My spiky crystal ball

Glass COVID-19 by Luke JerramApril 25, 2021

Soon the Pandemic Response Committee I chair in our school district will conduct its 50th meeting since March 6, 2020. I provide this overview of our experience as we enter a welcome new phase of the pandemic: it has been five weeks since we had a new positive staff case, we’ve had no new student cases for two weeks, and we only have three out of over 5,800 students in close contact quarantine, all due to non-school exposures.

Those remarkably low numbers may not hold, but I don’t expect them to explode, either. So I’m consulting my COVID-19 crystal ball as I contemplate how to adapt. Even though hygiene theater has finally been discounted, I still can’t rub my hands across my crystal ball’s glassy surface, since it is studded with spike proteins. But I can gaze into it to dimly perceive what life in our schools might well be like for the rest of 2021.

The Trail We Have Trod

Santa Fe

Shakespeare’s line from The Tempest is relevant

To plot our path from here, we need to look back at the tortuous trail we have trod. In the summer of 2020, our committee painstakingly devised detailed procedures to resume in-person instruction in August 2020. The initial drafts were repeatedly amended after feedback from regular physically distanced meetings in a Johnstone Park outdoor pavilion with our district administrators, after parent and staff surveys, and after distanced public meetings at our high school stadium as well as staff and school board webinars.

We had to review rapidly evolving and often conflicting guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH), and Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE). A few were adopted, many were adapted, and some were discarded.

Offering both in-person and virtual instruction for all

An instructional decision that came early on from Supt. McCauley was to offer both in-person instruction and full-time virtual classes every day to all students. We had seen the learning losses when the state suspended in-person classes from Spring Break to the end of the 2019-2020 school year in late May and realized that, while we had 1:1 Chromebooks in our middle and high schools, we couldn’t acquire enough Chromebooks to outfit each elementary student until early fall. So unlike some urban school districts, we decided that offering daily in-person instruction to all, except for planned and ad hoc distance learning days, was important to fulfilling our district mission.

Distancing strategies I developed

We started the school year in August 2020 with almost one in five students fully virtual. With over 80% of our students still in-person, offering daily in-person classes meant we had to ignore the six-foot spacing distancing the CDC recommended. Research said three to four feet should still help a lot, so I advised staff to aim for that as a desirable minimum. We successfully followed that course for seven months before the CDC finally said three feet would do.

Face coverings has been another major issue for us. All along we deliberately omitted students below the 4th Grade from the requirements, based on early research that the youngest students should have a lower rate of infection with fewer symptoms. But for everyone else we ratcheted up our requirements in the fall and winter from face coverings when in close contact to at all times, and eventually banned face shields for over three months in early 2021. During the winter surge I strongly recommended N95 masks for high-risk staff members. So our face covering guidance has always strayed from CDC guidelines in various ways. Blair Ellis, the Executive Director of the Bartlesville Public Schools Foundation, and Dr. Stephanie Curtis, BPSD’s Executive Director of Personnel & School Support, were instrumental in acquiring various forms of personal protective equipment for students and staff which Kerry Ickleberry, our Director of Health & Safety, helped distribute.

Contact tracing

Given those deviations from the CDC recommendations, it was important for us to identify and contain any potential superspreaders from our in-person offerings. In June, I completed a 7-hour contact tracer training course from Johns Hopkins. Eventually over 40 district staff members would complete that training, with dozens of them spending untold hours isolating positive cases, identifying and quarantining close contacts, and following up with families. I  developed our internal tracking system, which includes a live public view of our student and staff isolations and quarantines by site, and shared historical timeline charts. Our hardworking contact tracers, led by Health & Safety Director Kerry Ickleberry, maintained our robust and fully-CDC-compliant student contact tracing effort throughout the school year. District Nurse Lisa Foreman has brought an invaluable health perspective to our committee decision-making and the ongoing contact tracing. Meanwhile, the state’s own contact tracing program utterly collapsed and was eventually judged to have “had no measurable impact on the pandemic” with a lack of timely and accessible data.

With four weeks of classes left in this school year, we have isolated 321 student cases and imposed 4,794 student quarantines. And in all of that, it is very important for our future planning to note that we have seen no clear signals of school-based spread. We didn’t have any signals of in-school spread even during a stressful peak of student and staff cases in late January and early February, which was happily brought under control by a two-week lockdown from Mother Nature when ice, snow, and severe cold shut down classes and much of the other activity in Bartlesville.

The 1 week of DL then Winter Break in that chart is when we cancelled in-person classes for the final week of the first semester as our local hospital ICU was overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. That and Winter Break kept everyone out of the schools for three weeks during the worst of the winter surge for hospitals in the state’s NE Region 2, although the overall impact on Tulsa hospitals peaked a few weeks later in mid-January.

Jane Phillips Hospital and COVID-19

Distance learning days

Shifting to sitewide or districtwide distance learning was another example of us charting our own course. The OSDE alert level guidelines we initially adopted in August were soon abandoned when it became apparent there was poor coupling of student and staff case rates with that of the county as a whole. We endured the criticism that we were shifting the goal posts, recognizing that our protocols needed to evolve with experience. We should end this school year with 151 days of in-person instruction, whereas if we had stuck with the OSDE guidelines, we would have had less than 60 days. Our committee decoupled all of our protocols from them until recent weeks, instead relying on citywide, student, and staff case rates as well as hospital metrics to guide when to tighten or relax our protocols and trigger any sitewide or districtwide distance learning periods.

This academic year we had 16 districtwide distance learning days, 9 inclement weather days, and put Central Middle School into distance learning for two additional days due to high student/staff case rates. Bartlesville High School had one distance learning day early on to allow for deep cleaning, and that experience led us to refine our deep cleaning protocols to avoid additional closures.

That deviation also eventually turned out to be the right call, with the CDC finally acknowledging, over a year after the pandemic became a nationwide phenomenon, that disinfecting surfaces does little to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. We now know that the risk of contracting the virus from touching a contaminated surface is less than 0.01%. The run on hand sanitizer last year turned out to be pointless, since COVID-19 is transmitted by breathing, not touching. Having the CDC finally admit that, many months after a scientific consensus had formed, has finally allowed us to discontinue unnecessary deep cleaning with no pushback. Yet even now the CDC still advises everyone to perform hygiene theater when a positive case was around within the past 24 hours, which strikes me as more about appearances than reality.

Pick a color, any color

The disparate alert level systems have been another challenge, both internally and externally. The OSDH still publishes a county map based on an alert system that was essentially useless after early October, simply reporting Orange for months even as county cases more than quintupled and hospital intensive care unit capacity collapsed. The OSDE adopted a modified alert system and the OSSBA publishes a county map for it. As cases mounted over the winter, the OSDE system similarly lost its discrimination.

As the politically inconvenient winter surge worsened, Oklahoma’s governor deliberately stopped distributing White House Task Force reports, which had its own more discriminating alert levels and routinely offered advice which he ignored. For weeks, Oklahoma was a top three state in cases, positivity, and hospitalizations, and would have posted similarly high death rates, except that the OSDH knowingly failed to provide accurate and timely death counts for months. And its useless alert system stayed stuck in Orange statewide, since it was repeatedly altered to make it impossible to ever signal Red for a single county.

The CDC now has its own county data tracker with a “Level of Community Transmission” that was once part of the White House Task Force reports, and throughout the pandemic there have been popular systems from Covid Act Now and others with their own idiosyncratic alert levels.

Alert Levels

An example of the conflicting signals and lack of discrimination for three of the most prominent alert systems in Oklahoma

This confusing array of conflicting alert levels remains problematic. Oklahoma’s Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency found that “OSDH’s COVID-19 reporting fails to align with stakeholders’ needs” and “the data provided by the State was either lacking in substance, withheld, misaligned, or never developed for public consumption.”

Consequently, since August I have steadily refined my own tracking sheet of district, city, county, and state data. I update it daily to maintain my timeline charts of cases, vaccinations, regional hospital bed use, regional ICU bed use, state ICU bed availability, and the impact on our local hospital.  All of that, along with our district’s student and staff cases and student and staff absenteeism have been shared publicly and reviewed weekly by our Pandemic Response Committee.

Where We Stand

Under the leadership of Dianne Martinez, Exec. Dir. of Elementary Schools, and Jason Langham, Exec. Dir. of Secondary Schools, our site principals and teachers have scrambled as conditions improved to adjust as full-time virtual students migrated back to in-person. The virtual student enrollment which peaked in early September at about 20% has now fallen to about 11%.

Thad Dilbeck, the Director of Athletics and Activities, has spearheaded the efforts of our many coaches and sponsors in adapting to changing safety restrictions and procedures throughout the pandemic.

Jon Beckloff, Sodexo Director of Child Nutrition, has displayed immense creativity, flexibility, and perseverance throughout the pandemic. Thanks to amazing work by his dedicated staff, with steadfast assistance from our transportation department, over 1,000,000 meals will have been served during the pandemic to our students and staff.

As I noted earlier, our student and staff cases collapsed this month. Seasonality and vaccinations have changed the character of the pandemic: everyone is outside more with the warmer weather, where viral particles are readily dispersed. As of April 8, a significant majority of our staff had achieved full vaccination. But we’re seeing a noticeable dropoff in new vaccinations across the state, and currently only about 20% of our county’s total population is fully vaccinated. Masking is on the decline in public venues around town. So we remain vulnerable to more infectious variants and superspreaders.

OSDE Alert Levels

The improved conditions have allowed our committee to begin coupling our pandemic protocols to an alert level I will calculate. It uses the same color coding system adopted by the OSDE, but does not rely on the weekly rate of new positive cases for the county. Instead, I will calculate the city’s rate and, when feasible, average that with our rate of staff and student cases.

In recognition that conditions have changed, we are relaxing our face covering protocols so long as cases remain low, and we have relaxed usage of our staff screening app. Both of those protocols will escalate and de-escalate based on the alert level I will publish each Wednesday at BPSLEARN.COM.

The Trail Ahead

Here is the future I dimly see in my spiky crystal ball:

  • The majority of students and staff will become increasingly careless and complacent this summer, despite occasional breakthrough infections, although a distinct minority of students and staff will continue to mask throughout the 2021-2022 academic year.
  • We will have far fewer Distance Learning days in 2021-2022.
  • We’ll see a surge of infections next fall and winter, probably rising to Orange 2, and Red is certainly possible. The infection rate will be far higher among the unvaccinated, with some breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, particularly those who travel extensively, attend large crowded indoor events, and never mask. Hospitalizations will also surge but will not be nearly as predictably coupled to cases as they were previously, with far lower actual death rates.
  • Our full-time-virtual enrollments will likely be below 5%, although they could rise above that level during the winter whenever the surge becomes apparent.
  • Our middle and high school students will be offered vaccinations this fall or early winter, but many, possibly a majority, won’t take advantage of them.
  • Booster shots to better protect against variants of concern will become available this winter, and a majority of our district staff will get one.

Thus, for this summer and the 2021-2022 academic year, our committee will be working on coupling many more of our protocols to our district’s alert level. I expect to see distancing, contact tracing and quarantines, visitor restrictions, third-party use of our facilities, and which internal metrics we generate, along with face covering and staff screening requirements, to all fluctuate with the district’s calculated alert level.

In general, so long as we remain in the low Green or Yellow levels, our protocols will be more relaxed than what we had for most of the 2020-2021 academic year. But they will escalate at Orange Level 1 and, should we rise to Orange Level 2, most of them will be restored to what we became accustomed to this school year.

As the bard wrote, “…what’s past is prologue, what to come in yours and my discharge.”

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Pandemic Pastimes

Granger MeadorDecember 5, 2020

Wendy and I are concluding the ninth month of a contracted lifestyle during the COVID-19 pandemic. I expect we face at least six more months of daily masking, distancing, and hand hygiene at work. We’re probably going to have limited travel for another four months or more, with only remote contact with our elderly parents, since as educators we might be able to get vaccinated in early spring.

We would normally be enjoying vacations around the region and out west, so we daydream about our future travels. But it is likely that for over a year our farthest outings will wind up having been one-hour drives. We occasionally head south to Tulsa to get each of us a Chatsworth boxty to-go from Kilkenny’s (with Irish Balloons, of course). Then we head over to Southroads Shopping Center so she can get painting supplies at Michael’s while I browse at Barnes & Noble.

Elk River Trail

But an hour’s drive from Bartlesville in the opposite direction gets us to Elk City Lake, where there are many nice trails. During the pandemic, Wendy and I are only interested in day hikes on narrow nature trails if there are few fellow perambulators. Last summer we drove out to Osage Hills State Park west of Bartlesville, but decided to redirect to the city’s Hudson Lake when we saw how many people were out enjoying the nice trails at Osage Hills which I mapped years ago.  This fall we made the hour’s drive north for an enjoyable Halloween outing to the seldom-frequented middle section of the Elk River Trail.

link to trail photos

Elk River Trail hike

Bridge Project at Osage Hills

Ranger Nick

Ranger Nick at Osage Hills

Back at Osage Hills, I’m excited that a new roadway bridge is being built to reach Lookout Lake. Kenneth Standish, Jr. was one of Wendy’s Student Tech Support Team students last year. He made replacing the old bridge to Lookout Lake, which often washed out, his Eagle Scout project. We contributed $1,200 of an impressive $15,000 Kenneth has raised to partner with the Osage County Commissioners in replacing the bridge with a higher I-beam structure that won’t require repeated repairs. I truly appreciate Ranger Nick Conner’s updates at the Osage Hills State Park Facebook page.

I look forward to when I can drive across that bridge in my car, which is adorned with an Oklahoma State Parks license plate. That is a fun way to support them.

License Plate

You can support our parks with a nice state park license plate

Pathfinder Parkway

Most pandemic weekends you can find me strolling along one part or another of Bartlesville’s Pathfinder Parkway trail system. Back when the weather and foliage were cooperative, I shot many photos along the way and at Johnstone and Jo Allyn Lowe parks.

Flickr Photos

Photos from my summer and autumn walks in Bartlesville

Backbeat Fit headphones

My Backbeat Fit headphones 

Wendy joins me on walks in our neighborhood, but I’m usually solo on the Pathfinder. Since my brain is seldom in repose, I have always enjoyed listening to audiobooks on my walks and hikes. My classic Apple AirPods are okay, but I long preferred my Plantronics Backbeat Fit headphones for walks.

Bone conduction headphones

My bone conduction headphones

Then Mat Taylor of Techmoan, one of the YouTube creators I support on Patreon, posted a review of the Aeropex AfterShokz bone-conducting headphones. I trust his judgment and, given my tinnitus and hearing loss, decided they were worth a try. Wendy has far more acute hearing than I do, so I routinely use earphones around the house. These bone conduction ones don’t block the ear canal, so I can hear ambient sound better and just tap a button to communicate with Wendy or someone I greet on the Pathfinder, rather than push and pull plugs out of my ears.

The downsides to these bone conduction headphones are their Bluetooth reception and their rigid loop. Their connection to my iPhone or iPad is more likely to encounter interference from our microwave oven or cut out with distance. The rigid loop, compared to the loopless AirPods and flexibly linked Backbeat Fit plugs, has to be shifted when I’m relaxing in my recliner listening to YouTube videos on my iPad. But I wear them routinely, only shifting to my AirPods when the Aeropex ones need charging. And I hardly ever use my Backbeat Fit ones anymore.

Books ⇒ Kindles ⇒ Swings ⇒ Boox

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am an avid reader. You might even know I was an early adopter of the Amazon Kindle e-ink devices. I have owned at least seven of them since I bought my first one a dozen years ago. The basic technology has changed little, with the most significant improvement being lighting beginning with the Paperwhite in 2012. I still use a Kindle Voyage I purchased in 2014, but I regret purchasing an Oasis in 2019.

Kindle Oasis

I don’t like the shape of the Kindle Oasis

With age, my eyesight has diminished along with my hearing. So I purchased the Oasis to get a bigger screen: the Voyage is the usual 6″ diagonal, and the Oasis bumped that up to 7″. But it didn’t make enough difference to matter, and I prefer a device of uniform thickness over its odd shape, which I find annoying to hold. I also prefer having forward and back buttons on each side on the Voyage over the one-side buttons on the Oasis. And if you like physical page turn buttons, none of the current Kindles have them except the Oasis.

So during the pandemic I have found myself often reading a book using the Kindle app on my iPad. There are two downsides to that for me: the screen and a lack of focus.

The iPad is bright, colorful, and interactive. That makes it great for my daily reading of the Tulsa World, USA Today, Washington Post, and Bartlesville Radio News, although the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise’s iPad app has been unreliable of late. And the iPad is great for YouTube and Facebook. But reading a book on its bright screen can be tiring, and any LCD screen is a poor experience outdoors.

The sepia mode on the Kindle app helps a bit, but then there is the focus issue. The screen is always sharp, so the issue is my own. It is far too easy on the iPad to jab the home button to shift away from a book to look up something on Wikipedia, get distracted with something on YouTube, or, heaven forbid, start doomscrolling on Facebook.

Henry Reed's Journey

A book from childhood 

This was driven home to me this autumn when I decided to read Keith Robertson’s crime novels. He wrote the Henry Reed series which I enjoyed as a child. Out of nostalgia and a desire to escape from the pandemic, I purchased Henry Reed’s Journey to revisit that tale and its fun illustrations by Robert McCloskey. I don’t enjoy illustrations on a Kindle, so I bought a used hardcover copy.

I enjoyed re-reading the book, but I was bemused to see how one incident, where Henry is stained brown to blend in with some Hopis, to ride with them on a parade float, has aged terribly.

Awkward story

The less said about this part of an old children’s story, the better

Originally I could not recall the book’s title or even Henry Reed, only that it had shared the adventures of a boy and girl riding across the country in a station wagon, and there had been multiple books with those characters.  The internet helped me identify it, but it also revealed that Robertson had written a series of crime novels, long out of print, using the pseudonym of Carlton Keith.

I couldn’t find them in electronic format for my Kindle, so out of curiosity I purchased on eBay an old pulp paperback copy of A Gem of a Murder, originally published as The Diamond-Studded Typewriter in 1958. Its cover was not illustrated by Robert McCloskey but by Harry Schaare.

Not a children's book

Murder is not for children 

I enjoyed the book, so I bought the rest of his crime books, again in used paperback and hardback copies. Amazon didn’t have most of them, but Abebooks let me order copies from used bookstores. One came in from Warr Acres, quite close to where I grew up, but others came in from Illinois, Ohio, New York, Tennessee, and…New Zealand. Isn’t the internet marvelous?

I spent part of the time reading the first book out on the patio on the covered two-seater swing which Wendy helped me assemble this summer. As it turned out, that experience proved costly.

Swing

The two-seater swing assembled but not yet placed 

I loved the swing, but found myself stretching out on it sometimes to read. Even at only 5’8″, my legs were sticking way out over one side when I did that.

So this fall I decided to move it to the mini-deck I had assembled beside our shed last year. For the patio I purchased a 3-seater version of the same swing, which Wendy again helped me set up. I can stretch out far more easily on it and have continued to enjoy both swings. So purchasing a 60-year-old pulp paperback on eBay for less than $10 led me to spend hundreds more on a larger swing. C’est la vie.

But, patient reader, you may ask, “What does any of that have to do with Kindles?”

Well, while reading that old paperback on the patio, I stayed engrossed in the story. It transported me from a sunny patio in Oklahoma to various locales in New England, wondering what its protagonist, a smart-aleck red-haired document examiner, would do next. I wasn’t able to distract myself by looking up the story environs on the internet, opening Wikipedia to check on something, or ending a chapter to wander off into a video.

I’m still no longer a fan of physical books unless they have illustrations. I prefer the Kindle. And I like an actual Kindle device, with its non-glare e-ink screen and laughably limited internet capability, over the Kindle app on my iPad. But while the 6″ screen on my Kindle Voyage is perfect for reading a book on the go, such as in a restaurant (oh yes, I’ve missed that for the past nine months), it is a tad small for me when relaxing at home.

I longed for an e-ink Kindle about the size of my iPad. But Amazon doesn’t offer any such thing. They stopped selling the 9.7″ Kindle DX years ago. But they do have the Kindle Android app…

I also am a Patreon supporter of Alec Watson of Technology Connections. Last year he showed an Onyx Boox Max 2 with a 13.3″ e-ink screen, although he advised viewers not to buy it, delving into its pros and cons. That led me to splurge on a 10.3″ Boox Note Air; here’s a review video. It has a fancy stylus, supports gestures, etc., but all I really care about is that I can read Kindle books on its big e-ink display.

It arrived earlier this week, but COVID-related work for the district was too unrelenting for me to have the energy to even turn it on until Friday night. I’ve only read a few pages of a book using the Kindle app on this Android device, but I’m quite hopeful that this will be a boon for my reading.

The shot below compares the screen sizes for my iPad, the Boox Note Air, the Kindle Oasis, and the old Kindle Voyage.

Comparison shot

The 10.3″ e-ink screen on the Boox Note Air is larger than the colorful 9.7″ LCD screen on my iPad

Holding my Boox Note Air feels much like holding my iPad, but its e-ink screen is actually a bit larger. Below I’ve opened the same book, one with an illustration, on each device. (For the curious, this is from the Cooling the Lava part of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, about how the residents of Heimaey, Iceland saved their harbor by spraying water on the volcanic lava flow threatening to close it off.)

Boox Comparison

The same book on my different readers

I can adjust the brightness and hue of the Boox Note Air, going continuously from bluish to sepia to white. I’m hopeful the large non-glare e-ink screen will cause less eyestrain than reading on the iPad and keep my reading more focused.

One good thing about the pandemic is that it has supported my love for reading. Since COVID-19 canceled our Spring Break trip, I have read 22 books on my Kindle and listened to another 18 books on my iPhone. Adding in physical books brings my consumption in 2020 to 45 with four weeks still to go, whereas I read a total of 38 books in 2019 and only around 25 books each in the two years prior to that.

Lewis Meyer

Lewis Meyer

I think it is time to close this discursive look at some of my pandemic pastimes. I end with a quote from the lovable little Lewis Meyer, who reviewed books for decades on Tulsa’s channel 6 in the longest-running book show in America.

The more you read,
the taller you grow.

 

 

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Walking it off

Solvitur ambulando.

It is solved by walking.

-Diogenes
Walking into the woods near the Piedra River in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado

Longtime readers of this blog know that my online and trail presence have declined since the glory days of a decade ago, when I was out hiking almost every weekend, posting photos from my outings. My pace slackened once the novel trails within easy driving range were exhausted. In recent years I have only gone on a true day hike once every couple of months, and now the coronavirus pandemic has temporarily extinguished my hobby.

Year Hiking Days Mileage Blog Posts
2009 25 151 79
2010 47 301 86
2011 50 326 90
2012 44 266 85
2013 30 111 58
2014 29 89 60
2015 28 78 36
2016 14 42 29
2017 11 25 29
2018 5 15 15
2019 7 18 12
2020 through August 1 3 3
My day hikes and accompanying blog posts peaked almost a decade ago

I’ve loved day hikes since childhood, when my parents introduced me to the trails at Roaring River State Park in southwestern Missouri. Walking is good for both mind and body, helping me get away from work to enjoy and admire the natural world…and to often indulge in audio. Some of my clearest walking memories are imbued with sound.

I was listening to Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth on my first hike on the San Bois Mountains trail at Oklahoma’s Robbers Cave State Park in 2010.

Mmmbop was playing on my first iPod as I skipped along in short sleeves up and down a snow-covered trail at Mt. Rainier in June 2005.

As a critical technology/communications/health protocols cog in the great learning machine that is our school district, I have heavily circumscribed my life for the past six months. It has been a grind with long hours of carting around and preparing thousands of devices, virtual meetings, no spring break nor summer vacation, almost no out-of-town travel, and only one in-restaurant meal, the last being a risk Wendy and I were only willing to take on our wedding anniversary.

At home I have escaped into 18 books, about three per month, both in text and audio form. YouTube is a steady distraction. I still enjoy workday morning aerobics using videotapes I recorded over a quarter-century ago. Wendy laughed when I mentioned how I had inadvertently watched a Hot Pockets commercial from 1993 countless times yet never had one. So she bought me some to satisfy decades of rather mild curiosity.

Wendy has buoyed my spirits countless times, but the most sustaining thing for me amidst the pandemic, with its accompanying cacophony of racial strife and poisonous politics, has been a feature of the city which helped me embrace moving to Bartlesville back in 1989 and has long been part of why I have stayed: the Pathfinder Parkway. For my stress, solvitur ambulando.

The Pathfinder Parkway

Here is an album of shots from three early morning walks this summer along parts of that marvelous trail system and connected attractions:

Album of Pathfinder Parkway shots during the COVID-19 summer of 2020

And what was I listening to along those beautiful walks? Great history books by Sarah Vowell, particularly Lafeyette in the Somewhat United States, Unfamiliar Fishes, and The Wordy Shipmates. Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill. And the silly The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, whose Robert Langdon must be a relative of Frank & Joe Hardy.

The city will have an election on August 25 for another round of bond projects and a sales tax extension. It’s not a tax increase, just renewing funding that has made Bartlesville a great place to live. Wendy and I already sent in our absentee ballots long ago. Among many other projects, the bond election will fund improvements to the ring road at Johnstone Park, while the sales tax will fund maintenance and repair of the Pathfinder Parkway. I urge everyone to VOTE YES for Building a Better Bartlesville.

And if you are stressed…walk it off. Solvitur ambulando.

 

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Can we be hopeful in the wake of the storm?

May 3, 2020

“I must confess that I found myself almost hopeless in the wake of the storm.”

So wrote Dr. J.C. Taylor, the health officer of Rogers County, Oklahoma, of his feelings after the 1918 flu pandemic. What lessons can we learn from that H1N1 viral outbreak, which was commonly called the “Spanish Flu”?

Few elders have useful memories dating back over 100 years, but written history has helped prompt a more vigorous and coordinated response to the 2020 pandemic. The so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918 got its name from when it spread from France, where news of it was suppressed by wartime censorship, into neutral Spain. The press coverage in Spain helped spread word of its devastating impact. No one is sure where that particular strain of the H1N1 influenza virus originated, with hypotheses including Haskell County, Kansas and a hospital camp in France.

But the importance of social distancing and closures was made perfectly clear in comparisons of how a parade in Philadelphia helped overwhelm its health care system to how closures in St. Louis “flattened the curve” and helped suppress its death rate to a fraction of that observed in the City of Brotherly Love.

nghistory-2003-flatten-the-curve-1918_ai2html-desktop-small

Those examples and a far better understanding of viral transmission have led to a massive response over a century later, which has, as of early May 2020, avoided overwhelming Oklahoma’s hospitals.

Due in part to outbreaks in multiple local nursing homes, I am unlucky enough to live in the zip code with the highest rate of infections in the state as of May 3, 2020.

map

 

 

As of this writing, Bartlesville has a reported infection rate of 224/36,423, which is over six times higher than Tulsa’s (405/400,669) or Oklahoma City’s (627/649,021), and our death rate is 11 and 13 times higher, respectively.

Bville

So, as closures ease after this first wave, I wondered how both Oklahoma in general and Bartlesville in particular fared in the 1918 pandemic. I used a variety of internet sources, but the most comprehensive was in print: the Spring 2001 edition of The Chronicles of Oklahoma with an article by Dr. Nigel Anthony Sellars: Almost Hopeless in the Wake of the Storm: The 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic in Oklahoma. I have included highlights from it below, but you must order your own print copy to see his complete overview.


Dr. Sellars documented how 7,350 Oklahomans died of the influenza and related secondary infections in the second and third waves of the epidemic between October 1, 1918 and April 1, 1919. Health officials were overwhelmed by the second wave, and few back in 1918 suspected that the culprit was a virus. Many incorrectly blamed Pfeiffer’s bacillus, a bacterium.

nov2017_e02_fluhistory1918

Emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas in 1918

The first reported human case was in early March 1918 at Camp Funston near Fort Riley, Kansas. The first wave of outbreaks was carried to Europe, where the virus spread in the trenches of World War I. Thankfully, it retreated in the summer.

But it mutated in Europe into a more deadly form, leading to a devastating second wave in the fall, which peaked in October. Entire units fighting in Europe were disabled in the late summer, and returning naval and merchant vessels brought the mutated influenza back to America.

Line_up_for_Typhoid_Inoculation,_Camp_Doniphan,_Oklahoma_(20852005054)

Typhoid inoculation lineup at Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma, circa 1917-1918

Camp Doniphan near Fort Sill in southwestern Oklahoma had only 8 deaths from flu among 25,000 men in the winter and spring of 1918. But as Dr. Sellars noted, “…from September to December, with just 3,964 troops, the camp suffered 2,856 flu cases, eighty-three flu deaths, and eight pneumonia deaths.” The Spanish Flu attacked adults in their twenties and thirties rather than children or the elderly, with those between twenty and forty accounting for half of the epidemic’s deaths.

Article-1-Sept-27-pg2Prevention strategies were haphazard. Articles recommended that folks quit smoking, drinking, and overeating. They were told to steer clear of people who sneezed or coughed, to avoid using public drinking cups, and to gargle with various concoctions.

The deadly second wave in Oklahoma

In October, the flu exploded in Oklahoma City (OKC), with the first reported case on September 28. By October 1 there were 1,000 cases, and that would double within two days.  Much of the nursing staff at St. Anthony Hospital fell ill. Dr. Sellars notes, “The flu practically collapsed all city and commercial operations, a pattern duplicated in nearly every state town.”

okc editorial

Daily Oklahoman editorial on October 4, 1918

Dr. LeRoy Long, the dean of the University of Oklahoma’s Medical School, recommended correctly that people avoid crowds to check the disease’s spread. At first, OKC failed to organize a coordinated response. The Daily Oklahoman newspaper editorialized that the city should close all schools, churches, theaters, and other public spaces. But the county physician considered those actions premature, with many city doctors believing the crisis would pass after the weekend. A lack of new cases for two days provided false hope, followed by fourteen deaths over the next three days. That finally prompted the City Commission to issue a sweeping closure order on October 9. By October 12, 70 citizens had died from the flu, including attorney Norman R. Haskell, the son of Oklahoma’s first governor. Hospitals were overcrowded, and pneumonia spread.

Tulsa was more organized, with its leaders meeting on October 2 on a response plan and working with the Red Cross to open an emergency hospital at “The Ark”, a former women’s detention clinic to combat venereal disease. It was fumigated for 18 hours, and trustees from the county jail carried out old beds (which were burned), whitewashed the walls, and installed new cots. But while the virus did not discriminate, Tulsa did, with racially segregated wards at The Ark. The Tulsa Race Massacre would occur less than three years later.

Its efforts did not prevent Tulsa from being overcome with 3,000 cases by October 5. The Tulsa Red Cross ordered its members to make 5,000 gauze masks, obtain clothes and bedding for victims, and drive nurses to see patients. Local school children and the Red Cross folded newspapers to make sputum cups to collect and dispose of nasal and oral discharges. Nurses went out into Tulsa schools to give nasal douches, a questionable preventative.

Tulsa finally shut down all schools, churches, and public meetings on October 8. Later soda fountains, cold drink bars, bowling alleys, and pool halls were also closed. The mayor ordered morticians to provide their ambulances to the city and notified car dealerships, taxi companies, and private citizens that their vehicles should be made available to transport nurses free of charge. Restaurants were closed between midnight and 5 a.m. for nightly fumigations.

On October 10 the state health commissioner prohibited all public gatherings of more than twelve people, including funerals, and forbade even small prayer meetings at churches. Police in Tulsa and OKC jailed persons found spitting or coughing without a handkerchief. In Oilton, after a local Baptist minister prayed over one young prostitute whose fever then broke, the local prostitutes turned their brothel into a treatment center and worked as nursing volunteers.

footballBy October 11, every member of the Stroud High School football team was “ill in bed with Spanish influenza” and the school’s game with Drumright was canceled. OU’s game against Phillips University in Enid was called off due to both schools being in quarantine, and the OU-Texas game was postponed. 

Formaldehyde became the disinfectant of choice, with Tulsa city workers flushing the streets twice daily with water before sprinkling the chemical. It was used to fumigate hotel rooms, victim’s homes, and even local libraries in both major cities. Oklahoma County officials used so much of it on the jail floors that newly released inmates reeked of it as they walked the city streets.

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Clean-up campaigns and fumigation did not prevent the state from reaching over 70,000 reported cases by October 21. Tulsa added 400 cases in one day. Muskogee had 14 deaths in a single day and converted schools into hospitals. Obituaries filled the front pages of local rural newspapers.

Dr. Sellars noted, “The worst struck was Bartlesville, where the flu wreaked havoc, especially among smelter workers. The city had suffered fifty-six deaths by October 22, which gave it the second highest ratio of flu deaths to population in the nation, trailing only Philadelphia. Federal officials sent a doctor and two nurses to aid city officials. The city set up an emergency hospital at the local Elks Lodge, but as the number of victims grew, officials had to create a second one at the city’s First Baptist Church.” Late in the epidemic, Bartlesville closed all stores, except drugstores, at 5 p.m. each day.

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Medical and prevention measures

Doctors and nurses were in short supply statewide since about 1/3 of the doctors had joined the military alongside about 1/2 of the nurses. What doctors and nurses there were relied on aspirin to treat fever and reduce pain and epinephrine to battle pneumonia victims’ congestion. There were experiments with cinnamon in milk, quinine, and intravenous delivery of digitalis.

General prevention recommendations included avoiding crowds, getting plenty of sleep and fresh air, and washing hands with antiseptic soap. Some advised gargling with chlorinated soda or a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and boric acid.

The public was urged to wear six-by-four-inch gauze surgical masks, but only Muskogee and Clinton mandated their widespread use. Those without surgical masks could use an 18-by-18-inch piece of gauze folded diagonally three times or a cotton handkerchief worn like a bandit’s bandana. But gauze was scarce, so health officials recommended changing masks every two hours and boiling contaminated masks for 30 minutes before reuse.

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Red Cross nurse with gauze mask from October 1918

A doctor at the Mayo Clinic claimed bacteria caused the flu and promoted a serum for it, but some Oklahoma doctors correctly believed that was incorrect and that any existing vaccines lacked value. Labs in both Tulsa and OKC produced the useless serum in bulk and thousands received injections, including public officials. Sellars recounts, “Oklahoma City mayor Ed Overholser had himself inoculated with an earlier ‘vaccine’ on October 7. He came down with the flu the same day, eventually growing so ill he resigned his office under doctor’s orders.”

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Patent medicines were ineffective treatments, while pharamacists could prescribe whiskey as a “remedy” during Prohibition

The public turned to dubious over-the-counter patent medicines such as Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, and Eatonic. Vicks VapoRub did relieve congestion, and customers cleaned out the drugstores of it, with the manufacturer placing ads in major newspapers promising to supply more.

 

Folk remedies were utilized, with one farmer attributing his own resistance to “quinine and lots of coffee” while whiskey was the most popular remedy, which was issued by pharmacists for medical purposes under Oklahoma’s prohibition laws.

Tulsa had a burial casket shortage by October 15, with the county making them for sale at seven dollars each. Gravediggers were in short supply, with Bartlesville asking for volunteers but eventually pressing county jail inmates into service.

Another echo of our current times was documented by Dr. Sellars. “But as the epidemic wore on, many Oklahomans started to chafe under the local and statewide restrictions. Although the bans initially helped create a sense of community action and solidarity, they soon became an inconvenience to some groups, especially merchants who feared the bans posed a threat to business and who claimed the state order was an improper intrusion on local authority.”

The state health commissioner, himself ill at the time, finally suspended the quarantine on November 9. For the first time in almost a month, schools, churches, theaters, and other public places opened. By then the disease had killed over 5,000 Oklahomans.

The third wave

Rumors of an armistice in the world war and then the actual end of the war on November 11 led to crowded city streets in both major cities, despite a cold drizzle, with many people drunk.

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Armistice Day Parade in Lawton in November 1918

The epidemic returned by November 25 with outbreaks in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Drumright, Sapulpa, Bristow, Chickasha, and many rural communities.

That wave was slightly less virulent than the October outbreak but lasted into late spring. By December 15 there were 10,245 cases in 45 counties, but that dropped the following week to 4,640 cases in 38 counties. Some doctors yielded to local pressure and suppressed information to avoid affecting Christmas business. Tulsa police arrested several doctors who failed to report cases for up to two weeks.

In the later wave, some cities abandoned public closures as ineffective. Tulsa relied on home quarantines. Lawton tried closing schools again, but children congregated on city streets and the city instead relied on limiting attendance at public places, restaurants, hotel lobbies, pool halls, cigar stores, and soda fountains. OKC required all public places to have at least 200 cubic feet of air space per person, so movie houses left every second or third row vacant.

But some members of the public and local businesses often disregarded or opposed preventative measures in the third wave. OKC restaurants resisted orders to boil dishes. People were reported to have openly sneezed in others’ faces, and streetcar riders frequently ignored a regulation that every third window be open for ventilation.

Aftermath

The flu eventually burned out in the cities but lingered in rural areas. Once again the front pages of small town newspapers carried almost nothing but obituaries. The flu finally ended in the late spring, with smaller outbreaks in the fall and winter for three more years.

In late January 1919, the state health department figures showed 125,000 to 150,000 flu cases with at least 7,500 deaths. The actual toll was higher due to under-reporting, particularly in African-American and rural communities. Native Americans suffered the most, with 861 deaths out of 15,227 cases, for a death rate of 5.7%, which was twice the national average. 1918 was the first year Tulsa ever had more deaths than births.

The effects were long-lasting, but thankfully so was charity. In February 1919, a destitute 35-year-old father arrived in Enid with two boys, 8 and 6, and a 4-year-old girl, all thinly clad and barefoot. Their mother had died from the flu and the father had lost his job while battling the sickness. He traveled by train from Oklahoma City to Enid, looking for work. En route, passengers collected $15 for the family while local residents purchased clothes for the children and helped get the man a job.

Dr. Taylor of Rogers County, who had weathered the storm, continued to advocate reasonable measures in the fall of 1919. He suggested avoiding contact with those who were sick, not sharing eating or drinking utensils, and washing “the hands and face several times a day.” He also shared, “plenty of soap and water and fresh air are the best means of prevention.”

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Dr. Richard Shope was instrumental in identifying influenza as being caused by viruses

Health departments were eventually beefed up even as public attention to pandemics waned. Research continued, with American virologist Richard Shope noting in 1928 that a swine flu virus resembled the Spanish flu. Shope’s techniques led to the first human flu virus being isolated by British scientists in the early 1930s, finally ending the misconception that influenza was caused by bacteria.

 

 

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1945 flu vaccine

The first effective flu vaccine did not come for another decade, in 1943. But the constant mutations of the virus means influenza vaccines must be reformulated annually and thus influenza, unlike smallpox and polio, has not been effectively wiped out. In recent years, misinformation has led many to refuse vaccinations, leading to unnecessary outbreaks of measles in 2019.

 


The current pandemic promises to linger through the summer of 2021 as we hopefully await an effective vaccine that might help us eventually achieve herd immunity. But even that is being quite optimistic, given that we’ve never had an effective vaccine widely deployed in less than five years.

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So we must continue to wear masks and practice social distancing for the foreseeable future, with public gatherings carrying significant health risks. If the easing of restrictions across the nation in May 2020 leads to an unacceptable rise in infections and death rates, we can expect fresh closures that attempt to avoid overwhelming hospitals in second and later waves of infection.

So far we have handled the 2020 pandemic far better than our predecessors handled the one of 1918. For us to remain hopeful in the wake of this first wave, we must continue to heed the lessons of history and apply scientific advancements to weather this latest storm.

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Loaves and Fishes

In travels over the years with my father, on my own, and now with Wendy, I have repeatedly encountered remnants of the Fred Harvey company. It was a chain of restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality businesses alongside the Santa Fe railroad in the western U.S., renowned for the quality of its food and service and for how its Harvey Girls helped to “civilize the American Southwest.”

There are still traces of Fred Harvey at Union Station in Kansas City, and one can still stay at a handful of former Fred Harvey hotels: La Fonda at Santa Fe, New Mexico, La Posada at Winslow, Arizona, and El Tovar and Bright Angel at the Grand Canyon.

I’ve been reading a splendid history of Fred Harvey and his namesake company: Appetite for America by Stephen Fried. A story from late in the company’s history, amidst the Great Depression, sticks out which I want to share with you. By then, the actual Fred Harvey had been dead for decades, but the company remained in the family, who just called it “Fred Harvey” and company policy was to speak as if Fred were still around, running the place:

As the Depression deepened, the Harvey Houses took on a new role in economically ravaged America — they became known as the softest touches in the West, the places where impoverished locals and drifters went in search of a free meal. It was company policy never to let anyone who couldn’t afford to pay leave hungry. Many begged for food at the back door and were pleasantly surprised to get sandwiches, fruit, bread, and coffee. Others came in through the front door.

Bob O’Sullivan, who later became a well-known travel writer, never forgot the hot, dusty fall afternoon in Albuquerque when he was a second grader and his family had to rely on the kindness of strangers in Harvey Girl uniforms. His mother was driving him and his eleven-year-old sister — with all of their belonging stacked high against the backseat windows — to California, where they hoped to meet their father and make a new start. The O’Sullivans had arrived in Albuquerque expecting that $25 — several weeks’ pay — had been wired to them at the Railway Express office. But when his mother walked out of the office in tears, Bob knew the money hadn’t arrived. As she pulled on her driving gloves, the children asked if they could still get something to eat.

She hesitated.

“Of course we can,” she said finally. “We have to, don’t we?”

The lunchroom at the Alvarado

She drove along the railroad tracks to the Alvarado and led her children into the dining room. There were few customers there, but lots of delicious aromas, and every surface was gleaming.

When a smiling Harvey Girl approached them, her puffed sleeves and starched apron rustling, Bob’s mother pulled her aside and whispered something. The waitress walked into the kitchen and returned with a man wearing a suit, to whom his mother also whispered. Then they were led to a table, where Mrs. O’Sullivan began to order sandwiches for the kids and just a cup of coffee for herself — until the man in the suit interrupted her.

“Why don’t you let me order for you?” he said, and proceeded to tell the Harvey Girl to bring hot soup, then the beef stew, mashed potatoes, bread and butter, and coffee for the lady. He asked the children if they wanted milk or hot chocolate.

“Yes, sir,” they both said.

Milk and hot chocolate for the children,” he continued, “and some of the cobbler all around. Does that sound all right?”

“Will that be all?” the waitress asked.

“Oh,” the man said, “and these people are the guests of Mr. Fred Harvey.”

Bob saw his mother mouth the words “Thank you.”

The taste of that stew would stay with him his entire life. As would the memory of what happened when they finished eating. His mother pushed what few coins she had left toward the waitress, who pushed them back with a smile.

Oh, no, ma’am. You’re Mr. Harvey’s guests,” she said, placing two bags in front of them. “And the manager said I was to wrap up what you didn’t eat, so you could take it along.”

But we cleaned out plates,” young Bob blurted out. His sister sighed and looked at him as if he were the dumbest person in the world. Then the Harvey Girl startled giggling, followed by his mother and then the kids.

In the car, Mrs. O’Sullivan opened the bags, and found them filled with more food than they had eaten for dinner.

What’s in them? Bob asked.

Loaves and fishes,” she replied, shaking her head in amazement. “Loaves and fishes.”

When he shared this story in 1989 in a column in the Los Angeles Times, Bob O’Sullivan added:

That evening, [my mother] swapped some of our personal possessions for a tank of gas and a room in an auto court. There was no money at Railway Express the next morning, either, but for some reason things didn’t seem so bleak or so frantic.

As we were passing the Harvey House on the way out of town, my mother pulled to the side of the road for a moment. “Some day,” she said, “when you two grow up I want you to go to a Harvey House and order the most expensive thing on the menu and then I want you to leave a big tip.”

Fred Harvey

In spite of the fact that Fred Harvey’s long gone now and the last Harvey girl is probably married and celebrating her grandchildren or great-grandchildren…I think I’ll check and see if there are any still around.

And if I find one, I’ll stop in, order from the top of the menu and maybe finish with a little cobbler and a cup of coffee. Then I’ll lift my cup: “Here’s to you, Mr. Harvey.”

 

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