Our opinion: Learning to live with uncertainty
The past week in Manchester and environs pretty much sums up life in 2020 — and the eyeball-spraining speed at which things can change.
As of last Monday, it appeared a COVID-19 outbreak might be spreading through our community. But within a week, officials were ruling out an outbreak, thanks to contradictory test results that still defy explanation.
The medical personnel at Manchester Medical Center and Southwestern Vermont Health Care have been working tirelessly through this crisis to protect public health, and never moreso than this past week. Those doctors, nurses, and support staff workers deserve our praise for acting quickly, for setting up and conducting testing, and for working days on end to see the mission through. Not every community is quite so fortunate.
Luckily, more than 1,600 tests and retests have produced only five confirmed cases of COVID-19 — a good deal fewer than the 65 presumptive positive tests first identified at Manchester Medical Center. Dr. Trey Dobson of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center points out that while we are still in the opening stages of this pandemic, we know a great deal more about COVID-19 than we did in March. Thanks to this situation, we now know something else: Medical testing is not foolproof or 100 percent accurate. But testing is how science will better understand this virus, and then subdue it.
With that in mind, Manchester Medical Center and the state Department of Health are committed to learning why most of MMC's positive antigen tests were later contradicted by negative PCR tests. As we await those answers, we need to move forward, with two important lessons learned.
First: If we have indeed dodged a bullet, this episode ought to serve as a sobering reminder that COVID-19 demands our constant vigilance. Until there's a vaccine, we need to behave in ways that protect ourselves and respect each other — washing our hands, wearing masks, and keeping our distance.
Second: We are fortunate that skilled and dedicated medical professionals in our community recognized the potential public health risks of an outbreak, and reacted appropriately by alerting us to the facts they had, when they had them.
Now that the threat now appears to be less widespread than first believed, we must resist the temptation to point fingers. Yes, this was stressful for many. But when the messenger arrives with a warning of clear and present danger, you don't shoot the messenger.
After all: Why do we cut weather forecasters so much slack when they overestimate potential storm impacts? Find photos of the devastation caused by the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, and you'll understand. Forecasters of the time, lacking the modern tools we now take for granted, underestimated that storm's killer intensity. We now know it was a Category 4 hurricane that utterly destroyed the city and took as many as 12,000 lives.
Imagine living at the seaside and having no idea that a killer hurricane is coming. That's where we would be without testing, and without people willing to sound the alarm.
Where does that leave us? If there's a "new normal," it's that many comfortable certainties of modern life have been unmasked as illusions. This virus offers regular reminders that we know and control far less than we think.
As humans, and as a nation, we're accustomed to controlling as much of our destiny as possible — sometimes, even inflicting that destiny on others. So learning to live with a loss of control after years of presuming that we're the masters of the universe can be overwhelming.
In a moment of serendipity, Rabbi Michael M. Cohen emailed us about that very idea as these words were being written. His note spoke of "coming to terms with the unknown and not being overwhelmed by that reality."
So we had to ask Cohen: How do we come to terms with this uncertainty? Here's his thoughtful response.
"I don't think there is one answer that fits all. While we are all something like 99% genetically the same, we are also different and diverse in so many ways. So I want to be very careful and recognize those differences particularly when trying to answer such an important and personal question.
"Having said that, Victor Frankel — the author of 'Man's Search for Meaning,' which I highly recommend — said, 'The one thing you can't take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one's freedoms is to choose one's attitude in any given circumstance.'
"Part of our sense of our loss of control is the feeling that our freedom has been taken away from us. Frankel reminds us that adversity exists — it always has and always will (thought it is not the totality of the human experience). Embracing the unknown is about accepting that challenge and adversity are a given; while at the same time understanding that we are defined by how we respond including, hopefully the life affirming, individual and communal values and meaning contained in our responses.
"That can be for some both very liberating and empowering during times like these. It is an outlook, like a summer vegetable and perennial garden, that needs cultivation and tending."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.