The Lockdown Diaries: Week 5

    1. by Janice Nigro

No thoughtful title, just which week this is under lockdown in Los Angeles if you don’t remember. The Lockdown Diaries is becoming a travel journal of sorts, of the kind of adventure you hope to have only once in your life. It’s definitely of the slow travel variety.

New experiences. My most memorable experience this week happened while I was sleeping. I woke up one morning stressed out from a stress dream. In the dream, I was out in public without my face mask on. Adding to the stress, I was riding on a public bus. But I might have been in Hawaii.

Catching a disease on public transportation is a real possibility in normal times. The first thing I do when I get off a bus is wash my hands or use a hand wipe. During this pandemic, I’d rather walk a few miles than get on a bus. Eventually I’m going to have to get on a bus to go somewhere. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The next night I had another stress dream. All my clients had dropped me! The strangest part was that a former president had told them to let me go. Politics have entered my dreams!

I guess I should quit Facebook once and for all. But I did learn from a National Geographic article posted on the platform that it’s not just me. More people are recalling their dreams during this pandemic. Our ability to remember our dreams stems from a decrease in sleep quality brought on by anxiety and lack of activity. Check and check. I don’t need to go to sleep to find this out, but it is disturbing because if my dreams are telling me I’m stressed, I can only imagine what a lot of other people might be dreaming about.

Recurring themes. No toilet paper in the grocery store.

I have the saying, I’d walk a mile for “something” going through my head. When I looked it up, I discovered that the sentence comes from an ad for Camel cigarettes. It was an effective ad, expressing just how good a Camel cigarette might be (for cancer).

This week I walked four miles to get some toilet paper. I’m still confused about the lack of toilet paper, or any paper products, on the shelves in the closest grocery store. The Wall Street Journal had a 17 minute podcast supplying some answers. Seventeen minutes about toilet paper and I listened to the entire story.

The podcast brings up several legitimate reasons why there is no toilet paper on our shelves, beyond our bizarre panic hoarding. The most fascinating explanation was that the machinery producing our soft 2-ply toilet paper is a four story high, multimillion dollar piece of equipment. The machine processes raw pulp turning it into paper which is spun on a gigantic spool and combined with another gigantic spool to be spun into 2-ply tissue spun around giant tubes of cardboard which get sliced up into the units of size we use in our homes.

The bottom line is that the production of toilet paper is more complicated than I realized and requires a certain skill set. To top it off, Albany, Georgia where the Procter & Gamble plant is located for ramping up the production of home use toilet paper was hit hard by the coronavirus.

All that led me on a four mile round trip to get a few rolls of crummy single ply toilet paper from a gourmet grocery. Have you noticed that toilet paper rolls tell you how long they should last? One roll should last one person a week so I only took two. It’s also not the kind of toilet paper I would normally use so I better use it now or I never will.

Stocking up isn’t my thing, especially on brands or things I don’t normally use. I’m usually good about not wasting food (thank you Norway for that lesson). Probably because I shop every day or nearly every day. Now I’m afraid of wasting food, because I have to plan for a week or so. Not because I’m afraid of not having food, but because I don’t want to go to the store that often.

On the positive side, the gourmet grocery store is far enough away and at a higher elevation, so it is a good way to work in some essential exercise.

New developments. I must wear a face mask to the grocery store. I don’t mind this at all. The rule has a logical function.

I can’t take in my reusable bag for groceries. This is not a logical rule. It smells of the competition to outdo each other in lockdown strategies. Do reusable bags carry germs? Yes. But so do my clothes, my purse, my shoes, and well, most importantly, me. The most likely way I would be to get the virus or pass it on, is through close contact with people. I challenge someone to show me transmission from a grocery bag (one used normally, not in a lab experiment).

I understand why the cashier would not want to touch my bag, even before this I thought about this issue, but my store has self-checkout. Reusable bags are convenient for carrying groceries. Paper bags are not. Nonetheless, security guards are now around to take your bag away from you if you have it with you in California.

Funny things. My neighbors sometimes discuss loudly. When I asked another neighbor if they could hear them, they said no, but they were glad to be single right now.

Protests even in my liberal state of California are beginning to break out. It’s not funny. Half of the country as usual is calling the other half stupid and a host of other unmentionable names (Whatever happened to filtering this language by Facebook?). There is no black and white. So far California, even the West Coast, is not (yet) having a surge in complications from Covid-19 to the levels as seen on the East Coast, likely for several reasons. But no one really knows why yet.

Something to consider. Sometimes science gives you shocking answers. Finally we have more testing in the USA to confirm cases and to identify asymptomatic carriers. Disproportionate testing among countries though has given a false mortality rate. Instead, many have been calculating for weeks the percentage of deaths based on the population, as deaths and population are the only absolute numbers we have for comparisons between countries.

Up until about two weeks ago, Germany, the USA and many other European countries had similar numbers. The outliers were Taiwan and Singapore on the low end, and Italy, Spain and France on the high end. The USA is creeping up now, and some of the other countries in Europe are 3 to 5 times higher than our number.

In our own country, New York accounts for about 30% of all deaths in the USA. The number of deaths per million is 50 times higher in New York than in California (22 April 2020) and overall 12 times higher than in California. I know, I know, California and New York have different population distributions and modes of transportation.

But there’s more to the story.

Based on genomic sequencing, many cases detected in the first week of March in New York City were seeded by the version of the virus associated with Europe. While Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, the disease arrived in New York City in large part via Europe.

This path of infection is a twist in the drama. And so say the experts.

A quote from Anthony Fauci just last week: “New York City, they really got caught by surprise because if you look at the seeding into New York City that was mostly from Europe. That wasn’t from China. And by the time they realized, they had a problem in a big city with a big subway system. Through no fault of their own, New York City got hit really hard. Fortunately Washington and California started with a small stimulus which they jumped all over.”

The West Coast might have been hypersensitive as a case appeared as early as 19 January 2020 confirming human transmission and families in some communities had been affected by previous highly lethal coronaviruses. Their antennae went up. Airlines stopped flights to and from China, and the USA issued a travel ban against the country on 31 January 2020. The last few citizens returning were quarantined.

Lockdowns began gradually in California until a statewide lockdown for nonessential business was issued on 19 March 2020. New York went into lockdown three days later, 22 March 2020.

Would the country have submitted to the screening of all passengers entering from Europe (or anywhere) or a ban of all flights coming into the country as early as 31 January 2020?

As I see it, the disease might have already been here on the West Coast possibly even in December as many carriers are asymptomatic. We only know when the first symptomatic case in the USA showed up in the state of Washington. California has (had) daily several thousand travelers from China either our own citizens/residents or visitors, and asymptomatic carriers wouldn’t have been detected or even looked for at that point in time (The sequence of the virus was published in Nature 03 February 2020). Until we know the circumstances of how it all began, it could have been around weeks before anyone knew it was even a problem in China. All we know is when the first cluster of cases (early December) with severe complications showed up at a hospital in Wuhan.

This is biology. But people can’t talk about this pandemic without bringing up politics. I’ve decided that it’s like people yelling at each other in two different languages. No one tries to understand, or is going to understand the other no matter how loud you shout, which could be as bad or worse for our country than the virus. This division may have contributed to our current status. Many lessons to learn, but we all keep going down the path that we’ve been on for the last several years. Like a sinking ship.

Realizations. From the beginning, I’ve viewed the lockdown as my permission slip to work on projects I have just wanted to do. That’s my pivot.

So my source of stress is new. I have more projects, new goals, too many ideas I want to try to work out. I have a book I am trying to finish. I have story ideas I need to work out before I can pitch them to media venues.

I’m trying to understand the biology of this pandemic. Most of the research and test development from my perspective as a molecular biologist has occurred in an obscenely short timeframe. Any of us who has ever developed an assay at the lab bench knows it’s never a sure thing even in your own hands. Testing has been a sore spot, for sure, in all this mess, but people, not me or most of us at home, have stepped up.

Once in a while I have a painting that works for me. I’m eating too much and not getting enough exercise. I have books to finish reading. I don’t spend that much time on Facebook, but I’m realizing that I’m still spending too much time on it.

And I’ve realized that astronauts are special in ways that I never thought about before. I could never be confined for months on end with millions watching me.


Oh and I’m nearly out of toilet paper. Happy cocooning.


©Janice Marie Nigro/

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer ResearchPLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.


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