Pandemic Decisions

Growing up in the 60s and early 70s, as I did, counterculture is baked into my psyche. I question authority. No. I chafe at authority. I am suspicious of The Man. I imagine crew-cutted white guys dressed in short sleeve white shirts, skinny ties and pocket protectors making narrow-minded decisions that impact my life.

You and I have been lied to, screwed over, manipulated and programmed. So, if you have a problem with your government telling you what to do – and what’s healthiest for you, or what your patriotic duty is – I’m right there with you!

This is why, when it comes to pandemic behavior, I don’t get highly agitated when folks don’t stipulate to my approach and behavior to a pandemic entering its third year. For example when my African American father-in-law was initially distrustful of the COVID vaccine, I imagined how he felt when he discovered that men much like him were promised free health care if they just enrolled in a study. What they got was exactly the opposite: They were not told that they carried syphilis, and the point of the study was to withhold both notice and treatment just to, you know, see what happens when syphilis goes untreated. Who was in charge of this study? Who sat idly by spectating as black men went blind, deaf, insane, and passed the disease to others? The U.S. Public Health Service and the CDC. So…

I recognize the various well-founded reasons to be distrustful of people who tell you how to best live your lives. I’m not going to be one of those people. I’m going to narrate how I’ve chosen to live my life – the decisions I’ve made – and how I feel this pertains to the business I’m in and the sport you and I enjoy. Then I’m going to respect what decisions every person and every community makes.

I acknowledged to my father-in-law the valid reasons for his reticence but I asked him, “Do you believe there are two vials behind the counter, and when black people step up to get their COVID vaccine they get the bad vaccine, and white people get the good vaccine?” I asked him what he thought was the safest wager for him: getting or not getting the vaccine. I let him decide. He went out the next day and got his first of two Moderna doses.

This is the conundrum for people like me, who grew up distrustful of authority: When are you wiser to trust and when to distrust? This is how I answer that: I tend to trust career experts; I largely distrust political appointees (unless the appointee spent his or her life as a career expert).

In the case of all the public health measures extant today such as the use of masks in public indoor places and COVID vaccines, I don’t pay a lot of attention to advice from politicians; from cable news hosts; from OpEd writers forced to churn out 3 columns a week; and from those with commercial interests. I’ve written before on how I form decisions governing my behavior. I pay attention to what a consensus of career experts say (if a consensus exists). We are lucky here on this portal because we have a fair number of experts on just about every subject you can imagine. We published a riveting story that chronicled frontline health provider accounts of the COVID pandemic, and because you and I know these folks (they're on our forum) it was powerful to hear the stories that all rang similar one to another even as they came from those spanning the political spectrum.

A Difficult Decision

We host a lot of people here at The Compound. Visitors come in and out pretty well constantly, in singles or in groups. My wife and I decided about a month ago to only allow COVID vaccinated people to be here. This extends to friends, family, people here on business, everyone. We verify compliance. This has been rough. We held a service here last week for my wife’s recently-passed mother and unvaccinated family members were forced to watch on Zoom (or not participate at all).

This is because I have a rule: I either trust in the consensus opinion of experts or I don’t. My politics, my 60s counterculture zeitgeist, my in-bred cantankerousness that has made me virtually unemployable my whole life, can’t override this or else my rule is no rule.

I have researched alternative forms of immunity, to see if those who (for example) wish to attend our bike fit workshops should be welcomed if they got COVID and recovered, their immunity verified by the results of semi-quantitative antibody tests. I now know more than I want about these tests, in service of those who want to come here. I have studied up on the cohorts who could be vulnerable to a bad outcome from the vaccine (distinct from the bad outcome of the getting the disease). I have not as of yet found any valid reason to deviate from our own policy as regards the Compound, though I am still open to new evidence, or evidence I haven’t seen.

We have the clinical data that has now become a kind of longitudinal study of the 250 million or so Americans who’ve been vaccinated (and those who haven't). The data on masks is squishier. I don’t think we have equally good data on mask use as a COVID public health measure. But I note the following regarding the common flu. In a typical year, when a respiratory specimen (spit in this jar) is taken from a sick individual, to test for the flu, between 26 and 30 percent of those specimens return positive for the flu. During the 2020/21 flu season samples came back positive 0.2 percent of the time. The rate of hospitalizations for flu was the lowest since the stats have been kept (beginning 2005). But, the rate of flu vaccinations was not significantly up. What is my takeaway? Whatever it is we’ve been doing during the pandemic – social distancing, mask wearing – has made an orders-of-magnitude difference.

Which leads me to my own behavioral choices. Not yours. Not what you should do, but what I have done and what I will do.

I’m scheduled to go to St. George in May, to cover the 2021 IRONMAN Championships. Just before that I’m racing in Triathlon’s Draft Legal National Championships in Irving, Texas, and just after that, in June, Gravel Tri Nats in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Then the Legacy Triathlon in Long Beach, California in July and Steamboat Gravel in August. I’m not going to lecture each of these communities on their public health behavior, but I will monitor the virus’s behavior in those areas before I travel. (Notwithstanding USA Triathlon’s Safe Return to Racing, airports, restaurants, hotels don’t care about USAT's policies.)

I know this will disappoint some folks but I don’t feel it’s my place to tell those in Texas or Arkansas or Colorado what their public measures should be. If and when I go to Arkansas – which I intend to do if COVID behaves in Arkansas – I’ll not critique what Arkansas folks do. Likewise, I expect Arkansas to respect what we do in Los Angeles County, and for this reason my 20-year membership at Sam’s Club is ceasing because my repeated in-person appeals to management, my phone calls, my chat sessions and emails, to get that company to enforce mask wearing in its clubs, has come to naught. In my (politically evenly split) community, I believe it is becoming evident which businesses enforce our community's decided-upon public health directives and which don’t. I’m therefore now exclusively Costco when it comes to buying stuff in way bigger volumes than I need.


I share this anecdote because of another decision I've made: to respect the decisions made by and for the community I'm in. When I go to Arkansas for the Gravel Tri National Championships, I may not be asked to wear a mask indoors. I don’t know what Arkansas will require; and I may wear a mask or not. But I’m not going to lecture Arkansas on how to conduct public health. (Arkansans on all sides can argue it out for Arkansas; but I don't feel it's my place.) I would ask that when Arkansas (in the form of Sam’s Club, for example) comes to my town, the public health decisions my community has made deserve respect as well.

These are my decisions. For me. The flu data is so compelling – and because my twice annual respiratory infections have vanished since the pandemic – that I will almost certainly continue many pandemic-era behaviors after COVID is behind us. It is also unassailable that the more these behaviors are followed the less likely we’ll have another raft of race cancellations in 2022.

On a thread on our reader forum someone asked me, “At what point do you stop caring about people who won't help themselves?” “Never,” I answered. I don’t get angry with people who don’t believe as I do. I hear, acknowledge and respect their opinions; I do my own research and arm myself with facts; I deliver them dispassionately when my opinion is welcome; I listen to and consider any science-based evidence contrary to my assumptions; and then I shut up. Yelling, belittling, histrionic displays of exasperated facepalming, convinces no one. The learned presentation of demonstrable facts, delivered with love and dispassion, who knows? If my message is compelling it will survive the end of the conversation and may bear fruit later.

This is the only way to proceed that makes sense to me; that honors all stakeholders; that renders unto Caesar; that registers my (and your) distaste for The Man; while maintaining fidelity with science.