Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanks to Vermont

Thanks to Vermont was a film produced in 1955 by the Vermont Department of Agriculture and the Vermont Development Commission to promote Vermont farm products.

The scene is set on Thanksgiving Day in a typical Vermont home, the mother preparing the turkey and father trying to sneak a taste. After he is shooed out of the kitchen, he sits down in his easy chair, lights his pipe, and commences to think about all the good agricultural products Vermont has to offer to consumers both inside and outside the state.

This 31-minute video is a fascinating look at the state of agricultural technology 65 years ago. In the dairy industry, that was just prior to the introduction of bulk tanks. The dairy industry still used 10-gallon milk cans. Tractors had completely replaced horses in the fields, but not yet in the woods. Maple sap was still collected in buckets and horse-drawn gathering tubs. Today's pipelines came decades later. Other farm products featured in the video include eggs, turkeys, apples, potatoes, sweet corn, and strawberries. The film also shows haying (both baled and loose), cheesemaking, and agricultural fairs.

Thanks to Guy Page for bringing this video to my attention. And thanks to the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont State Archives & Records Administration for digitizing the original film and preserving it at the Internet Archive. Here is the link again: Thanks to Vermont. Note that audio does not begin until 48 seconds into the video.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Shooting Stories

This summer I have noticed several stories online about first-time shooters.

Blogger Ann Althouse wrote about shooting a gun for the first time in June. There is a short video at the link. Ms. Althouse looks pleased with her bullseye!

Ann Althouse is a retired law professor living in Madison, Wisconsin, where she taught at the University of Wisconsin Law School for 32 years. Bio here. Althouse is a popular blog with an active commenter community. In the comments, Ms. Althouse reveals that she shot three guns that day.

The Denver Post reported in August that: Some women are opting to carry guns on Colorado trails to stay safe. The article stresses the importance of proper training. (Article found via Althouse.)

Closer to home, Guy Page recently wrote in Vermont Daily and True North Reports about women in Vermont learning to shoot from Major Ted Tedesco, USMC (Ret).

I encourage people to learn to shoot guns safely and responsibly, and I am not alone. Guy's articles prompted me to share with him the following story about Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy:

“Senator Leahy was a top shooter on the rifle team at Saint Michael’s College when he was an undergraduate. In 2008 he was being inducted into the Vermont Agricultural Hall of Fame in a luncheon ceremony at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex. I found myself standing next to him in the buffet line, and we started talking about our common experiences on college rifle teams (some 16 years apart – he graduated in 1961, I graduated in 1977). He remembered that experience fondly, and he told me that he still enjoys shooting on his property in Middlesex. He also told me something that I didn’t know before, that he is legally blind in one eye. He thought that helped him be a better shooter. As we parted, he said:

“Everyone should learn two things. They should learn how to swim, and they should learn how to shoot a gun.”

I previously wrote on this blog about my experience on the University of Maine Rifle Team – the Black Bears.

Guy Page kindly reprinted my story about Senator Leahy in Vermont Daily and True North Reports. Full disclosure: Guy is a friend and relative. I've known him since we were boys.

I got to know Senator Leahy when I was CEO of Yankee Farm Credit. For example, see:

All three shooting stories at the beginning of this post, from this summer, are about women. When Senator Leahy was on the Saint Michael's College rifle team, it was likely all men. The University of Maine rifle team was all men in its early days, but became co-ed my freshman year.

The photo at the top of this post is the University of Maine rifle team in 1977, my senior year. I am standing in the back, fourth from the left, wearing glasses. The sign over us shows the years that the University of Maine rifle team was New England Champions: 14 of the 18 years from 1959 to 1976, including three of the years when Senator Leahy was in college. In 1977 we were undefeated (18-0) and again New England Champions.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Cheese Tasting Event

Jasper Hill Farm held a virtual cheese tasting event on June 4. It was terrific! Cheesemaker Mateo Kehler and scientists Dr. Rachel Dutton and Dr. Ben Wolfe talked about the art and science of cheese, especially the five delicious cheeses in the tasting kit:
  • Moses Sleeper
  • Willoughby
  • Highlander
  • Landaff
  • Bayley Hazen Blue
Mateo was broadcasting from the Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm where cheese is cave-aged under carefully controlled conditions in underground vaults. He showed us a lot of cheese and some of the aging process (affinage), including a robot for washing, brushing, and turning cheeses. 

Dr. Ben and Dr. Rachel talked about the microbiology of cheese. As Mateo explained:

It's the microbes that really do the hard work of transforming and unlocking the flavor potential of each of these cheeses.

Dr. Ben described the microbial process as "delicious rot."

We learned about the importance of the rind, and three different kinds of rinds:
  • Bloomy rind (inoculate with mold)
  • Washed rind (wash with salt)
  • Natural rind (do very little)
Should you eat the rind? It is definitely edible. Dr. Rachel: "If it's not a wax rind, then you should taste it, because you might like it." Mateo and Dr. Ben strongly agreed! A bloomy rind or a washed rind, especially, will often be delicious and enhance the flavor of the cheese.

There was much more about science and tasting notes. It was a delightful hour and a half. The event was advertised as the first of "an interactive online lecture series." More than 200 people participated in this Zoom presentation. Many participants submitted questions and comments via chat, which enhanced the experience.

The photo below shows the computer and cheese board at our house at the beginning of the event:

Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont, was a former dairy farm that brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler and their wives purchased in 1998. They broke ground for the Cellars in 2006. Since then the business has grown significantly and they have won many cheese awards. See their history here.

Dr. Rachel Dutton researches the microbiology of cheese in her laboratory at the University of California San Diego. See The Dutton Lab @ UCSD.

Dr. Ben Wolfe researches the microbiology of cheese and fermented foods in his laboratory at Tufts University in Massachusetts. See The Wolfe Lab @ Tufts University.

The collaboration between the scientists and Jasper Hill Farm is discussed in this article: The kings of artisanal cheese wear lab coats. The Kehler brothers are not only dairy farmers. As cheesemakers, they also farm microbes.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I have connections with some of the people mentioned in this post beyond simply being a cheese consumer. Before I retired at the end of 2016, I got to know Mateo and Andy Kehler through my job at Yankee Farm Credit (link). Completely coincidentally and unrelated to that connection, a few months ago our daughter became a post-doctoral researcher in The Wolfe Lab @ Tufts University (link).

Nevertheless I did not learn about this "interactive online lecture series" through any of those connections. I learned about it because I am on the mailing list for Jasper Hill Farm. Anyone can sign up for that mailing list here (scroll down to "Join the Herd").

Enjoy good cheese!

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Smugglers Notch Rock Slide

The road through Smugglers Notch was briefly closed today due to a rock slide that damaged at least one car pretty significantly. No one was injured to our knowledge. The photos in this post were taken at about 2:30 PM after the road was reopened.

The photo below shows a large rock partially in the road:

The photo below shows a slightly smaller rock on the edge of the road.

The second rock significantly damaged the rear end of a parked car. WCVB in Boston has photos of the damaged car here, courtesy of the Vermont State Police. Thankfully no one was in the car.

The photo below is another view of the second rock, and shows both where the rock slide started high on the mountain and the path where this rock rolled out of the trees.

The photo below shows both rocks. The rock in the distance is the larger rock that is partially in the road, and the closer rock is the one that hit the car that was parked on the side of the road. The rock slide occurred just on the Stowe side of the height of land.

We drove through Smugglers Notch twice today, the first time around 11:30 AM. The rock slide had recently happened. We saw the damaged car as shown in the WCVB photos and there were rescue vehicles on the scene. The road was not yet closed. There was a trooper from the Vermont State Police directing traffic, and things were so exciting that I did not get any photos at that time.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

COVID-19 in Other States

The previous post included data about the prevalence of COVID-19 in Vermont and I concluded: "At least for the present, COVID-19 is fading away in Vermont." What about other states, and the country in total?

The Washington Post has statistics for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and the U.S. in total. No subscription is required to access this page:

The statistics are presented graphically in a manner similar to my previous post about Vermont: cases and deaths, per day and the 7-day average. Following are graphs for the United States in total. Both cases and deaths are trending down:

(Click on any image to enlarge. Sreenshots captured on May 29.)

Total deaths in the United States recently passed the sad milestone of 100,000. In Past Pandemics I noted that U.S. deaths were estimated to have been 100,000 from the 1968 flu pandemic, 116,000 from the 1957 flu pandemic, and 675,000 from the 1918 flu pandemic. U.S. deaths per 100,000 population (rounded to the nearest multiple of 10):

 1918 flu 
 1957 flu
 1968 flu
 COVID-19 to date 

What about our neighbors? Here in Vermont we get a lot of visitors from neighboring states. Following are COVID-19 deaths to date per 100,000 population (rounded to the nearest multiple of 10):

 New Hampshire     
 New York

New York and Massachusetts are significantly worse than the national average of 30, but both states are trending down for both cases and deaths:

Here is the link again if you are interested in data for other states:

Friday, May 29, 2020

COVID-19 in Vermont

We are nearly three months into the pandemic. How are we doing? At least for the present, COVID-19 is fading away in Vermont.

The following graph shows COVID-19 cases in Vermont, both new cases reported each day from March 1 through May 28 and the 7-day average (click on any image to enlarge):

There was 1 new case yesterday and there have been 975 cases to date.

The following graph shows COVID-19 deaths in Vermont:

There have been 55 deaths reported, the last one on May 24.

The first graph shows the results of testing. It should be noted that testing has increased substantially over the period shown in the graph. At the beginning of the pandemic, tests were severely rationed because they were in short supply. Testing capacity is abundant now, and the state is regularly testing 1,000 or more people per day. (link) Yet the 7-day average of positive tests has been below 10 since April 19.

Data for the graphs are from the Vermont Department of Health, but I created the graphs myself so there is room for error there. Readers are welcome to check my work.

For data about other states (especially New York and Massachusetts) see the subsequent post: COVID-19 in Other States.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020



The current COVID-19 pandemic is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. What is a coronavirus?

(Two earlier posts may be helpful for background. Past Pandemics is about earlier pandemics caused by influenza viruses and bacteria. Viruses and Bacteria is about the differences between viruses and bacteria.)

There are many, many different types of viruses. Coronaviruses and influenza viruses are two of these many types.

There are many different coronaviruses and many different influenza viruses. Both coronaviruses and influenza viruses are known to infect birds and mammals. Only a small percentage of viruses infect humans. Seven coronaviruses are known to infect humans.

Viruses consist of genetic material (DNA or RNA) surrounded by proteins. They come in many shapes. Coronaviruses are so named because they are roughly spherical with protruding proteins that resemble the solar corona. See the electron micrograph at the top of this post. (source) "Corona" is Latin (and Spanish and Italian) for crown.

Four human coronaviruses are known to cause the common cold. Several different types of viruses cause the common cold: rhinoviruses (30-80%), coronaviruses (about 15%), influenza viruses (10-15%), and other types. (source)

Viruses that cause the common cold are not a big public health concern. The common cold is contagious and annoying, but rarely fatal. Since the turn of the century, however, scientists have identified three new human coronaviruses that cause death in a significant number of cases. The diseases caused by these three new human coronaviruses have been named:
  • SARS
  • MERS
  • COVID-19
SARS and MERS did not rise to the level of pandemics, but what scientists learned from those earlier diseases may help us understand the current COVID-19 pandemic.

SARS (link)

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was first reported in 2002 in China. No cases have been reported since 2004. Fewer than 1,000 deaths were reported, mostly in China and southeast Asia, none in the United States.

While SARS was not particularly contagious, it was lethal. The percentage of people diagnosed with the disease who died was 11% – an alarming number. (This is called the case fatality rate.)

The coronavirus that causes SARS is called SARS-CoV or SARS-CoV-1. See the image below:

SARS-CoV. Credit: F.A. Murphy and S. Whitfield, CDC

MERS (link)

Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Like SARS, fewer than 1,000 deaths have been reported, mostly in the Arabian Peninsula, none in the United States.

Fewer people were diagnosed with MERS than with SARS, but the case fatality rate was even more alarming – around 35%. This is a deadly disease.

The coronavirus that causes MERS is called MERS-CoV. See the image below:


COVID-19 (link)

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was first reported in China in 2019. It is not as lethal as SARS or MERS, but it is much more contagious. As I write this, nearly 5 million cases have been reported worldwide, and more than 324,000 deaths. (source) (We don't yet know the case fatality rate, however. By definition the case fatality rate cannot be computed until the pandemic is over.)

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is similar to the coronavirus that caused SARS, and is called SARS-CoV-2. See the image at the top of this post.

Aside: The image at the top of this post (source) is the same as the image in the post We are in a war (source) except that it is colored differently. Both images are colorized for artistic effect. The viral particles don't actually have the different colors shown. The coloring in this post shows the coronas more clearly. Both images were captured and colorized by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at their Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana, in February 2020.

The common cold, SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 are all infectious diseases caused by coronaviruses that attack the respiratory system. What makes SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 more deadly than the common cold is that the common cold generally attacks only the upper respiratory system (nose and throat), while SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 also attack the lower respiratory system (lungs). In some cases they also attack other organs.

SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 are all new in this century. And they are all thought to have this interesting aspect in common: that they all originated in bats, and were transmitted to humans either directly or through another species.

For MERS the intermediary species was the dromedary camel. (MERS is also known as camel flu.) SARS and COVID-19 are thought to have originated in horseshoe bats. The palm civet is considered a possible intermediary species for SARS, and the pangolin may have been an intermediary species for COVID-19. The diseases may also have passed directly from bats to humans.

Cute animal photos at the end of this post!

I'll stop here and leave you with a few references if you are interested in further research:

For information about the seven known human coronaviruses, see webpages by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) here and here.

For information about the three recent human coronavirus diseases, see the CDC's webpages for: SARS, MERS, COVID-19.

For a discussion about the role of bats, see this article in the Wall Street Journal on 4/09/2020: The Bats Behind the Pandemic. (Very interesting, but probably behind a paywall, sorry.)

For an excellent discussion about SARS, MERS, COVID-19, and coronaviruses in general, listen to this podcast at "This Podcast Will Kill You" posted 2/04/2020:

Episode 43 M-m-m-my Coronaviruses

Transcript here. See Podcast Recommendation on my other blog, The Switchel Philosopher, for background about "This Podcast Will Kill You." This episode was my initial introduction to coronaviruses. Recommended.

COVID-19 Statistics Update

There have been more than 324,000 deaths worldwide (source); approximately 90,000 deaths in the U.S. (source); and 54 deaths in Vermont (source). Comparable statistics for earlier dates: March 26, April 4, April 25.

Cute animal photos follow!

Dromedary camel (source):

Dromedary camel. Credit: Florian Prischl / CC BY-SA

Horseshoe bat (source):

Horseshoe bat. Credit: Aditya Joshi / CC BY-SA

Palm civet (source):

Palm civet. Credit: Praveenp / CC BY-SA

Pangolin (source):

Pangolin. Credit: Piekfrosch / CC BY-SA

Friday, May 15, 2020

Viruses and Bacteria

SARS-CoV-2 virus. Credit: Alissa Eckert, Dan Higgins

In Past Pandemics I noted that COVID-19 and influenza are caused by viruses, while the Black Death was caused by bacteria. What are the differences between viruses and bacteria? Let's review some basic biology.

Two types of large, complex molecules are found in both viruses and bacteria:
  • genetic material
  • proteins
Proteins are the building blocks of life, and there are many, many different proteins. Genetic material contains the code (the instructions) for making proteins – and for making more genetic material. DNA and RNA are two types of genetic material.

A bacterium is a wonderfully complex thing. It contains not only genetic material and proteins, but also: the molecular machinery for making more genetic material and proteins; the raw materials for making more genetic material and proteins; and other stuff that is outside the scope of this post.

The molecular machinery is itself made of proteins and genetic material, which as noted above are large, complex molecules. The raw materials are smaller, simpler molecules that can be assembled by the molecular machinery into more complex molecules.

A bacterium is a cell. Cells consist of cytoplasm enclosed in a membrane. The genetic material, the proteins, the raw materials, and the molecular machinery all float around in the cytoplasm.

A virus is less than a cell, and therefore smaller and simpler than a bacterium. A virus consists of genetic material surrounded by proteins. That's it. There is no molecular machinery for making more genetic material or proteins. There are no raw materials for making more genetic material or proteins. There is nothing floating around in cytoplasm because there is no cytoplasm.

The parts of a bacterium are dynamic. Things move around. The machinery works. A bacterium is abuzz with activity at the molecular level much of the time. In contrast, a viral particle by itself is static, inert.

A bacterium is sufficiently complex that it can reproduce itself through a process called cell division. A virus cannot reproduce itself. Viruses replicate by invading a cell and hijacking the molecular machinery and raw materials of that cell to create new viral particles. Viral diseases are caused by this invasion of host cells and the release of hordes of new viral particles that then invade more cells.

Are viruses alive? That depends on who you ask and their definition of life. Viruses are not as fully alive as bacteria because they cannot (on their own) manufacture proteins or genetic material, and they cannot self-reproduce.

Both viruses and bacteria come in many shapes and sizes, but viruses are generally much smaller than bacteria. The image at the top of this post is a computer-generated illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. (source) (See The Spiky Blob Seen Around the World for an interesting New York Times article about this illustration.)

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is roughly spherical with a typical diameter of 100 nanometers. In comparison, E. coli is a common bacteria that is rod-shaped with a typical length of 2,000 nanometers and a typical diameter of 500 nanometers. See the scanning electron micrograph below (2 micrometers = 2,000 nanometers):

E. coli bacteria. Credit: NIAID

Not all bacteria are harmful. Many kinds of bacteria are beneficial. For example, a complex ecosystem of gut bacteria in humans (including some types of E. coli) is essential for processing food. On the other hand, all viruses are considered pathogens (disease-causing agents) although only a small percentage of viruses infect humans. Viruses can infect many living organisms, including bacteria. Viruses that infect bacteria are called bacteriophages or simply phages.

Our bodies have many natural defenses against the viruses and bacteria that are human pathogens. We get sick when those defenses fail. (We can also get sick if those defenses overreact, but that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) What does modern medicine have to offer when our natural defenses against pathogens fail?

Because bacteria are more complicated than viruses, there are more ways to attack them. There are many antibacterial drugs, called antibiotics. Penicillin is an antibiotic that kills bacterial cells by attacking the cell wall – a structure present in most bacteria cells, but not in animal cells.

Viruses are simpler than bacteria, and aren't as fully alive, so they are more difficult to "kill." It is not possible, for example, to inactivate a virus by attacking the cell wall, because there is no cell wall. A small number of antiviral drugs exist for a limited number of viruses, but none yet for SARS-CoV-2. Multiple groups of scientists are working on such drugs.

Some viral diseases (and some bacterial diseases) can be prevented (not cured) with vaccines. That subject is outside the scope of this post except to note that no vaccine currently exists for COVID-19. As with antiviral drugs, multiple groups of scientists are working to develop a vaccine.

The common cold is typical of human experience with viral diseases. Humans all over the world would dearly love to find a cure or vaccine for the common cold, which is caused by viruses. But no cures or successful vaccines have been developed. The best we can do is take medicines that alleviate some of the symptoms while the body slowly cures itself if it can.

There is much more to viruses and bacteria, of course. If you are interested in learning more, follow the links in the previous sentence to get started.

A few things to remember from this basic introduction:
  • A bacterium is a cell. A virus is less than a cell.
  • Viruses replicate by invading a host cell and hijacking its machinery to make more viral particles.
  • Antibiotics only work on bacteria. Antibiotics do not work on viruses.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Smugglers Notch - 2 days later

We walked on the road in Smugglers Notch today, same as two days ago – see Mother's Day in Smugglers Notch (our daughters joined us on that walk). The road is still closed. Compare the two photos below. They look very similar.

Two days ago

BUT – big surprise! – the road is clear all the way through!! Two days ago most of the road above the gate was snow-covered. Today the entire road is bare. The photo below was taken at the height of land today.

Compare the two photos below, looking down from the height of land toward Stowe. They look very different!

Two days ago

What happened?? Clearly all the snow did not melt, as there is still snow on the side of the road. In fact, the weather has not been particularly warm since Mother's Day. We actually had MORE snow last night – 1" of new snow at home and likely more in the Notch.

No, it wasn't Mother Nature that cleared the road. It was this VTrans critter, at least in part, currently resting in the parking lot near the height of land:

Perhaps VT-108 through Smugglers Notch will open soon! Last year the road opened on May 15, the year before on May 10. (link)

The waterfalls were even more beautiful, and active, today than on Mother's Day:

Update 5/14: The road opened today! See the Facebook post by VTrans here and WCAX article here.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mother's Day in Smugglers Notch

Pre-coronavirus I entered a contest to guess when the road through Smugglers Notch would re-open this spring. That was during the local WinterFest celebration the weekend of January 25-26. Seems like a long time ago.

My entry was noon on May 10. At the time I did not realize that it was a Sunday (an unlikely day of the week for the Vermont Agency of Transportation to re-open the road) or that it was Mother's Day. In any event, how did I do?


The photo above was taken at noon today. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

The entire northeast was hit with a snowstorm the night before last. Some areas received several inches. (link) It is not unprecedented to have snowstorms here in May, but it is unusual. In recent decades, significant May snowstorms have occurred in 1977, 1996, and 2002. That might not be an exhaustive list.

We had 2" of snow on the ground at home (elevation 680') yesterday morning, but it was all gone by last night. The photo above was taken where VT-108 through Smugglers Notch is closed on the Cambridge side. At that elevation (1700') there was still snow in the woods today, but not on the road. We did not have to walk far up the road, however, before it was covered with snow. See photo below:

At the height of land on VT-108 (elevation 2175') there were three or four inches of snow on the road. We celebrated with hot chocolate flavored with Vermont Ice Maple Crème. A tasty beverage for honoring Mother's Day this year! (Ambient temperature 36°F.) And the mother among us said she liked a laughing man:

The photos below from the top of Smugglers Notch show the views looking down on the Stowe side (16% grade) and the Cambridge side (14% grade).

(It is ironic that the signs show a tractor-trailer. Tractor-trailers are prohibited from Smugglers Notch because the road is steep and there are narrow hairpin turns around and between boulders. See this news article from last May about tractor-trailers getting stuck every year: Stuck trucks botch Notch despite VTrans bans, fines and signs.)

The waterfall on the Cambridge side was beautiful. The photo below shows ice on the trees and rocks near the waterfall.

This video shows the waterfall:

It is interesting to compare this post to the photos and video in my post on April 24, 2017: Smugglers Notch.

So when will VT-108 through Smugglers Notch re-open? My new guess is the Friday before Memorial Day. That is 12 days away.

Update 5/14: The road opened today! See my follow-up post on 5/12 (Smugglers Notch - 2 days later) and the Update at the end of that post.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Past Pandemics

Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine, public domain, source.

How does the current COVID-19 pandemic compare to past pandemics? Let's take a look.

The Black Death (14th century)

The Black Death was the worst pandemic in recorded history, resulting in 75-200 million deaths worldwide. Europe was particularly hard hit, losing 30-60% of its population. The pandemic peaked in Europe from 1347 to 1351. (Wikipedia) For this post I am using 100 million deaths and a world population of 400 million, for a death rate of 25%.

The disease of the Black Death pandemic was the plague. It is caused by a bacterium carried by fleas living on rats. Transmission is mainly by flea bites or handling infected animals, and secondarily through the air from the coughing of infected individuals.

Influenza Pandemic of 1918

The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide (National Archives). Other estimates of the death toll range from 17 to 100 million people worldwide and 500,000 to 850,000 in the U.S. (Wikipedia). For this post I am using 50 million deaths worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S.

The pandemic occurred in waves. The first wave was in early 1918 and was relatively mild. The second, deadly, wave occurred in the fall of 1918 as World War I was ending. Lesser outbreaks continued into 1920.

While plague is caused by a bacterium, influenza (aka "the flu") is caused by a virus. There are many different influenza viruses. The 1918 flu pandemic was caused by the H1N1 influenza virus. Transmission of the flu is mainly through the air.

The photo above shows patients in an emergency hospital at Camp Funston, part of Fort Riley, Kansas, in the midst of the 1918 influenza pandemic. The photo is part of the Otis Historical Archives at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 is sometimes called the Spanish flu, but this is a misnomer as explained here.

Influenza Pandemics Since 1918

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists three smaller influenza pandemics since 1918 (source):
  • 1957 influenza pandemic, also called the Asian flu (H2N2 virus) – estimated deaths 1.1 million worldwide; 116,000 in the U.S.
  • 1968 influenza pandemic, also called the Hong Kong flu (H3N2 virus) – estimated deaths 1 million worldwide; 100,000 in the U.S.
  • 2009 influenza pandemic, also called swine flu (H1N1 virus, but a different strain from the 1918 flu pandemic) – estimated deaths 150,000-575,000 worldwide; 12,500 in the U.S. For this post I am using a figure of 400,000 deaths worldwide.
Comparison to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The current pandemic is caused by a coronavirus, which is a different group of viruses from influenza viruses. Like the flu, however, COVID-19 is spread primarily through the air.

As I write this, there have been approximately 200,000 deaths worldwide (source); approximately 50,000 deaths in the U.S. (source); and 44 deaths in Vermont (source). Comparable statistics for earlier dates: March 26 and April 4.

Here is a comparison of the worldwide deaths (click on any image to enlarge):

The pandemics of the last 65 years look insignificant compared to the Black Death and the 1918 flu pandemic. The disparity is even greater when considered as a percentage of world population, as shown in the following table:

[World population numbers from here (historical) and here (current). I did some rounding.]

Now let's look at just the pandemics of the last 65 years (i.e., excluding the Black Death and the 1918 flu pandemic) and include the U.S. numbers. The following graph shows total deaths, not as a percentage of population:

On a worldwide basis, total deaths to date from the current coronavirus pandemic are approximately half of the 2009 pandemic and do not yet approach the pandemics of 1957 and 1968. In the United States, however, COVID-19 deaths to date are four times the deaths from the 2009 flu and approximately half of the deaths from the 1957 and 1968 flus.

As we think about the future we should keep in mind that, like the influenza pandemic of 1918, there may be more than one wave of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

We are in a war

When I am stressed, I sometimes remind myself that at least I'm not in a war, that no one is shooting real bullets at me. I've never been in a real shooting war, but we are all in a war now. A war against a novel (new) coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. This is the enemy:

In unprecedented times such as these, we reach for analogies to help us understand the new reality around us. In this post I recommend two videos that offer analogies that I find helpful.

In the first video, the speaker says "this is a Dunkirk moment for our country." That's an analogy I can understand. While I have not watched the 2017 movie Dunkirk, I know the basic story of this pivotal moment in World War II.

(3/24/2020, 14 minutes, alternate link)

This video is an interview with Anthony Monaco, the president of Tufts University. Dr. Monaco, a geneticist, describes the transformation of parts of the Tufts University campus into a military-style hospital to fight the war against coronavirus. The Dunkirk analogy is in the answer to the question asked by the interviewer at 9:40.

[Local readers may be interested in how I learned about this video. I reached out to Jessica Daniels to see how she was doing during this pandemic. Jessica lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she is engaged in a quest to visit and blog about other Cambridges in the United States. She visited Cambridge, Vermont, last September. Click here for what she wrote about our town. It's interesting and insightful. Anyway, Jessica works at Tufts University and she told me about the video.]

The second video I recommend is about safely buying groceries and take-out food.

(3/24/2020, 14 minutes, alternate link)

This video is by Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen, an MD in Michigan. I've linked to this video before, but it's worth highlighting again. As I write this, it has been watched nearly 25 million times.

Dr. VanWingen offers another useful analogy: glitter. Think of the virus as glitter, except that it is invisible. It sticks to everything and it may be anywhere. Your job is to keep it out of your house, off your person, and especially out of your respiratory system.

Other differences between real glitter and the coronavirus:
  • Coronavirus is destroyed by soap. Wash your hands!
  • Coronavirus decays over time.
  • Coronavirus floats in the air and is stable in air for up to 3 hours (longer on surfaces). (link)
The last item is a problem, because infected people exhale the virus. (link) Person-to-person transmission through the air is thought to be the most common way the disease spreads. This is a BIG problem because an infected person may not show any symptoms. They may not know they are infected. That is why social distancing and six feet of separation are important.

Stay at home as much as possible. Hunker down. When you must go out in public, assume that everyone you meet is infected even if they are not showing symptoms, and assume that you are infected even if not showing symptoms.

Wear a cloth face mask in public. (Not an N95 mask. Those are scarce and need to be reserved for professionals.) A cloth face mask provides a small amount of protection for the wearer. More importantly it protects the people around us in case we are an asymptomatic carrier. (The State of Vermont recommends cloth face masks) (Making cloth face masks in Vermont)

It is hard to fight a war against something we can't see, but perhaps the analogies of Dunkirk and glitter will help us understand the new reality facing us.

War Casualties

As I write this, there have been more than 60,000 deaths worldwide (source); more than 5,000 deaths in the U.S. (source); and 17 deaths in Vermont (source). See this earlier post for comparable statistics as of March 26. Sadly the first COVID-19 death of a Cambridge resident has occurred (source).

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Slow the Spread

On Saturday, March 28, there was a postcard in our mailbox: "Slow the Spread, President Trump's Coronavirus Guidelines for America." See above. I'm guessing that everyone in the country received this postcard.

I live in Vermont. This is Bernie Country, not Trump Country. Among my family and friends, the almost universal response to this postcard was to promptly send it to the recycling bin. But I'm a curious fellow, so I read it. My take? I thought it was well done.

I am now searching for new family and friends, but in the meantime let's take a closer look at the postcard. It was a joint effort of the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So far so good. Furthermore, there is a website that I didn't know about: Take a look. It's a good resource. The website is well done, too.

If it were me, I would have put "Slow the Spread" in a larger font. That is the main message. My previous two blog posts support this message:
What jumps out on the front of the postcard is "President Trump's Coronavirus Guidelines for America." That is off-putting to the half of the country that does not support President Trump. But for the other half of the country, what better way to get their attention?

I don't recall ever receiving a postcard like this from any previous president. That in itself is noteworthy and drives home the point that these are not normal times. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld (link), we go to war against the coronavirus with the president we have, not the president we might wish to have.

My main quibble with the postcard is about the date: March 16, 2020. That was a Monday, one business day after President Trump declared a national emergency on Friday the 13th. That was quick work, but the postcard did not arrive until March 28. What took so long?

Perhaps I am too critical. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont mailed similar guidelines to our house and they did not arrive until March 30.

Let's take a look at the back of the postcard (click on the image to enlarge):
There is a lot of good information here, presented clearly and succinctly. It is an appropriate amount of information for a postcard, and it hits the major points that people need to know to "Slow the Spread."

I especially like the first point:

Listen and follow the directions of your STATE AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES.

With tongue-in-cheek, I pointed out to my family at the dinner table that I was a local authority (elected selectboard member), and that they needed to listen to and follow my directions. They ignored me. They are busy searching for a new husband/father.

Joking aside, I am pleased with both the substance and the tone of the point about state and local authorities. I am also pleased that it is the first point on the back of the postcard. It shows that the federal government recognizes the importance of state and local governments. An excessively authoritarian president would not be making this point at all, let alone as his or her first point. Whatever his faults, and they are many, we need not fear that President Trump is a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao.

The main burden of responding to the current pandemic lies with the governors, and there is a lot of good work being done across the country. Vermont Governor Phil Scott is widely praised for his actions (see his executive orders), as are the governors on either side of us – Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York and Governor Chris Sununu in New Hampshire.

We are all in this together. The virus knows no state boundaries or political parties.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Hunkering Down

"We are hunkering down."

That's how I ended my previous post: The Switchel Traveler: Not Traveling. What does that look like in our household?

First I should talk about what "we" means. Not even all our friends know that currently "we" means four people not two.

The Mrs. and I live in Vermont, in the only house we've ever owned, where we raised three children and sent them out into the world. We've been empty-nesters for years. But due to unexpected circumstances, two of our adult children are living with us at present.

One daughter has been living with us since early February. She transitioned from a job in Massachusetts to a job in Vermont, and she moved in with us while looking for a house to buy. She has a house under contract, with a closing scheduled for mid-April. Our other daughter transitioned from graduate school in Connecticut to a postdoc position at a university in Massachusetts. She started on March 16, but the university shut down on March 14. She reported to work on her first day remotely, from our house. Our son is a tech worker in Colorado, and he is doing OK working out of his apartment.

Our family is fortunate, and it is wonderful having our two daughters with us during this time. I should mention that our university daughter is a microbiologist. Everyone should have a microbiologist in the house during a pandemic! She helps us evaluate the news, and she helps us stay safe.

"Hunkering down" for us means staying at home, with frequent walks in our neighborhood. We seldom venture out in the car. Both daughters work for their respective employers, as best they can, over the internet from our house. It's not perfect, but we've been doing this for two weeks now, since before the governor's "Stay Home" executive order, and it's working OK.

The Mrs. and I are thankful to be retired. Our hearts go out to the people now doing the jobs that we used to do. They have many unprecedented challenges during this pandemic.

In retirement the Mrs. and I acquired new part-time jobs, and those jobs are not without their own trials. The Mrs. joined the board of directors at a local bank. While it is painful to watch the stress on customers, staff, and management, the positive attitudes and daily stories of individual commitment are heartwarming. My main goal in retirement was to blog more, but I also ran for and was elected to the selectboard in my town. That supposedly part-time position has been more demanding than I expected, especially now. We town officials are figuring out how to do our jobs using Zoom.

Yesterday the Mrs. and I made a rare trip in the car – to the grocery store. Some days ago we stopped making quick trips to the market for an item or two. Our last big grocery shopping trip was on March 18. Our daughters helped us plan grocery shopping to last for three weeks. The idea is to keep trips out of the house to a minimum, to zero for as long as possible.

Everyone needs to eat, but few of us have enough food in the house to last for more than a few days. How does one safely shop for groceries? This video is outstanding, and I recommend it to everyone. Our microbiologist daughter says the glitter analogy is an excellent way to think about the coronavirus. See the image above for some "glitter" and remember that soap dissolves this kind of "glitter." Wash your hands frequently, and keep your hands away from your face!

Are we overreacting? I don't think so. This pandemic is serious. In the last few days I have learned several things that hit close to home. The first death from COVID-19 in our town occurred this week. (I don't know the person, even though this is a small town.) A friend is sick from COVID-19 and is hospitalized and on a ventilator. Among our close group of friends, several have family members (in various states) who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are showing symptoms and are self-isolating at home.

To sum up, we are hunkering down here and we are grateful for our fortunate circumstances. I have plenty of ingredients for making switchel! Including spirits to add as needed.

[The image above is from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Original image, uploaded on February 13, 2020. Description at the link: "This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab."]

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Switchel Traveler: Not Traveling

The COVID-19 pandemic is turning our world upside down.

The theme of this blog is adventures in the physical world; basically it's a travel blog. We are not traveling now. On Tuesday, March 24, Vermont Governor Phil Scott issued a "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order, similar to many other states. Nothing like this pandemic has happened in our lifetimes. These are unprecedented times.

The source of this extraordinary situation is the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes the COVID-19 disease. Like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 is so small that it cannot be seen even with the most powerful optical microscopes. Yet this tiny virus is very much a part of our physical world.

The image above, showing the virus, is from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The director of the NIAID is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is much in the news currently. Original image, uploaded on February 19, 2020. Description at the link: "This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round gold objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S."

The World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (link) That evening President Trump banned most travelers from Europe. On Friday, March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency.

Earlier in the year President Trump had banned most travelers from China, where the virus was first reported in late 2019. That announcement was made on January 31, effective February 2. (link) Also on January 31, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a mandatory quarantine order for Americans returning from Wuhan, China – the first such quarantine in more than 50 years. (link) At the time, no deaths from COVID-19 had been reported outside China.

COVID-19 deaths in Europe have now surpassed deaths in China. As I write this, there have been more than 22,000 deaths worldwide, a third in Italy alone (source); 994 deaths in the U.S. (source); and 9 deaths in Vermont (source).

There is no cure for COVID-19 (although most people recover, albeit sometimes with organ damage). There is no vaccine for COVID-19. The most important action to take is to limit contact between people in order to slow the spread of the disease. Hence the travel bans and the "Stay Home" executive order.

We are hunkering down.