyone else. I decided I would look for them when I went to the other store for bananas. 

As I headed to the checkouts, I heard a vaguely familiar song on the piped-in music. It gradually resolved into "Hot Hot Hot!!!" by The Cure, from 1988's "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me," a song I hadn't heard in about twenty years.

I hit the other store and picked up Reddi-Wip - which I had decided I actually needed -, bananas, cat toys, and potato sandwich buns.  (I found the brand I liked there, but only in slider-sized. I took them.) 

I got home and found out one of my high school classmates had died of COVID.  The first, as far as I know. Probably not the last.

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Small changes to the national COVID graphs since December 31, 2021:





Tomorrow, much of the country goes back to work, with many back in their offices. Many children will go back to in-person learning at school. Meanwhile, airlines continue to cancel flights due to weather - and COVID. Police in New York City are calling off sick en masse (well, nearly so) with COVID, which continues to be a major cop-killer, in part because of resistance to getting vaccinated by many members of the police. Expect to see infection rates in the next four weeks to soar well above where they are now. Expect to see deaths continue to climb, too.


Friday, December 31, 2021

2021: Good riddance

When last we met, I had just said goodbye to another of our cats, and we had gotten word that the church I had grown up with would be permanently closed. COVID infections had plummeted, though the "Delta variant" of the disease seemed to be threatening a late-Summer resurgence. 

Then I went silent.

But not really. I responded to the church closing in the way I usually do: I created a blog. I intended that it would be a place where I could share all of my photographs and memories of the church, and where other parishioners could do the same. But I quickly discovered that I had far fewer photographs than I remembered, and no one else was really interested in sharing theirs. I took my shot, said what I wanted to say, and stopped.

Babusz was the last of my animal friends to die in 2021. (Ray had died in the Spring, on the same day I got my second COVID shot.) We are now down to three older cats born in 2009, and Mama Cat (most likely born in 2017) and her babies who were born in 2019. All are ferals. Few of our ferals have lived much past 12 before cancer killed them. Feral cats select for fecundity, not long life.

None of my close friends or family have died of COVID so far. One person I know did die, in early September. (She is technically the second person I know who has died. I never met Fr. Tom Carten socially, at least that I was aware of - he once was a lurker at a gathering of bloggers - but my sister knew him well, and I was a big fan of his blog.) I met Joyce Dombroski Gebhart through one of the blogger/politician mixers that we used to have many years ago. She was running for public office on what looked like a pure Tea Party platform. She didn't win. We were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but somehow she became aware of my interest in space and backyard astronomy. She would frequently contact me through Facebook to let me know about interesting events, from planetary alignments to bright passes of the space station. I reciprocated far less often. I have no idea if she was vaccinated, but her politics leads me to believe she was not. She went on a family vacation in the Summer. She and one or more family members contracted COVID. They recovered. She did not.

Message from Harold Jenkins to Joyce Dombroski Gebhart, September 3, 2021: You were always very kind and generous to me, enthusiastically sending me messages about astronomical events and cool space stuff. How many things might i have missed if you hadn't brought them to my attention? Thank you so much. I will miss you.

Earlier in the Summer it had really started to feel like COVID might soon be over. I got together with some friends in late May, for the first time in a year and a half, just as the CDC was announcing the lifting of restrictions for the fully vaccinated. I went to my first poetry reading since February 2020 on June 19, 2021. This was also an opportunity to see a friend I had not seen in well over two years. But everything felt - wrong. Off. The readings ran too long. I began to feel uncomfortable. All I wanted to do was get out of there and go home.

Later I went to a family gathering held outdoors at a cousin's house. At that point the Delta upswing had begun in earnest. But other countries had experienced the Delta variant, and had seen a rise followed by a fall. Sure enough, the Delta spike peaked in September, then began its downward slide. 

I got together with my friends again in early November. Things seemed more uncertain then. What would the next variant bring? Booster shots had already begun, and I was the last of our group to get boosted.

Shortly afterwards the fast-spreading Omicron variant was announced.

On November 19 there was a lunar eclipse, exactly the sort of thing Joyce would have enjoyed.

The moon glows red in a near-total eclipse

My immediate family - with the exclusion of my sister, who lives out of state - gathered for Thanksgiving, our first Thanksgiving in two years. Shortly afterwards we met again for my nephew's birthday. The day after his party I met with some friends whom I had worked with from 1999 through 2007.  We are all getting up in age - I am the youngest of the group - and all have pre-existing conditions that make us much more susceptible to the serious effects of COVID. Even though the Omicron variant had already been announced, the restaurant was fairly crowded with few masks in sight. This has been the rule since mask mandates were dropped over the summer: whenever I go out shopping, which isn't that often, I am usually one of a small minority of people wearing a mask. It is hard to look at these unmasked masses and not think of them as poor naive doomed fools.

Some planets lined up in the post-sunset sky in December - Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter. Venus once again entered a crescent phase. Many people who might not have otherwise seen the crescent of Venus saw it because of the alignment. Once again, something Joyce would have enjoyed.

A tiny bright crescent floats in a sea of blackness.
Crescent of Venus, December 19, 2021

Christmas came, and another family gathering, this time with my sister coming in for only the second time since we were all fully vaccinated. 

My mom poses with a large brown-and white pit bull. The pit bull has a goofy look on her face and her tongue is hanging out of her mouth.
My mom and my nephew's friendly rescue pit bull

I decorated our small Christmas tree fairly enthusiastically this year. I am excited about taking it down and boxing everything up, because I am already thinking about decoration variations for next year. 

A tabletop Christmas tree covered with blue lights and a variety of ornaments. A small Christmas Village surrounds the base of the tree, complete with miniature replicas of ceramic light-up Christmas trees. A photograph of my grandparents taken shortly before my grandfather's death looms over the village,

While COVID may feel like the dominant issue in the world right now, Climate Change is the most significant issue now and will continue to be so for decades - maybe centuries - to come. December tornadoes in the South, firestorms in Colorado driven by 110-mph winds, droughts, floods, and record-breaking temperatures month after month. Here are forsythia and dandelion blossoms in my back yard two days after Christmas:





There is no denying the absolute horror that the resurgence of COVID has presented in the second half of 2021. Where once it looked like COVID had been beaten back into nothingness, it has now soared to unprecedented levels both in Pennsylvania and the U.S. as a whole. Hospitals are once again overcrowded with the unvaccinated sick and dying, to the point that more routine issues like dealing with broken bones, cancer, heart attacks, and other non-COVID issues are being put on the back burner. Even the vaccinated are getting infected with the Omicron variant. The difference is that many of the vaccinated who get infected are not dying or even requiring hospitalization, though their long-tern prognosis is unknown. But in the meantime, Republicans continue to push rejection of any vaccine in favor of post-infection treatments.





Which brings us to here. The end of one year, and the beginning of another. Over 800,000 Americans have died of COVID since the start of the pandemic. Russian forces are massed on the Ukrainian border, ready to invade and trigger a confrontation with the U.S. and NATO. Kim Jon-Un is strangely silent. I continue to work from home, though how much longer that will continue is unknown. None of my cats are sick or dying. None of my family or friends are sick with COVID.

Betty White died on the last day of 2021, just two weeks short of her 100th birthday.

Good riddance, 2021.