Pandemic Journal: It’s a Web

Recently, I saw something that’s at once amazing, alarming, and haunting.

This YouTube video, here, shows aggregated anonymized cell phone data from March, provided by Tectonix Geo, a data analysis company. This is the same company that provided the maps showing travel patterns of spring-breakers on one beach in Florida, shown here.

A huge thank you to Tectonix Geo.

In the first Tectonix video about fixing the supply chain, they track travel to and from meat processing plants across the country during the month of March. I’m familiar with the plant in Logansport, Indiana, so let’s take a look.

Logansport, Indiana

I grew up in central Indiana, near Logansport. People I knew worked at the slaughterhouse in Logansport.

I don’t recall who owned the plant back then, but I do vividly remember the squalid working conditions. Most employees never lasted beyond their first shift. It was the one place someone could ALWAYS find a job because the heat, smell, death, noise, and packed working conditions were overwhelming, and they always needed workers. I hope things have improved since then.

Let’s just say that I can’t eat either hotdogs or bologna to this day, but this conversation isn’t about that.

As most people are now aware, those same close working conditions are fostering Covid outbreaks among workers in meat processing plants across the nation. Different states, cities, and companies are reacting with varying levels of alarm, testing, and remediation plans. I’m also not going to comment on that, given the associated politics, but what I am going to discuss is the map and associated cell phone traffic patterns.

pandemic tyson map

This satellite google map shows the Tyson plant itself, with the adjacent employee parking lot to the south, the trucking areas where the animals arrive and the processed meats leave, the retention ponds to deal with the fluids and waste, and the local roads. There’s also a train track leaving the facility.

I counted approximately 410 semi-trailers at the plant and adjacent, connected businesses in the photo, above. Each one of those semis, of course, will be arriving or leaving with cargo, traveling to and from other locations, as will the 2200 employees as they go home in Cass County and adjacent communities.

Pandemic logansport

The packing plant is on the outskirts of Logansport, near highways that conveniently connect it with other local communities. In other words, you don’t have to go through town to get to work. Being located away from town is necessary anyway, due to odors.

pandemic logansport rural

Many people from rural farms, nearby cities like Kokomo, Lafayette, Monticello, Rochester, Wabash, and Peru, along with residents of other small towns travel to Logansport daily to work in the plant.

When I lived there, many people didn’t work at the plant for long, just until they could get a better job, so they never moved closer. Or, their parents owned a farm. This is prime Hoosier farm country.

Often, workers at the plant were among the most economically disadvantaged. They lived paycheck to paycheck and worked for minimal wages in conditions that served as inspiration for many of us to continue our education so we could work someplace else. Anyplace else.

Yet, these people go to work every day, sometimes even when sick because they can’t afford not to. Trust me, they work very hard.

Tectonix Geo Data

The Logansport Tyson plant became a Covid hotspot when more than 900 of the 2200 employees, or more than 40%, tested positive in April. The plant reopened last week after being closed for cleaning for two weeks, a politically hot-potato topic in general that I’m also not discussing.

Tectonix Geo analyzed anonymized cell phone data from the plant facilities throughout March 2020, beginning at the first of the month.

pandemic tectonix tyson

The blue on these maps shows the dots representing cell phones that are transmitting location data as they connect with cell towers. This first map shows the cell phones in the Tyson facility on one day in early March.

pandemic tectonix tyson close

Now that you know the lay of the land, we can identify which dots represent specific areas.

pandemic tectonix tyson markup

At the top of the plant area, you can even see the row of blue that tracks to the row of parked semis in the aerial photo of the plant.

pandemic tyson dot

To put this in perspective, this tiny blue dot is the Tyson plant, shown in the Google images.

Pandemic tyson begin spread

Throughout the month, every few days, the Tectonix data shows the highlighted blue as the cell phones moved away from the plant. You can still see the plant as the brightest spot, of course, because that’s where people with those phones gathered every day for work.

The areas most commonly inhabited and travel locations, according to the blue lines and clusters, were in Logansport itself, and along the feeder highways.

pandemic tyson spread local

Next, we see adjacent communities light up. Lafayette, Kokomo, and Peru have a lot of people who work in that plant, driving back and forth. It’s about 25 miles to Kokomo, 20 to Peru, and 40 to Lafayette. Of course, lots of smaller communities are lit up too, like Delphi, half-way to Lafayette, and Monticello, 20 miles due west of the Tyson plant.

In the first few days, these blue pathways and clusters likely represent where employees live or visited in the local region.

pandemic tyson midwest spread

As time passed, the blue clusters and lines became more pronounced and spread further from the plant, each tiny point of light representing a cell phone traveling – at first primarily within the state of Indiana, but then further.

Given this data, it’s not surprising that Cass County has an infection rate higher than any other county in Indiana.

pandemic tyson region spread

The tiny blue dots are too small for us to see individually, but each one is a potentially Covid-exposed person as their travels take them throughout Indiana and into major metropolitan areas in other states and Canada. Look at Chicago, for instance. Indianapolis, the state capital, becomes blue too, as does Fort Wayne, both of which are travel and economic hubs to elsewhere.

The time-lapse video shows the blue web extending across the US and on into Canada.

pandemic tyson country spread

By the end of March, you can clearly see that all of Indiana is pretty much blue, meaning that people who were in that plant on that initial day in early March have traveled to all of those locations. For a location to literally “turn blue,” many, many people need to have visited that location for the cell tower to pick up those signals thousands of times.

The Midwest is heavily affected by just this one plant, and the tendrils reach into many other parts of the country, along with southern Canada. Some of these may be trucking routes whose drivers loaded at the Tyson plant, but many represent travel by production employees and perhaps a few visitors who were present in the plant that initial day in March when Tectonix took their first snapshot in time.

What probably isn’t represented here is air travel, especially outside the US. Air travel was on a decline increasingly in March anyway, and stay-at-home orders had already begun in many places. Indiana’s governor ordered Hoosiers to stay at home on March 23rd, limiting their activities to only essential travel. Food production is an essential activity, and the Tyson plant remained open at that time.

As I look at these maps, I’m reminded that this is ONLY the phones of less than 2200 people who were in the plant on one day in March. It doesn’t even begin to speak to the people they interacted with and exposed, who traveled as well.

That’s the purpose of contact tracing of Covid-positive people – to determine the identities of those exposed people.

The gravity and importance of this web of contact and exposure don’t become apparent until Covid visits a facility near you, or a family member, or maybe your neighbor who may be exposing you or exposing someone else at the local convenience store or gas station who will expose you. Then, suddenly, this is all critically important.

The Message

I’m a visual person. That old adage about a picture being worth 1000 words holds true for me.

My first thought was how much this looks like a cobweb. Then I thought of the world-wide-web and how electronically interconnected we are.

I remember initially hearing about 6 degrees of separation years ago and being surprised when I discovered several cases where it was true. Now, older, wiser, and a genealogist, I’m no longer surprised.

With Covid, it’s more like 2 degrees of separation, if that. If you don’t know someone with Covid, or who has died of Covid, I guarantee you, one of your friends does. Me, and probably others as well.

As a society, in our lifetimes, we’ve never dealt with a run-away pandemic before. A situation where our very high degree of mobility which facilitates physical connectedness threatens our very safety.

Those 900+ infected Tyson employees were contagious long before they knew they were ill – perhaps as long as two weeks – if they even became ill. Super spreaders, as we now call them, a Covid-created term.

Infectious but not ill, they went to work and about their business in the community, and clearly, outside of the community, along major corridors – at work, church, family gatherings, restaurants, eating, shopping, touching doors, gas pump handles and using public restrooms where uninfected people assuredly followed. Truck drivers, upon whom we depend for our food supply, among other things, drove cross-country, truck stop to truck stop, warehouse to warehouse, perhaps taking an invisible passenger along with them.

Social distancing guidelines are being relaxed in some places, and people are clearly sick and tired of them, that doesn’t mean those unwelcome precautions are any less necessary.

If you have doubts, just look at this Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map of confirmed cases by county for where you live and think about the map of the contact spread from that one Tyson plant in Cass County, Indiana.

pandemic johns hopkins cass county

It’s Not Over

Easing of restrictions doesn’t mean the danger is over. It’s not.

If you were at risk before, you’re still at risk now. Epidemiologists estimate that only 5% of Americans have been exposed in total. 95% of us are yet to be exposed. Think about that. That’s almost everyone.

Put bluntly, everyone is at risk. No exceptions. We don’t even know if previous infection conveys immunity. We are still one big social epidemiological experiment with the outcome still unknown. The global “we” will undoubtedly survive, but our personal outcomes and those of our loved ones may be a different story.

The line of Xs shows how societies survive pandemics.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The bold Xs, approximately 70%, get infected. The red Xs die. Yes, society as a whole, represented by the entire row of Xs, survives, but several individuals do not. Not only that, but many of the bold Xs, even though they live, are not unscathed and not entirely recovered. In other words, surviving is not necessarily equivalent to “getting well” and returning to life as before.

To date, 294,000 worldwide have died, with 83,807 deaths in the US, and those numbers are still rising at an alarming daily rate. In the US alone, that’s more than 28 times the number of people who died during 911.

Those red Xs representing 84,000 dead aren’t just Xs, or numbers, or dry percentages heard daily on the news, they are people who are someone’s beloved family member. And there will assuredly be more to follow, probably more than have already died.

We may be getting numb to bad news, but that doesn’t mean the news is better.

The POINT of social-distancing restrictions was to flatten the curve so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed all at once. In other words, so that people would get infected slowly, across time. A flattened curve and easing of restrictions just mean that now, there’s probably a hospital bed and maybe a ventilator available for you when you become a bold X, hoping not to become a red X.

The GOAL, at least my goal, is to be a boring non-bold black X, meaning to remain uninfected until we at least have a relatively successful treatment and, preferably, a vaccine. I don’t want to become infected, nor do I want to infect anyone who winds up being one of those people needing a hospital bed, a ventilator, or a body bag.

Some infected people are entirely asymptomatic or exhibit only slight symptoms, but others begin an uncontrolled spiral into death. There’s no telling in advance which you might be, and once begun, there’s no brakes or steering on that run-away train.

Prevention is much easier, albeit inconvenient.

Easing of restrictions does NOT mean Covid is gone and does NOT mean you won’t catch it.

We still don’t fully understand this disease, have any reliable treatments, nor a vaccine. Dr. Fauci stated yesterday that a 2020 vaccine is unlikely, so we’ll need to protect ourselves, and others, for some time to come. Protection and prevention need to become our new way of life – at least for the foreseeable future.

If you ever doubted how you and others potentially spread germs – and in this case, a deadly virus – look again at that blue spider web on the Tectronix map that was seeded by fewer than 2200 people in one place on the same day.

Your life or that of someone you don’t know, do know, or love may depend on internalizing the spiderweb message from that map.

This isn’t like the flu. Those who survive Covid are physically (not to mention economically) devastated.

However, there are still positive messages to be found amid the Covid-carnage, and I’d like to share two of my favorites with you.

Finding Our Way

Here’s a wonderfully inspirational story and beautiful video telling the story of a young couple who both contracted Covid. Both nearly died, barely escaping death, but both survived and were in rehab facilities because of the utter devastation Covid wreaked on their bodies.

Yes, I said a young couple. Covid-19 doesn’t just kill old people, as if that was any kind of justification for anything, anyway.

Yes, I know, I’m sick of social distancing too, desperately want to see my family and friends and have a haircut – but certainly not unhappy enough to risk lives – mine, those of people I love, or yours. Any inconvenience pales by comparison to the possible consequences.

By the way, I wrote the draft of this article on Mother’s Day afternoon, safely tucked away at home. Yes, I’m sad not to see my family, but oh-so-grateful that we are all being safe and that my family cares enough about me to keep me safe too.

Please, don’t take chances.

  • Distance – remain at home unless you really have to go someplace.
  • Do more genealogy.
  • Engage in things that bring you joy.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Wear a mask when you do need to go out in public.
  • Walk outside, away from others. Wave to others.
  • Stay out of crowds and away from people not taking proper precautions.

A Kindness Web

That blue web that we see on the map…it’s a web of warning today, prompted by pragmatic fear of this virus. But keep in mind that our human web of contact can also be a web of good, helping others in many ways. We don’t always need to see each other in person to do that. Failing any other act of kindness, the kindest thing we can do is to stay home.

Our ability to bestow kindness continues, and there are more people in need today than ever.

Donations, contributions, and porch-pickups or drop-offs work. Make an act of kindness and charity a part of your pandemic experience.

Your kindness, in whatever way you can, may make all the difference in the world and change someone’s story.

Telling the Story

Speaking of telling the story, I’d like to leave you with something quite uplifting and inspirational.

The Great Realisation: Hindsight 2020 is a short bedtime story told sometime in the future about the time of “the virus,” back in 2020, read to a little boy by his father. The storybook tells how “the virus” changed us, our world, and the future in which they live. I so want this to be our clarifying, unifying truth, the silver lining to this cloud. Please listen, here, after the obligatory ad, of course.

I promise, you’ll be glad you did.

Stay safe so we will all be here on the other side, whenever that really is, to tell our stories.

11 thoughts on “Pandemic Journal: It’s a Web

  1. Thanks for sharing this and the embedded links! It was very interesting/disturbing but clearly showed the difficulty in containing a viral outbreak.

  2. This is a powerful post and a great reminder to continue to be vigilant..

    I agree that it is not over. My once weekly visit to the grocery is evidence of the cavalier attitude of some people with no mask or gloves.

    And some of us have a family member who still goes to the office each day et al., with their pseudo rationalization that they are “essential.” So sad. I will say no more.

  3. Thank you ever so much for your thoughts on the pandemic. I am amazed how many, even elderly, who do not wear masks, and do not heed social distancing, even when at my local supermarket in Kirkland, the CLOSEST grocery market to both the Life Care Center of Kirkland where 45 residents have died so far, and EvergreenHealth Hospital, where the first US deaths were recorded.

    I guess some people value their freedom to infect others more than they value life itself. I liken it to become intoxicated. It’s one thing to prohibit the private consumption of alcohol at home to excess, but quite another to risk one’s life and that of others driving on public roads in such condition. Freedom to privately get drunk does not equate to freedom to endanger others, at home or on the road. The same holds true for vaccines and COVID-19. With freedom comes responsibility’ to your loved ones and to those with whom you may come into contact.

  4. Good article. As you say, pictures are worth one thousand words. And let’s hope the scientists really do come up with a vaccine — it’s possible they never do.

  5. Thank you Roberta…if only there was a universal understanding of this massage the world would be a safer place for all of us! Here in Australia, we watch on in distress at what’s going on in the US and other parts of the world. For a number of reasons, we’re in a more fortunate position, at present, but our concerns is that too many in our community will be complacent as we come out of “iso”. To all “genes” in the US, my thoughts and prayers are that you stay safe.

  6. Excellent post, Roberta. There really is too much complacency, and downright ignorance, not to mention entitlement, going on in this country right now. It’s going to get uglier, I suspect.

  7. I am caring for two elderly family members, 93 and 87, and was already hand washing and social distancing before anyone had heard of a coronavirus. As frail as they are, any infection could end them. What concerned me was how many people would cough and sneeze on me when I went out in public. This happened practically every time. Some of them were doing it on purpose to “intimidate the elderly.” If we get anything from this pandemic, it should be that everyone understands how totally unacceptable it is to do this. It is not funny, and can have catastrophic consequences.

  8. Great post.
    People, especially these days, judge things from the evidence of their own eyes.
    This provides great information for understanding.
    On a longer, broader scale, this is similar to the old “6 degrees of separation”.
    A family historian can relieve the boredom of lockdown by trying to see if they can link two different people.
    For example, one map of farms of my ancestors showed an uncle next to a rareish surname I thought I knew from someone I met 30 years ago. Were these people linked? Yes they were, and in the intervening years some really amazing stories emerged across two countries and three states.
    Or, one of my ancestor’s brothers connected with Robert Louis Stevenson.
    Could I connect the other brother (my direct ancestor) as well – by a different route? I did.
    And there are heaps of possible cousin marriages to sort out as well,- necessary work, but not as interesting. But I have knuckled down to them recently and solved quite a few before we received a little more freedom last Saturday.
    I live in a transport hub suburb that the travel shutdown has left many without work or income, particularly those whose big company just crystallized their losses into bankruptcy. These family history diversions might be irrelevant, but we need something else to think about right now. (And it’s a change from baking.)
    Good luck to all.

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