7 March 2021 – Sunday – #137

Last week Brad had a “zero” birthday. We hosted a Covid-19 compliant birthday BBQ at Casa Solar. In my quest to learn how to cook Catalan cuisine, Joanmi helped me improvise a grill to roast calçots.

Calçots on the grill.

Calçots are a cross between leeks and green onions. You roast them directly on the flames for about five minutes, then let them cool for about five more minutes. When they’re cool enough to touch, you pull off the outer skin, dip the remaining meat of the calçot in Romesco sauce, and then try to get the dripping mess into your mouth without ruining your shirt.

There are calçots restaurants in Barcelona that open just for the winter calçot season. Last year, right before the first lockdown, Ana took Brad and me to one such restaurant called Balmes Rosselló.

Scene from Vicki Cristina Barcelona at Restaurante Balmes Rosselló Brasería.

You might remember Restaurante Balmes Rosselló from an opening scene of Vicki Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen). It’s a bit of a tourist affair with lots of room for buses in the parking lot, but the food isn’t touristy. If you visit Barcelona during the winter, take your empty stomach on a Metro trip or taxi ride up the hill for calçots.

Brad’s birthday party was good fun, but I’m going a bit stir crazy. I’ve been cooped up in Barcelona for nearly two months with the current Covid-19 restrictions. It doesn’t look like Spanish inter-regional travel restrictions will change much until after Easter. I had the urge to see something new last week, so I took a long walk through neighborhoods of Barcelona I had never visited above old Gracia.

Instead of scrambling over Parc del Turó del Putxet and walking back down Carrer de Balmes, I wandered around the back side of Carmel Hill and ended up atop Parc Güell. Through a light fog, the view of Sagrada Familia was indistinct, but a crane indicated that the church still is not finished.

Foggy Barcelona view from Park Güell. Sagrada Familia with cranes on left side, W Hotel in the distance on the right.

Sagrada Familia is a Barcelona touchstone. Antoni Gaudi, the architect of both Parc Güell and Sagrada Familia, was a proponent of Catalan independence. That couldn’t be more clear from the independent thinking in his work. Guadi abhorred right angles and integrated natural curves into his design.

After recovering from a bullet wound to the neck during the Spanish Civil War, the British writer George Orwell viewed Sagrada Familia in 1937. “For the first time since I had been in Barcelona I went to have a look at the cathedral — a modern cathedral, and one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It had four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles. Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution — it was spared because of its ‘artistic value’, people said. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance, though they did hang a red and black banner between its spires.” (Homage to Catalonia, p.188).

There’s no accounting for taste, as they say. What Orwell didn’t know was that revolutionaries had attacked the crypt of Sagrada Familia in 1936, delaying construction for 16 years until Gaudi’s models and plans were resurrected. But, hey, what’s the hurry. The construction started 139 years ago and there are perpetually five more years left to finish it.

Gaudi’s free flowing style is a precursor to Frank Gehry’s design. Sagrada Familia has been as transformational for Barcelona as Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum has been for Bilbao. Both monuments have played a significant role in revitalizing their respective cities.

Construction on Sagrada Familia commenced at a time when cities built identities around new churches, an era culminating with Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel built in the mid-1950s. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, on the other hand, is squarely in the current era of expressing civic identity through skyscrapers and art museums. The Guggenheim was completed in less than five years and opened in 1997.

Going on a quick tangent, New York City may have started a new era of civic identity with its Little Island. My friend James took a drone flight over the man made island next to the island of Manhattan. I thought Little Island was a par course for Chelsea Piers. Instead it looks like Barry Diller’s cruising area to replace the gay cruising areas of yore. Perhaps during the era of global warming, man made islands are the new form of civic identity.

I write that Sagrada Familia is a touchstone because, like Barcelona, it’s fun, it always will be completed sometime in the near future, and it never will conform. Sagrada Familia was the last place I walked to before last year’s Covid-19 lockdown and the first place I walked to afterwards. On last week’s hike, it was nice to see an old friend, even from a hilltop through a light fog. The light fog seemed appropriate, waiting for my vaccination as I am. The fog of the Covid-19 pandemic is like the fog of war.

For some Covid-19 long-haulers, Covid-19 fog is an actual physical manifestation of the virus. As in, Covid-19 scrambles their brains. Scientists are zeroing in on megakaryocytes as the culprit in so-called Covid-19 brain fog. The abnormal brain cells have been found during autopsies of Covid-19 victims and may cause a mental fog by displacing blood flow to healthy brain cells.

Covid-19 long-haulers can have a myriad of other symptoms. For instance, post-Covid-19 autoimmune diseases. In about 10%-15% of severe Covid-19 cases, killer T-cells stay on the job long after the patient has cleared the virus. This part of the immune system normally kills infected cells, but in these patients the T-cells damage normal cells, leaving long-term organ damage.

Covid-19 also confuses some patients’ immune systems, causing them to create autoantibodies that attack their own immune system. One study found autoantibodies attacking patients’ interferon, weakening their ability to fight any infection.

People who’ve had asymptomatic cases of Covid-19 also can be long-haulers without knowing it. For instance, up to half of asymptomatic Covid-19 cases may have significant lung damage or heart damage. Scientists still don’t know how severe and how long-term this damage will be.

“There may be a fair amount of damage going on that [asymptomatic patients are] completely unaware of. But they can go from asymptomatic to a ‘long hauler’ with long-term outcomes.”

Daniel Jacobson, lead researcher for computational systems biology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee

Given the Covid-19 death toll and the horrendous health consequences for many who survive Covid-19 infections, it seems as though wearing a mask would be a no-brainer, at least until Covid-19 vaccinations provide herd immunity. In the US, that’s not the case.

Masks have become part of the US culture war and Republicans are antsy to remove them. Maybe it’s the puritanical streak in US culture that lures Americans into nonsensical purity tests. Maybe it’s the adversarial two-party political system that encourages Americans to take sides even when they share so many values. Maybe Americans think they’re so close to herd immunity, a few months without masks doesn’t matter.

The problem? New Covid-19 mutations are much more contagious. That is what viruses do, after all, learn to infect as many hosts as possible. The more contagious Covid-19 variants are coming to the US with the same virulence as Covid “classic.” Just when Americans let down their masks, the drop in Covid-19 cases is plateauing as the new mutation drive another wave of infections.

Nevertheless, many states are rescinding masks laws. Utah legislature, for instance, passed a law to ban masks mandates by the beginning of April. Yesterday Idaho had mask burning protests, as though masks have some moral equivalence to witches.

After a winter storm which knocked out power and water in Texas, Gov. Abbot rescinded mask and most other Covid-19 restrictions. Abbot made his order without consulting with public health experts, apparently as a blessing to voters for the sins of the power and water debacle. Abbot failed to give Texas schools a heads up on his decision, leaving them to figure out whether he’d just ordered students back to school

Mask policy is a mess in the US for partisan reasons, but schools everywhere have been perhaps the most intractable of Covid-19 policy problems. I’ve assiduously avoided the topic of school reopening because it’s so heated and so complex.

Covid-19 pits parents against teachers. Parents want their kids in school both to give their kids an education and to give themselves more time to work. The health risks seem small to kids who rarely get sick. Teachers, on the other hand, are concerned about the health of students, the students’ families, and of themselves.

School closures exacerbate class differences. Wealthy parents have more education options (they can afford private schools with in-person classes) and their kids have better technology workarounds (Internet access and new computers). Poorer families often have older relatives living at home, relatives more likely to die if a child carries Covid-19 home from school.

As a rule, it seems that school reopening is safe when community Covid-19 positivity is low. Some studies say that children are not significant Covid-19 vectors. Others studies, not so much. Here’s one Spanish study on Covid-19 transmission by age.

Spanish Covid-19 study shows school age children are drivers of Covi-19 infections.

In case there’s any question, however, the new variants appear to take advantage of school age children as Covid-19 vectors, maybe better vectors than adults.

Recent UK Covid-19 test results by age.

France is reporting a similar age distribution for Covid-19 infections with the B117 variant.

None of this is to say that schools can’t reopen safely with adequate social distancing, masking, and ventilation. But policy makers haven’t had good data to make these decision until last fall, so the debate has created lots of political friction without clear data.

With Covid-19 vaccines on the scene, the latest workaround is to prioritize teachers for vaccinations so that at least they will remain healthy. California Governor Newsom made just such an order. While he wants to allocate 10% of its Covid-19 vaccine to teachers, California’s private healthcare system has proven too unwieldy to deliver 10% of the state’s vaccine to teachers so far. That’s a problem because California students are supposed to go back to class in about a month and the vaccine takes about that long to become effective.

Which brings up the US healthcare system versus most of the rest of the world. One advantage of single payer healthcare systems is ease of complex policy implementation. In Catalonia, for instance, CatSalut prioritizes Covid-19 vaccine and then measures delivery by group. Try getting a chart like this in any US state.

Covid-19 vaccination progress by priority class. Source: Catalan News.

One final topic this week: vaccine passports.

Israel plans to require Covid-19 vaccine passports. For me, the vaccine passport is Dead on Arrival. In theory, vaccine passports allow governments to screen visitors and protect against Covid-19 outbreaks. Vaccine passports might be a good idea if herd immunity were more than a year away. Then it might be worth figuring out pesky details like how to confirm someone who claims to be vaccinated actually is.

The reality is that vaccinations are going so fast that by the time a vaccine passport program is working worldwide, most of the world should have been vaccinated anyway. In places like Israel, where herd immunity is expected this month, there won’t be a Covid-19 outbreak if a sick passenger arrives. Travel related revenue losses from a vaccine passport program will probably outweigh the medical costs of a few visitors with cases of Covid-19.

Covid-19 bits.

  • Hugo López-Gatell, the controversial Undersecretary of Health leading Mexico’s Covid-19 effort, was hospitalized for a moderate case of Covid-19. López-Gatell has downplayed the need for masks or testing in Mexico.
  • Texas, Mississippi, Michigan, and Louisiana lifted their mask mandates on Monday. As US cases plateau at the same level as last summer’s peak case rate, the CDC has ask states to maintain mask mandates, anticipating another wave of Covid-19 due to new mutations. The states could wait 2-3 months, by which time the US will have provided vaccinations to all Americans. At least Texas Gov. Abbot is keeping his mansion closed in compliance with CDC guidelines.
  • The Pope has called on Catholics to take any Covid-19 vaccine, even if its development or manufacturing involves the use of stem cells from an aborted fetus. The Archdiocese of New Orleans, however, has called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine immoral while Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas says Catholics should avoid any of the three vaccines approved in the US.
  • Spain, a largely Catholic country, still expects to vaccinate 70% of its population even though supply problems have throttled early efforts. In Catalonia, the regional public health system will deliver vaccinations at the famed Sagrada Familia, giving new meaning to mass vaccinations.
  • A clinical study showed an insignificant difference in outcomes for Covid-19 patients taking the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin.
  • Singapore now has a Covid-19 “bubble” hotel. Guests can interact safely for in-person business meetings during their 14-day quarantine. They cannot leave the hotel, though, unless they return to the airport or complete their quarantine.
  • Barcelona will hold a pilot outdoor concert with 5,000 attendees on 27 March. Attendees must pass an antigen test before entering. While there will be no social distancing, attendees will be segregated in large groups of about a thousand. The concert features the local band Love of Lesbian.
  • Merck will help Johnson & Johnson manufacture Covid-19 vaccine.
  • The US administered 2.9 million doses of Covid-19 yesterday.

From a year ago:

Elon Musk tweet about Covid-19 a year and a day ago.

Society is the accumulation of our decisions. Our decisions leave behind beautiful monuments like Sagrada Familia. They also leave behind garbage cans full of mask ashes. During a pandemic, we need humility and decency more than ever. Please wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands, and get vaccinated as soon as you can.

I write this for my sanity and to make a record of living during the Covid-19 pandemic. Please pass on to family and friends. For more frequent Covid-19 updates, follow me on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “7 March 2021 – Sunday – #137

  1. Steve, what a thoughtful and entertaining encapsulation of times. So important to do. We learn from history (and it helps us remember the bad actors – or at least those with flawed judgment (what we’re you thinking, Elon? Perhaps there was money to be made from his assertion…)
    Looking forward to the next installment. Daniel. P.S. wonderful cooking tips.


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