Smoking lessons in the time of COVID

by Max Yeh | May 11, 2021
6 min read
Photograph by Thomas Stephan on

I used to be a smoker but haven’t puffed the stuff for 40 years. Still, whenever someone lights up, even outdoors, I get a whiff of pleasure from that distinctive, slightly sweet and fresh aroma. I don’t mean the disgusting smell of stale, exhausted, charred second-hand smoke, but that very fleeting, instantly dissipating breath of quick attraction. Indoors it can come from the other side of a large room. Outdoors, it can come from someone 10 or 15 feet away.

Have you ever caught that fragrance? If you have, then you should be able to understand something that so many people in the country and in this county don’t seem able to understand: this is how COVID-19 is transmitted.

That light-up smell is a bunch of little aroma molecules about 30 to 100 micrometers in size, gently being wafted to your nostrils. A micrometer or micron is 1/1000 of a millimeter or about 0.00004 inches. Cigarette smoke particles are a bit smaller than the aroma molecules that accompany them, and about the same size as the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes COVID-19. Things this size are all classed as aerosols.

The CDC has recently released an update on Covid transmission, finally identifying aerosols as a prominent way of transmitting the disease. When an infected person speaks normally or even just breathes regularly, viruses come out into the air mixed with liquid as droplets. These droplets are heavier than air and slowly drop to the ground, which is why we are advised to keep our distance.

As the droplets fall, they also dry out, leaving the viruses as aerosols, like cigarette smoke and smells, floating about in the air. Indoors, they can last hours, suspended and circulating. Outdoors, they drift about not as long if it is sunny, because sunlight can deteriorate them. If you can smell that aroma of a cigarette being lit, you are close enough to the smoker to give him COVID with his first puff if you have the virus in you.

New cases and deaths in Sierra County are rising again after a couple of months of near leveling out, so evidently not enough people here have been vaccinated to clear the disease. Although vaccination reduces the number of people who get sick with COVID, it’s not clear that vaccinated people can’t transmit the disease.  There is some evidence that it reduces the possibility because, when a vaccinated person does get infected, the body’s immune system stops viral reproduction in a matter of days, but that leaves those days open for the infected person to spread the disease.

So, even vaccinated people should keep their distance and wear the right mask indoors.*

But unvaccinated people are the real problem. Over half of Sierra County is unvaccinated, and they are a danger to everyone.

The bottom line is that we are still in a pandemic created and prolonged and now continued by some people’s mistaken understanding of freedom. That apparently common misapprehension is so ironic in the nation that first invented a government based on the idea of freedom, even if that freedom was not an actuality.

As I said in a previous guest column last month, freedom in America is based not on rights but on equality as that which gives rights meaning. Rights are nothing if everyone does not have them. For anyone to assert his or her right over and above others’ rights is, by definition, authoritarian. That’s what tyrants, dictators and kings do: assert their rights above those of others.

In America, the right to life and health (as in the pursuit of happiness) is innate, inviolable, inalienable and universal.  So No one has the right to refuse to wear a mask during an epidemic or the right to decide not to be vaccinated so as not to endanger the life and health of others. Anyone who asserts that right is an authoritarian and hasn’t taken to heart the words of the Declaration of Independence. The next time you see an unmasked face inside a public place, know that that person cares for his or her self-proclaimed authoritarianism more than for your life or your health.

We should also be clear when thinking about the virus that it is very intimately ours. The virus has no life of its own. It can only reproduce inside the body of the infected person. It’s a bit like procreation. The virus that the infected person sheds is given life in and by that person’s body, and therefore is that person’s offspring. All we ask is that people take a little responsibility for their kids instead of foolishly insisting that they and their kids can do whatever they want in a free country.

If you don’t like this comparison, how about granting the fact that by producing the virus in our bodies, the virus is our personal property. An obvious parallel: no one has the right to let their dogs roam about biting people. If even that comparison doesn’t work for you, consider that the virus is an unwanted product of our bodies and, therefore, something like our feces and urine? In that case, we are simply asking that people don’t foolishly claim that they have the right to spew their stuff all over the place in public.

It seems part of the fiasco of the pandemic is to have to argue these self-evident truths. If all the claims we hear in Sierra County about rights—mask-wearing, vaccination, sovereign citizen’s rights, right to bear arms, etc. —did not ignore the equality of all people, hiding in plain sight a drive for inequality and authoritarianism, we might ignore the confusion. But the misunderstanding about rights has drowned any serious discussions and confused everyone. In the new topsy-turvy world, the people who argue for choice in the abortion question are now arguing for life on the COVID question, while the people who argue for life are arguing for choice. If we don’t straighten out the discourse, it will be chaos not democracy that reigns. I might as well take up smoking again.

*  N95 or surgical masks are effectively tested to filter 95 percent of particles that are at the larger end of the aerosol size and can filter out some of the virus. Single- or even double-layer cloth masks don’t help at all with aerosols, even though they might help with the droplets. Stretch fabrics, like the turtleneck pieces guys in Sierra County like wearing, might be worse than helpful since they tend to break up the droplets without catching them, turning the droplets into aerosols.

Editor’s Note: The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released the results today of a national poll conducted between April 29 and May 3 that documents the prevalence and reasons for vaccine hesitancy. Its findings: “Fewer Americans are reluctant to get immunized against the coronavirus and they are growing more confident in the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and the quality of their distribution. But those who still hesitate have concerns about whether the vaccines have been properly tested. And 61 percent of those who are hesitant worry about side effects from the vaccines.”

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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