Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
My Plans for WisCon 2022
I've recently changed my plans and will only attend WisCon virtually this year.
Today is the day I finalized my decision of whether to go; I had booked travel and a hotel room, and was running out of time to cancel them without incurring fees. So here's how I thought about it: benefits, risks, and how much I could mitigate those risks (as I did with PyCon).
The biggest benefit to going to WisCon would be to host the Otherwise Auction in person. The auction is a WisCon tradition and I've been so delighted to have the opportunity to step into Ellen Klages's shoes and emcee it the past several years! And it raises money for the Otherwise Award, a nonprofit on whose board I serve, and it's something I enjoy doing, especially as a team with friends. There's no remote participation for this event, though there is remote streaming, and I am planning to host (as I have the last two years) an online-only auction. Instead of my performance in Madison, you'll get to enjoy the auction hosted by the funny, incisive Liz Henry, who contracted COVID-19 in March and has since recovered, and who has a different risk tolerance than I do. Liz will also represent Otherwise at the Gathering and at the Sunday night ceremonies.
Second to that: I'd have both planned and ad hoc, focused on and wide-ranging conversations with friends and acquaintances I haven't talked with for ages, or have only talked with online. I was set to participate in an in-person panel on "Genre Subversion in the Works of Zen Cho" which I won't be able to participate in, and I'd have spontaneous chats with old friends and acquaintances in the lobby, on walks through Madison, at outdoor meals, and so on. This would emotionally refresh and nourish me, and intellectually I'd benefit from hearing their stories and discussing things I don't yet know I want to discuss. In case there's conflict between me and any of my peers, live conversations could ease things and strengthen our trust foundations to mitigate future conflict. And conversations might lead to business opportunities (at least one of my past gigs has come via a connection I first met at WisCon). Some of this I can get by other means. I can ping individuals I have contact info for and set up videocalls, but the medium can get exhausting, and I wouldn't get the serendipitous alchemy that can happen in unplanned groups. I can set up a weekend Skittish or similar spatial audio chat and set up some times for group audio calls in a fantasy landscape, and this is what I did when I decided not to attend PyCon in person, but -- though less tiring than video -- the medium can still be tiring for the eyes, and I only catch folks whom I remember to contact and who are free at those times (so I won't catch the people who are prioritizing in-person conversation in Madison).
I will be participating in a few online panels which I'll still participate in from home: "Small Scale SFF" and "Not Another F*cking Race Panel 2022".
Most irreplaceably: I'd have ad hoc conversations with people I don't know yet. I need this because I don't know what I don't know, and people drawn to the same event but from wildly different contexts might open my world to perspectives and opportunities I've never thought of before. And we might become friends! This might happen via the lobby, in panels, in the hallway, and at mixer events. At some previous COVID-era WisCons, WisCon has provided a virtual place for online attendees to mingle; similarly, there's an official Discord, but of course that will be only a partial substitute for in-person conversation. I will probably initiate some spontaneous video calls for Discord participants once in a while.
I'd get to visit Madison again. I have enjoyed it every time and would love to explore it again.
I would gather some information and laugh if I went to in-person panels, and might be inspired by the Guest of Honor speeches. Some of these will be livestreamed, but rarely glitches happen and they aren't available.
It is still a bad idea to get COVID-19, and I still don't want to get it. I am vaccinated and boosted, so if I catch COVID my chances of having to go to the hospital or dying are lower than if I weren't (though in February, 15% of adult COVID-19 deaths in the US were among people who were vaccinated with booster). My likely course would be a week of feeling awful and maybe some more weeks of feeling gross. But, as doctor and science communicator Bob Wachter breaks it down,
my biggest worry is that of Long Covid (LC), which I now think of in two fairly distinct buckets:
a. Prolonged symptoms, including fatigue and brain fog, that last for many months.....
b. Increasing the risk of bad non-Covid outcomes over time. Recent studies have shown ⬆ risk of heart attacks & strokes, of diabetes, of brain shrinkage, and of blood clots. .... it is this long-term and uncertain LC risk that is my main motivation to try to avoid infection, even if the likelihood of a severe outcome from an acute case isn’t very high, and the likelihood of symptomatic LC in a fully vaxxed person is real but fairly low.
I also don't want to give it to anyone else, especially my spouse, and especially people who are unprotected or less protected by vaccines (such as my friend's newborn) or who have less ability to protect themselves (such as customer service personnel).
If I catch COVID while in Madison then I'll have to pay for a hotel room to stay in for several days while recovering, which would be lonely and expensive.
Specifically with this WisCon: the timing is not great. If I catch COVID on this trip and need to rest and recover, there is one specific thing in the next few weeks I won't be able to do: one of my best friends here in New York has a newborn and I'm one of the people who's on call to help out, and I would have to let her down. If my recovery takes several weeks, I may be unavailable to travel to help my family with stuff they'll need.
And the BA.2 subvariant is causing an uptick in cases in the US in general, as measured by wastewater data. The Wisconsin state government wastewater data info page isn't loading for me but I have no reason to believe Dane County is doing better than the rest of the Midwest. We're now experiencing the most transmissible variants of COVID so far, up there with measles. Anecdotally: within the last few weeks, friends of mine have caught COVID in public indoor settings, some of them despite taking the same levels of precaution I take. Most people who attend in-person conferences do not mitigate risks to the level that I would (as described below). If other WisCon participants contract COVID on Thursday or Friday and then start transmitting it on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, I'd be at greater risk even taking these mitigating steps.
My assessment is that the riskiest activities would be unmasked or partially-unmasked social settings indoors, and ill-ventilated social settings indoors.
Other people's practices: WisCon has mitigated risks with its health and safety policy. All attendees must wear masks, and loose masks don't count. And all attendees must be recently vaccinated or vaccinated and boosted. Both these steps reduce transmission risk. However, in the shared areas of the conference venue, there will be hotel guests who aren't necessarily masked or vaccinated, as the hotel has no mask or vaccination policy.
You might be interested in a transparent face mask to make it possible for others to lipread and see your mouth when you speak (example), but I know of none that are NIOSH-certified N95 or better.
Flight/train/car: I live in New York City. I was unable to find someone to rideshare with to drive to and from Madison, so I was going to do a mix of flying, ridesharing, and riding the train. My local airports do still have a mask mandate. Now that the US has no mask mandate for people on flights or in airports (and has never had a COVID vaccination mandate for domestic flights), I would be depending on one-way masking (I wear a mask even though others don't) to keep me safe, from the moment I walk onto the plane in New York City till the moment I get into my hotel room in Madison. I own a P100 respirator and know from experience that I can wear it for several hours at a stretch without difficulty, but going ~5.5 hours without eating or drinking anything might be difficult. (N95s aren't as effective, but I could switch to them once the plane is inflight and the high-efficiency ventilation comes on. I have been thinking about getting N99s but hadn't gotten around to it yet.) For the car portion from Madison to Chicago I would mask, ask the other rider to mask, and have us both take antigen tests beforehand, and have windows open when possible (but we'd mostly be on the highway so that would be difficult). Amtrak does not require masks so I was planning on (very expensively) taking a sleeper car with a private cabin, but would still need to interact with others if I wanted to get meals onboard (but I could bring my own food, if I were ok with only eating shelf-stable stuff for most of the trip).
Eating: To avoid taking masks off in indoor spaces with other people, I would not eat indoors with anyone else. Or I could decide to only do so after everyone in the room had taken an antigen test that came out negative, which would probably only work with takeout or room service in my or the friend's hotel room. This mitigation would reduce the social benefits of going to the convention since so much social availability revolves around shared meals, and lots of restaurants don't have any outdoor dining options (but some people are doing picnics). I would reduce to a minimum time spent in rooms with other people, especially crowded rooms, especially when others have their masks off: so, no indoor lunches, no room parties, and so on.
For eating, I'd depend on outdoor dining, takeout/curbside pickup from restaurants, bringing my own snacks from NYC or buying them in a local grocery store, and eating in my room or outside (e.g. on benches outside the venue or in local parks).
Ventilation: I'm not certain of the ventilation in the hotel's rooms or public spaces. The worst moments for ventilation would probably be in the airport, boarding and leaving the plane, sitting on the runway, and in crowded moments at the venue. I've heard the convention will have air filters set up in the panel rooms, which will help. I thought about getting materials for an air filter for the room to supplement the exiting filtering but that sounds pretty inconvenient logistically.
I've bought an Aranet 4 carbon dioxide monitor (Aranet 4 discount coupon), which can be configured to update its reading once a minute, on the theory that CO2 levels are a reasonable proxy for unfiltered human exhalation and thus COVID danger levels. A high CO2 reading would prompt me to go from an N95 mask to a P100, or to leave. I'd also want to bring extra AA batteries for the monitor.
To avoid indoor crowds, instead of spending a lot of my spare time in shared spaces in the venue, I'd regularly go into the hallway, find people to have conversations with, and invite them outside for walks or seated chats outside the venue.
Testing: One way to mitigate the risk would be for the conference to mandate at-the-door testing, every day, for each attendee. WisCon is not doing at-the-door testing (and cannot afford it, which I understand). So I'd do frequent antigen testing myself. If you have US health insurance, you are entitled to eight free over-the-counter antigen tests, per month, per person in your household, covered by your health insurance. You can submit receipts for reimbursement -- or, big pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens have the ability to put it through your insurance like a prescription, so you pay nothing out of pocket. You have time to go get your May tests between now and WisCon; bring them with you to Madison.
If I caught it: As the New York Times suggests in "A New Wave of Covid-19 Is Coming. Here’s How to Prepare.": make a plan to get antiviral drug treatment if you need it, because taking Paxlovid and molnupiravir early mitigate COVID symptoms and (probably) long-term effects:
"For the pills to be most effective, you need to start taking them within five days of the start of your symptoms, so it’s important to have a plan for getting a prescription and knowing which pharmacy can fill it"
Test-to-Treat is a program happening now in the US: "Through this program, people are able to get tested and – if they are positive and treatments are appropriate for them – receive a prescription from a health care provider, and have their prescription filled all at one location." The Test-to-Treat locator says there's a Madison location nearby: CVS Store #04930, 2 South Bedford St., Madison, WI 53703, about 0.7 miles' walk from the Madison Concourse Hotel. There are other locations for Test-to-Treat nearby as well. Or you can use Truepill's Find Covid Care service to get a telehealth appointment and get pills overnighted to you.
And, as the NYT points out, "Make sure you have extra funds or plenty of room on your credit card in case you need to extend your trip to recover from Covid."
Upon getting home I would isolate in some fashion for maybe 3-5 days, probably partially in a hotel and partly in our apartment. I'd probably test every day with an antigen test and go for a free city-provided PCR test a few times during that period. And if I test positive then I'd pursue antiviral treatment and see if Leonard could go stay with friends or in a hotel for a bit. (NYC used to have a program to give free hotel rooms to people with COVID or household members who didn't want to catch it, but that's now over.)
Today I've cancelled my hotel room and travel and I've let the con know I will be virtually attending and not in person.
The mitigations I could employ to protect myself and others from the most-transmissible-ever edition of COVID-19 do not reassure me at the level I need. I am choosing, with significant regret, to decline this irreplaceable experience so I can reduce my risk of an outcome I really don't want.. I have hopes that further medical innovations such as a nasal vaccine (to stop infection completely), and infrastructural improvements such as ventilation/air filtering at the venue, will make it less risky to travel and to gather in the years to come.
24 May 2022, 14:19 p.m.
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