Turning around due to risk while pursuing an objective is difficult. The choice contrasts the perceived risk with a very enticing reward. The difficult part is that the risks can be hard to identify and there is often no positive feedback for choosing the less risky path. We make choices to not ski a specific slope due to avalanche danger or to not climb a specific ridge due to the risk of a storm, but because the choices we make are intended to keep us safe, we rarely see the consequences of the things we choose not to do - we don't often see the avalanche path in an area we chose not to ski or see ridge we chose not to climb get struck by lightning.
Many years ago I led canoe expeditions on the coastal waters of South Carolina. One of the most difficult decisions I made was to not to make a big water crossing with a group of students during a storm. As a group of 10 people with a variety of abilities, we were in an exposed position in shallow water along a barrier island with a large incoming thunderstorm, with a half mile of open water between our position and a boat ramp with a waiting transport vehicle. We had to make the decision to stay along the shore, get into lightning position and wait, or make a run for the security of the vehicle. I so wanted to be in that vehicle. I was tired, we had been in storms for the past 12 hours, and I knew the van provided security that we did not have on the water. We followed the program’s policy regarding lightning, stayed in position and waited. After an hour of intense lightning, the storm broke up and we paddled to the van.
The feedback that I got from the students was all negative. They didn’t see the risk of making the crossing but they did experience the discomfort of the storm. The feedback from the program staff in the van was “that looked un-fun.” More than 15 years later, I wonder if we could have made the crossing and limited our exposure in that storm. However, I can’t think of that alternate decision without wondering what would have happened if a canoe flipped during the crossing or if someone had been struck by lightning when we broke program policy to “just get to the van.”
The art and science of decision making in our outdoor pursuits involves a combination of identifying all of the risks, seeing the consequences of those risks, and then making a decision based on our overall risk exposure, individual skillset, and risk tolerance. The more we understand about the given risk the better we can choose an acceptable level of risk.
With the current COVID-19 outbreak we find ourselves in a time of decision making about how to interact with the world. We are surrounded by a lot of poor information regarding the overall risk and many people have a ton of temptation due to increased free time. I have begun seeing photos of people out recreating on chair lifts and on trails using the tag #socialdistancing, and have watched online conversations where people are considering recreation-based road trips. It’s time for each of us to assess the real risk of the current health emergency to ourselves, our communities, and the rest of the world.
LWM is based in Bonner County, Idaho, population approximately 45,000. Our local hospital has 25 beds which include 4 in the intensive care unit (ICU). The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates are that most of the US population will contract COVID-19. If we conservatively assume that nearly half of the population contracts the virus, we will have 20,000 cases. Current estimates are that 80% of cases will be mild and not need hospital care. The remains 20%, or 4000 people, will need medical care. Again based on current estimates 25% of cases that need hospitalization will need the intensive care unit (ICU). That is 1000 people that need our 4 ICU bed. The statistics become more dire when noting that the estimated time in ICU is two weeks and half of ICU patients will need life support. Bonner County is not in a unique situation. It is hard to wrap your head around these numbers because to do so is to internalize that not everyone will have access to the care they need.
Assume you are going to interact with the virus. Furthermore, assume that you are probably not going to feel bad (i.e., have symptoms) when you do. The current “flatten the curve” mentality is about slowing the inevitable to limit the need of medical facilities at any given time. Each interaction we have with another person provides an opportunity to acquire the virus and then share it. Current estimates are that each person who carries the virus will spread it to an average of 2.2 people. Every interaction you have increases the chance that you have picked up the virus, with every interaction you have after acquisition risking further spread. The equation is simple, more interactions equals more potential spread. The spread is further amplified by being in contact with other people who have high levels of contact.
Similar to risk assessment in the backcountry, our decision of how to recreate over the next weeks will provide very little immediate feedback beyond the pros and cons of choosing to do any given activities. Unfortunately, the true risk in activity can feel abstract and unrealistic. I detailed the risk of numbers of people and the implications of space in the hospital system, because we have to be aware of the real risk to make function decision about our actions. I hope that we never see the full potential of this outbreak and that in a few years we look back and say we over reacted. I know today that I don’t want to be looking back in 20 years wondering if I could have done more to limit a rapid spread and resulting loss of life.
We know that recreation, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty, is important but it is up to each of us to work each day to adapt our actions in order to limit transmission. At LWM we are suggesting that we each consider the following guidelines for recreating in the current outbreak:
Originally posted 3/17/20, Edited 4/1/20