There are some words you never hear. We’re all familiar with “overwhelmed” and “underwhelmed”, but what about just whelmed? What does it even mean?

The words originate from the marine world and have been around for centuries, and these days, whelmed means where the water is coming right up to the sides of the boat, and some of it is splashing onto the deck… but it’s no big deal. Overwhelmed is where the water is pouring in from all sides, and things are heading in a catastrophic direction, ie. sinking or capsizing. And underwhelmed, of course, means nothing too exciting is going on.

We hear a lot about our medical system being at risk of being overwhelmed, but it’s not just hospital beds at risk. Long before a Covid case gets to hospital, there’s a lot that needs to happen… and every step of the way is potentially at risk of becoming a choke point. And once you have a choke point, the effects spill over to other areas.

What happens when the choke point is right at the beginning of the sequence? What if the boat is overwhelmed before it even leaves the harbour?

Two weeks ago, I drove by the Covid testing centre that’s been set up in the parking lot of St. Vincent’s Hospital. You head down 33rd, westbound, and turn right, into the lot. There were three cars waiting in line… probably a 5-minute wait. When I went to get my test a week ago, the lineup went all the way up to Cambie and then occupied the right-most southbound lane for about a block-and-a-half down. I joined the line at around Cambie and 31st, and from there it took close to 90 minutes to get tested.

I happened to drive by there today, and the lineup not only spilled onto Cambie; it now took up the two right lanes. And it went all the way down, past 26th Ave, almost to the intersection of King Ed. Two solid lanes for eight blocks, and that’s before the right turn onto 33rd for the final little bit.

My understanding is that people were being told it’s a close-to 6 hour wait.

So, here is exhibit A of an overwhelmed system. Funny how, two weeks ago, driving by there, I thought… huh, so much infrastructure for so little. A couple of piddly little cars waiting…and, for that… all these cops and nurses and tents and generators and infrastructure. It’s way too much. Ha Ha. And now, there’s only one word that applies. Overwhelmed. And here’s a spillover effect that has nothing to do with Covid: Cambie street is a designated emergency corridor. Indeed, if you’re downtown and need to get to… City Hall? VGH? The airport? It’s that straight line which, ostensibly, always has an open lane… just in case. But not today; two-thirds of the southbound lanes are a 6-hour line-up, and the other single lane is occupied by traffic which, of course, needing 300% of the allocated space, was backed up all the way to the Cambie Bridge. This would be a really bad time for an earthquake.

So… all these people being tested. Let’s start by being very clear that the startling increase in cases in no way reflects the actual reality. There are far, far more new cases today than the already eyebrow-raising 2,000+ would imply. How many people got to the line-up and said to hell with it? And at how many different testing sites? More than stuck around would be my guess. Their thinking makes some sense. Why wait it out? Go home, isolate, etc… we all know what we’re supposed to do. If it gets serious (and, overwhelmingly, if you’re double-vaxxed, it won’t), just go home and ride it out like any illness you’ve ever had. Why stress the overwhelmed infrastructure – and yes, that’s exactly what it is. A six-hour wait to get tested is nobody’s idea of whelmed.

And all of that leads into the topic-du-jour, which is an awful lot of pissed-off people. We heard a lot of “Hopefully by Christmas” ideas until recently. Until it all went to hell. The new restrictions have just added to the confusion and the anger. People have had enough, and it’s psychologically very difficult to keep adjusting to goalposts which seem to move haphazardly, and have been doing so for two years. Gyms are ok, gyms are not ok, family gatherings are not ok, restaurants yes, sort of…, clubs no, etc etc. Who makes these rules? Why are they messing with us?

The science behind these restrictions, as random as it might seem, is entirely based on likelihood of transmission. Closed indoor spaces with bad ventilation, ie gyms, are, with a bug as contagious as Omicron, a bad place to be. Big parties in enclosed restaurant party rooms? If there is one person in that room who has Omicron, after 3 hours of jovial partying, everyone will have come into contact with it. And this time, vaxxed or not, you’re at a much higher risk.

The number of people saying “So what. Enough. Who cares.” is higher than it’s ever been, and why wouldn’t it be. People who’ve been planning for months (if not years). People who’ve heard this version isn’t so serious. People whose airline tickets and hotels have crossed beyond the refundable window, and their measurement of risk/reward makes sense to them.

There are no simple answers. Indeed, there are many scenarios imaginable that technically violate the orders… yet people are comfortably wrapping their heads around ways to justify their decisions.

There are still too many variables to figure out what’s ok and what isn’t. It’ll all shake out in hindsight, but for now, everything in place is there to prevent one thing: overwhelming the medical system. But hey, guess what… the overwhelming is already happening.

The question to which we’d all love an answer is just how, where and what is being overwhelmed. What’s the effect of a virus that’s not as serious but a lot easier to catch? The math of “A third as serious but 10x easier to catch” nets out to more hospitalizations. Enough to break the system?

Around here – in fact, in all of Canada, the staggering growth in cases in not translating to hospitalizations except in Quebec, where they’re seeing a bit of a spike… but still, not even close to proportional to their new cases.

There’s no good summary to any of this; this variant hit at the worst possible time. Here’s another word where perhaps it’s fair to use the less-common form. Whereas in the past, everything we experienced was unprecedented, this is all feeling somewhat precedented at the moment. Hopefully not for long. I’d like to feel gruntled again.

In the meantime… for those who celebrate it, Merry Christmas… and may this be the last of the “memorable” ones, at least in this context.