It’s been a scary couple of weeks in the Seattle area.

That’s because Seattle is “ground zero” in the U.S. for the virus called COVID-19 (colloquially, coronavirus). Scores of cases have arisen in the Seattle area, 80 cases in Washington state [postscript: 120 cases. 3/8/2020]. The disease killed 10 elderly people in a nursing home in Kirkland, just east of Seattle. This region is in the national news every day now. At least three students that I know of (Everett SD, Seattle SD, Shoreline SD) have tested positive and are in quarantine as their schools are cleaned and disinfected by teams in protective suits.

My district has said they are not going to close schools, even though other nearby districts like Northshore and Monroe have closed. Seattle SD will stay open, says the superintendent, partly because not all parents can afford childcare, or to take off weeks of time from work if their kids are out of school. Also, she says a lot of kids depend on schools for food and health care.

The University of Washington, however, closed the campus and instructed students to continue their work via distance learning, so my daughter has been home watching lectures online as the teacher uses a digital chalkboard program like the one Khan Academy uses. I wonder how they’ll handle winter-quarter finals a week and a half from now.

Starbucks just reported a confirmed case and closed its café across from the Seattle Art Museum for deep cleaning. Amazon is telling people to work from home if they can. My colleague Traci said that the staff of Starbucks’ corporate offices, including her friend, have been sent home until March 31 whether they’re sick or not. Health officials are telling people to stay home if they can, and to avoid crowds. Large conferences and other events have been cancelled. Costco has stopped giving out free samples. The Seattle Times was speculating whether the Mariners’ season opener game will be played in a different city. Hand-sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and face masks have been cleaned out of stores, but people are also hoarding lots of nonsensical things, like toilet paper and bottled water. It’s a panic.

It’s true, COVID-19 is more infectious and more deadly than the annual flu, however mortality rates are not proportionate to this reaction. On average, 2% of people who get it die (these numbers come from and are a week old) [postscript: newer estimates put the average rate at 3.4%], but that’s skewed because the rate for folks in their 70s and 80s is so high. The risk of death to my students is only 0.2%. For a typical person in their 50s, it’s 1.3%, but diabetics have a mortality rate of 7.9%, which is 4 times as high as a typical 50 year old, which is concerning, sure, but when you really think about it, is still nothing like a death sentence. That means that 92% of people like me get well again. My wife works at a hospital; a nurse there says that she thinks it’ll peak in April.

Seattle School District just issued an email saying that staff in higher-risk categories can use three days of their accumulated sick leave, and thereafter use “Emergency Circumstances-Paid” leave.” So, because I have diabetes and am 57, I could take off probably as much time as I want for my own safety. If they make me use my sick leave, that’s no problem because after teaching for 25 years in this state, I have months and months of sick leave accumulated, practically a whole school year.

But right now I think that seems excessive, to take off multiple weeks from third quarter when I’m perfectly healthy. And I’d have to write multiple weeks of lesson plans for my sub as well, which as every teacher knows would be a Herculean task. I have a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment on Wednesday. I’ll ask my doctor what she thinks I should do. If I want to take extended medical leave, I’ll need a letter from her.

People are associating the disease with Asian people. We ate at a Chinese restaurant last night, and only about a quarter of the tables were full. The Korean tofu place next door was completely empty—zero customers; I saw the waitress leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, waiting for someone to come in. T&T, a large and popular Chinese restaurant north of Seattle was almost completely empty. I saw one large family and one booth with 3 or 4 people eating there. The rest of the restaurant was empty, and this was a Friday night.

An irrational fear of pandemic is taking hold. The movie Contagion is trending in the Apple video store. The fear is global. There are notable outbreaks in Iran, Italy, and much of Western Europe. The Louvre has closed its doors until further notice. There’s lots of talk about the Influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed millions of people. One of my Black students said she heard Black people can’t catch it. Someone else said they heard it was a biological weapon developed in a military lab.

So, a hundred years after that pandemic, in a time when a lot of modern medical resources have been developed, misinformation is spreading. As a teacher, it is my job to educate my students about safe hygiene practices, about their own degree of risk, as well as how to examine information with a critical eye.

March 7, 2020

© Daniel Sato