Fool Me Twice? Thrice? Or Do We Need to Count Higher?

June 15, 2020

Will the lessons learned from this next surge of COVID-19 be enough to stop the spread?

I’ve never been good with names. It’s unquestionably a personal flaw. Other people do it just fine, and there are a number of methods out there to improve this ability that I could employ, if I were sufficiently motivated.

Remembering faces is a whole different ball of wax. Even if I haven’t a clue what your name is, I’ll know if I’ve seen you before, and whether or how we interacted. Go figure: I have a “visual memory,” and, thus, wound up in a field like diagnostic radiology, where pattern recognition is everything.

Getting back to names: Unless yours is really unusual, or reminds me of something specific, chances are excellent I won’t know it as of our second encounter, maybe even the third or fourth. I’ll be scanning our interactions and surroundings for anything that can clue me in, so I can gloss over the embarrassing gap in my social skills.

Embarrassing, I say—clearly not enough. If it were, I’d do better. I’ve come to think of such things in the same light as “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” That is, if I’m newly presented with some information that I don’t know, and/or react less than perfectly to it, it’s usually not a serious flaw for me. But, if, the second time around, I forgot or otherwise failed to learn from my initial experience, my learning/adaptation skills could use some work. The more times it takes for me to “get it,” the worse I look (to myself, if not to onlookers).

So here we are, somewhere around five months since COVID-19 was first recognized in the United States, and three months since it was declared a national emergency. Task forces, press briefings, masks, social distancing, shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, etc., ensued. Not everybody was ideologically on the same page, but with such measures there was a degree of forced-compliance to get this thing under control.

All of which was done with the understanding that the genie was out of the lamp, and that we were more about damage-control. We had to get things back to a dull roar, and, then, to minimize, if not prevent, second waves of infections now that we knew more about the situation.

We might consider the initial arrival and spread of the virus as our collective “fool me once” episode. Maybe even pat ourselves on the back for however much our initial reactions to this completely-unexpected pandemic mitigated its impact. Our chance to not be fooled twice would be after we’d gotten past the stage of peak infections, and if not prevent a second spike, at least make sure it was far smaller than the first one.

I can’t speak much for goings-on in other areas of the country, but I had a pretty good idea that we were in for a second mass-fooling around Memorial Day weekend. The weather got nice, and an awful lot of people seemed to throw all of their

cautions right out the window. Crowded beaches, backyard parties, you name it. Then, however much more noble one might consider such causes to be, a bunch of demonstrations and protests across the country, lots of close-quarter activity, with social distancing, masks, and handwashing seemingly forgotten. And, let us not forget that some states were “re-opening” in the process.

It’s not exactly surprising to me, then, that a couple of weeks after, we are seeing multiple new spikes in infections. Arizona grabbed headlines for being the worst, but Florida was in second place, and I think 17 other states were reportedly on a new upswing. And, this isn’t isolated to the United States. China, itself, is now grappling with its own second wave.

So, it seems we have a response to my column’s titular question from a few weeks ago (“What did we learn?”): Not enough. At least, not in any effective or functional way. When you’re dealing with population-wide affairs like this, it doesn’t matter all that much if individuals, even a sizable minority, learned their lesson the first time and have done everything right. If a bunch of others sharing the same space as you are able and willing to be fooled again, they’ve got an excellent chance of dragging you down with them.

Heck, anybody who’s seen a couple of movies or TV shows about infectious-disease outbreaks (the aptly-named Outbreak, for instance), even zombie apocalypses, knows that it only takes one idiot to maintain and propagate such a plague.

I’ll be very pleasantly surprised if we don’t wind up spending our summer in much the same way we spent our spring—going back into lockdown-mode and holding our collective breath until the case-count has, once again, gone into a decline. Regardless, I’d say now is a good time to start thinking about how we might avoid being collectively thrice-fooled.

It might not be possible, if enough folks are perpetually willing to be fools. Many might regard this with the same lack of motivation that I have for improving my name-remembering skills: They might know every single thing they’re supposed to be doing to prevent viral spread and just not care enough to follow through. The bulk of the population might never be compliant enough to control this thing—our only hopes in that regard might be herd-immunity, via vaccination or otherwise.

Maybe, in the meantime, it’s possible to safeguard some portions of society. Healthcare leaps to my mind, of course, since it’s my profession and I’ve had a front-row seat to see what’s happened in it during the past few months. Maybe we, at least, have learned enough that we won’t, once again, have to shut down all non-emergent proceedings. As viral-testing has gotten more available, for instance, and we’ve been able to use it as a tool during our controlled reopening, maybe we can leverage it to avoid re-closing.