The pandemic. Keeping it real.

Pandemic America: Land of the Free and Home of the Toddler

The fitness center staff grimaced as I swiped my ID card. But it wasn’t me or my cracked card that caused her grief. In the gym I saw the unmasked meathead and his female companion lifting heavy weights, meathead with mask in his hand as he directed lifting tips at his gal pal, who wore her mask below her chin. The staff member called to them to mask up and they ignored her.

This staff is about 5 feet tall, 90 lbs, and has cerebral palsy. I like her and we talk whenever I visit the gym. She is quiet, unflappable, smart, and kind. A friendly face to meet me at the desk.

Next, she turned off the music and asked them to mask up over the speakers. They ignored her. After that she called them out by name. They ignored her. Now she pulled herself up from her chair behind the desk and began her laborious walk across the gym floor. Also exercising was a Black woman older than me, another old beardy White guy like me, and two college age men, all of whom looked annoyed and wary.

I ambled toward meathead, timing my amble to arrive beside the gym staff. The gal pal pulled on her mask and the guy covered only his mouth. I said you need to cover your nose. He said it’s kind of tough cause I’m working out. I said you need to cover your nose too. He said it’s hard to breathe. I said maybe you should leave if it’s too hard to breathe while wearing a mask at the gym. You need to cover your nose. What if I don’t want to? Ahh. A petulant toddler. I’ve raised four toddlers, so I knew what to do here. You need to cover your nose or maybe you should leave if it’s too hard to exercise.

He is a muscular large meathead 15-20 years younger. I was wearing my mask while lifting and cycling. The other people were also properly masked. I repeated, Maybe you should leave if you can’t wear a mask while exercising. Again. Maybe you should leave. He pulled it over his nose, making a big show of it. His gal mumbled something at him. He would have to admit he is feeble if he could not wear a mask properly when all others, most of them older people such as myself, can wear a mask properly during sweaty cardio/aerobic activities. Check-mate.

I exercised. They masked up, grunted, and left.

The pandemic. Keeping it real.

The Coronavirus in Action

If you’re like most people, you may find it hard to picture SARS-CoV-2, the invisible virus that causes COVID-19. You probably know the virus often attacks the cells lining our respiratory system. The virus spreads to other people in respiratory droplets and smaller aerosols that are expelled while coughing, sneezing, talking, singing, and even breathing.

Here’s a recent photograph taken during a study that may help people better understand the potentially enormous magnitude of viruses produced by infected cells of the human respiratory system.

Newly produced viruses leave their infected cells and can accumulate in huge numbers within mucus. Outgoing, exhaled air scatters mucus in bits ranging from visible droplets to aerosols, which are tiny, nearly invisible specks that can stay suspended in the air for quite a long time after the infected person has left the area.

What does this image tell us? This photograph was produced using a scanning electron microscope. The specimens are actual human cells obtained from a volunteer’s respiratory system. The cells were grown in laboratory dishes, and then infected with a known quantity of SARS-CoV-2. Later, the same cells were examined with an electron microscope.

Electron microscope images are in grey-scale. Here, the original image was colorized to highlight areas of interest. The human lung cells (purple) are covered in hair-like cilia (blue). Those cilia line the inner surface of the airways and help to clear mucus (yellow-green) containing dust and other debris from the lungs. Emerging from the surface of those infected airway cells are many thousands of coronavirus particles (red). For scale, the bar represents 1 um, or one micrometer, which is one millionth of a meter. Those viruses are each 50 – 70 nanometers in diameter. One nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 75,000 nm in diameter, and a fingernail grows about 1 nm per second! (By the way, in 1 nanosecond, light travels 11.76 inches, about the length of a typical pipe cleaner)

In this study [1] about 1 million human cells were infected with about 1,000 viruses; in only 96 hours, these cells produced about 10 million viruses.

This explosive growth of the virus may explain how COVID-19 spreads so easily from the lungs to other parts of the body and to other people. Studies have found transmission occurs more efficiently in crowded, indoor environments.

Let’s hope images like this remind us why it is important to avoid indoor crowds; keep physical distance between people; wear face masks when among people; and wash hands regularly.


[1] SARS-CoV-2 infection of airway cells. Ehre C. New England Journal Of Medicine. 2020 Sep 3;383(10):969.

Photo Credit: Laboratory of Dr. Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina School of Medicine