So, a confluence of things today – NOVA Open 2021 canceling, and a bit of tension in our small hobby community – makes it seem like now might be a good time for an update from your friendly local Warhammer-playing Infectious Disease Epidemiologist.
As a disclaimer, most of this applies specifically to the U.S., but is broadly applicable to the UK and Canada as well.
Where We Stand
First up, the good news: the vaccines are awesome. They’re effective, and honestly, they exceeded my expectations for what they’d manage to do earlier this year. Some folks have asked me about the relative merits of the Moderna vs. Pfizer vs. J&J vaccine (for Americans), and the answer when it comes down to it is “Get the shot you can get.” All of them are extremely effective at preventing the thing we care about most – COVID-19 landing you in the ICU or morgue. There’s not a big enough difference in any of them to justify the delays you’d have to go through to try and choose a specific manufacturer – and the risks associated with being unvaccinated during that time.
But the rollout, while it is speeding up, is taking very different shape depending on where you are. Canada is lagging behind the U.S., and the developing world is just starting to get their first doses. Even in the U.S., things are very different on a per-state, and even sub-state basis. In some states, there are people at very high risk still waiting for vaccines, while in others they’re open to everyone 16 and older. This has to do with a number of factors – state population, logistics, decisions made at the state level, and different levels of vaccine acceptance. But that does mean that people are getting anxious – and we should definitely continue to try to extrend to people the empathy folks have called for in all of 2021. As of writing this, we lost 751 Americans today to this, and the 7-day average is 1,394. That’s as bad as last April in terms of the epidemic, and we are by no means out of the woods. There are a lot of people wondering if, after a year of waiting, a year of distancing, when safety is so very close, they’re still going to catch this and die.
So can we relax? Can we go back to just playing games and not worrying about this?
Sadly, in my mind, the answer is not yet. If I were to have an analogy, it would be that we’re in the last hour of a long drive, when it feels like you’re almost there, but you’re not yet. The signs have started saying the right things, and you’re ready to be done, you’re still a ways away.
We’re headed in the right direction. From the fairly terrifying peak in late December/early January, we’re on a good course. But epidemics can come roaring back fairly easily, and we have repeatedly followed a pattern where things start to look okay, we relax well before we’re at the point where we can relax, and we start the pattern all over again.
Texas, I’m looking at you.
What About Variants?
There’s also been a lot of press about novel variants of COVID-19, and what they mean. There’s a number now – one from the UK, one from South Africa, one from Brazil, and one from California, all of which are causing concern. To be frank, the science on this is still up in the air, and the media reporting on it has been…a little irresponsible. What we do know is that some of these seem more transmissible, which puts a slightly sharper note on the “We’re not out of the woods yet”. We don’t have good evidence yet as to whether or not they are more dangerous. The vaccines appear to be by and large still effective, if perhaps slightly less so in some cases.
What do we do about all of this?
The same thing we have been doing. How you control the transmission of a variant strain is the same as how you control what we think of as “normal” COVID-19. Mask up. Keep your distance. Minimize contact. Get the vaccine when you’re eligible to do so.
Is It Safe Now?
To be blunt, if you aren’t vaccinated, right now the answer is “No”.
If you are, the answer is “It depends.”
If you ask an epidemiologist a question, “It depends” is almost certainly the answer.
Let’s break this down a bit and talk about “Risk Budgets”. Basically, everyone has a risk budget, and everyone has a risk cost. Some people have more budget than others – if you’re an otherwise healthy 18-year-old, your budget is pretty big. If you’re a 50-year-old with COPD, it’s considerably lower. Note that, because COVID-19 is infectious, your risk budget isn’t just about you. If that 18-year-old lives with his elderly grandparents, their joint budget is still pretty slim.
Now you have to decide how to spend that budget. Some of this isn’t voluntary – essential workers have a tremendous amount of their risk budget spent for them. Medical appointments you can’t put off. Some of these can be very expensive expenditures – because they carry risk – but they may still be worth it. Then we start thinking about the optional expenditures. Getting my hair cut by someone who knows what they’re doing. Going to important milestone events for loved ones. Dine-in eating. Toy soldiers.
There are a lot of people in our hobby who don’t have tremendously large risk budgets. And candidly, if you’re a late middle-aged dude carrying a little too much weight in the midsection, your budget probably isn’t as high as you think it is. No shade there – in this, we are as brothers. Wargaming events – especially larger ones, and ones involving travel – are large expenditures.
Vaccination increases your budget, by a lot, but it doesn’t make it infinite. Who among us hasn’t failed a 2+ re-rollable save when they needed to not?
Which gets to “Is it worth it?”
For me, my household has several people who are vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes, and we haven’t gotten our vaccines yet. The answer is “Fuck no”.
If you are vaccinated, let’s talk about some things to think about. This is the same advice I give to people outside the hobby, for the record:
- Is everyone with you vaccinated? While there is some preliminary evidence that vaccination also helps reduce transmission, this is important both because you could still give the virus to other people, and you should know that people’s risk profiles are different.
- Can you control the environment, and who you come into contact with? For example, once my household is vaccinated, will I be comfortable playing a game at my home (especially once the weather gets nice), with someone else who is vaccinated? Yes. At the clubhouse, where several people whose vaccine status I don’t know, and whose contact patterns, the behavior of their contacts, etc. aren’t known to me? Not really. At an event with a bunch of strangers, especially one I’d have to get to via an airport or two? Definitely no.
One of the keys is to recognize that gaming involves intense, close contact for a long period of time. The 6’ rule, masks, etc. work best to protect you from transient contacts – passing someone in the hall, grocery shopping, etc. It’s asking if you’re in contact with someone infectious over a long period of time in a space that’s not extremely well ventilated. Small particles will spread further than 6’. The number of opportunities for you to mess up, and touch your mask and then your eyes, for example, will go up.
A day will come – likely fairly soon – when the answer to that might change. But we’re not there yet. And I get it. I want to play games too. I desperately wanted to go to NOVA Open for the past two years. I haven’t played an in-person game since November 2019 (my 2020 was terrible before it was cool).
But we need to hang on a little longer.
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