NSI Chairman’s Corner August 2020
It’s 4 am and I am thinking about….
Synonyms for the word “stupid”….
When I started writing these monthly missives my intention was to delve into classic oil and gas macro-economics by now. But classic drivers have been completely overwhelmed by the impact of COVID-19.
The net result is that the industry will not return to anything resembling normal until the pandemic is over, or at least managed. Which means, if you want to see the oil and gas industry come back to life, you should be highly motivated to help get COVID-19 under control.
Unfortunately, in the USA and elsewhere, the pandemic has become so politicized that it is difficult to get a clear picture of how we can collectively live a “normal life” while waiting on a vaccine. That, combined with the following have made things worse:
But as oilfield engineers, we are well-versed in dealing with uncertainty & incomplete, volatile information (none of us yet have a clear picture of what happens in the reservoir, and yet we manage to drill and frac a lot of wells and produce a huge amount of oil and gas!). My view is that this shared experience of “getting good results with limited information” gives us a better set of tools than your average person has to apply to the problem of getting the country back to economic normalcy in the midst of this pandemic. Where “normalcy” means factories and plants are running, people are traveling, energy is being consumed, kids are in school and value is being created.
So put away your political biases, ignore the ill-advised media noise from, and get busy getting the virus under control—even if only for your own economic self-interest!
In May, I wrote my Chairman’s Corner note about COVID-19 transmission by aerosol, with an expectation that this would very quickly become old news. It was surprising to see many (continuing down the synonym list for “stupid”) imprudent messages came from supposedly “sophisticated organizations” like the WHO and CDC.
To revisit… Transmission by aerosol is real. (See the technical note written in July and signed by 239 scientists from 32 countries trying to convince the WHO et al. to pay more attention to aerosol transmission: https://academic.oup.com/cid/advance-article/doi/10.1093/cid/ciaa939/5867798)
The harder one breathes; the more and finer aerosol droplets are dispersed. These tiny droplets travel farther and increase the probability viral transmission. In May, I used the example of a karaoke bar as being an obvious very bad scenario. Enclosed space, drunk people singing and shouting, etc.
Bars, gyms, choirs, etc. The odds of making them safe is low. Eliminating them has near zero macro-economic impact. It was, and is, thoughtless to keep them open/active. But if you insist on keeping bars/gyms open, for goodness sake get rid of the loud music so at least people aren’t having to shout (spraying aerosol) to be heard! How injudicious is it to not do this?
Next on the list of very important things that haven’t been discussed clearly and lucidly.... Viral Loading. There is plenty of evidence, and just plain common sense, that viral loading at time of infection makes a big difference in patient outcome. Early on, with few people wearing masks and generally mediocre to poor hygiene,** viral loading at the time of transmission was very high; resulting in a higher rate of severe cases than we are currently seeing. It is really easy for an engineer to think through how to reduce viral loading, both as given out by an infected person, and the uptake by a person being infected. But here as a timely example: the school environment.
In round numbers, everyone without a political agenda wants to see schools re-opened. But there are some unavoidable problems that having a mask mandate won’t solve. For example, do you really think a 9 or 10-year-old will keep a face mask on and properly positioned all day?
Not. Going. To. Happen.
But maybe he/she will wear a face shield all day. So that when he has his mask half-removed, then yells, coughs or sneezes, there will be some containment, reducing risk of transmission and certainly reducing the transmittable viral load. A face shield will also help reduce the potential for airborne uptake to one’s eyes and help remind the wearer to not touch his eyes. Viral uptake through the mucus around the eyes seems to be a real occurrence.
Face Shields. Go buy some. If you can, donate a bunch of them to a local school that either doesn’t understand the importance or doesn’t have the funds to purchase them. They are readily available online and cost only a few dollars each. If a school has the face shields, they are more likely to use them. Same for your work environment. Get face shields and use them wherever it makes sense. Err greatly on the side of caution.
Hygiene. Especially for those of us with a Y chromosome. We all need to develop good habits of washing our hands, not touching our mouth/nose/eyes, and covering up coughs and sneezes. Here’s a thought. Always keep an extra mask with you. If you have to sneeze, do it into your mask, throw the mask away, and put on your spare (moms and dads, teach this to your kiddos and send them to school, church, etc. with a couple spare masks). Today, good masks are cheap and readily available. Use ‘em! And periodically wash if reusable, throw away and replace if disposable. A dirty mask can cause a bacterial sinus infection.
Also, “expert”*** advice was given that disposable gloves are bad. This is complete nonsense. The message is coming from people who think we are too stupid (sorry, running out of synonyms!) to learn how to properly use throw away gloves. The same class of people as at the WHO that said masks are a bad idea because they will give a false sense of security and encourage bad behavior. I suppose, with that (il)logic we should take out seatbelts and airbags from cars, because these will give drivers a false sense of security that will encourage bad driving behaviors? That is truly crazy and says a lot about what long-time bureaucrats think about “we the people.”
The 6-foot separation rule. We are all familiar with various “rules of thumb” in the frac design world. Like FCD = 10. These are helpful but should never be the last word. In a confined space with poor ventilation, 6 ft separation won’t help much. The correct answer is, don’t go in the room. In an outdoor setting with good air circulation, 6 ft is likely more than enough. If someone sneezes right at you in still air, 6 ft won’t be enough (if that happens, hold your breath and walk away. Don’t have any concern about being considered to be rude. Just get up and walk away.)
We live in an age of man-made magic and miracles. Just consider the amazing computers we carry around called phones. However, we need to remember the ability of science to solve problems is neither infinite nor instantaneous. There are so many incredibly capable and committed people working on therapies and vaccines for COVID that we will see improvement, and maybe even success, in controlling the virus. But COVID is not going away. We all need to do what we can to instill behaviors that will lessen the spread of COVID, reduce viral load in the event of a transmission, and allow our industries and our schools to get back to doing what we do better than any society, past or present: creating value.
To end on a cautionary note. Remember, the common cold is a set of viruses, and a vaccine has proven to be elusive even after decades of trying. Be prepared that a COVID vaccine may be slow in coming and may only be partially effective. In the same way we have all learned the habit of wearing a seatbelt while driving, we all need to adopt new habits of better hygiene, wearing masks/face shields and avoiding places and activities that have a higher probability of viral transmission. ****
As a young engineer doing pressure vessel design, I remember doing the math, and then applying a Factor of Safety to cover the fact that equations assume uniformity of materials etc.; the real world and real material are not perfect. Think about this with how you respond to COVID. Apply a Factor of Safety to your behaviors. Err on the side of caution. And for goodness sake, don’t be so vain that you are embarrassed to wear a mask in public! Take the opposite approach and be a leader by example. It has been interesting to me that when I am wearing my mask in public how often I will see someone put theirs on. This is a good thing. And for me, wearing a mask probably helps my appearance anyway! J
Be safe. Be well. Do good.
* Instead of repeating the word “stupid” over and over, I will use, in order, the synonym list provided by MS Word.
** Those of us with a Y chromosome have definitely not been as fastidious with personal hygiene as required in a pandemic. Come on gentlemen, pick up your game!
*** Experts. I remember the old joke about the definition of an expert being someone with a briefcase more than 50 miles from home. You can always find an expert who will tell the story the way you want, as our product liability lawyers have proven time and again. Take what you hear from some “expert” with a grain of salt.
****As an aside to the PSA’s. The very same day I bought, with zero problem, a bunch of face shields and KN-95 masks to donate to a local school, I listened to an NPR report of how there was no personal protective equipment available for smaller clinics. And the only way they could get PPE was to order of tens of thousands of units, which was far more than they could afford or use. Complete nonsense. Not trying to pick a fight with NPR, which I have listened to for decades. Just an example of the irresponsible politicization that has happened in the media with respect to all things COVID. There is a narrative that lack of PPE is a failure of the current administration, which they view to be evil, so there is a need to keep stoking that fire, facts being completely irrelevant. Certainly not saying I think the administration has done a good job with COVID. I think the level of incompetence and recklessness shown at every level of government has been astonishing. There are plenty of factually correct stories that can be told to show incompetence without having to, effectively, make stuff up (sending COVID infected patients to nursing homes has to be right at the top of the list of truly heedless decisions). Yes, you can always find people who will support your narrative. But knowingly conveying something as a wide-spread problem that you know is only some local/fringe event, is the same as making stuff up. The reporter may not be telling a lie but is certainly complicit in creating a lie.
Here is another example of not telling a lie but creating one. The social unrest around the Black Lives Matter movement has resulted in damage and deaths. But how many times have you heard this unrest, in my view, ridiculously referred to as “mostly peaceful protests”? This is factually correct in the same way it is factually correct that Alexander Hamilton died in a duel that was a “mostly peaceful walk in a meadow”—except for the couple of seconds when the pistols were raised and fired.4 | 1