Dec 23, 2020

A Terrible Covid Christmas Special

This year was the worst. And as our staff tried to figure out what to do for our last episode of 2020, co-host Latif Nasser thought, what if we stare straight into the darkness … and make a damn Christmas special about it.

Latif begins with a story about Santa, and a back-room deal he made with the Trump administration to jump to the front of the vaccine line, a tale that travels from an absurd quid-pro-quo to a deep question: who really is an essential worker? 

From there, we take a whistle-stop tour through the numbers that scientists say you need to know as you wind your way (or preferably, don’t wind your way) through our COVID-infested world. Producer Sarah Qari brings us her version of the Christmas classic nobody ever dreamt they’d want to hear: The Twelve Numbers of COVID.

You can check out Martin Bazant’s COVID “calculator” here.

This episode was reported by Latif Nasser and Sarah Qari, and was produced by Matt Kielty, Sarah Qari, and Pat Walters.

Special thanks to Anna Weggel and Brant Miller, Catherine, Rohan, and Finn Munro, Noam Osband, Amber D’Souza, Chris Zangmeister, John Volckens, Joshua Santarpia, Laurel Bristow, Michael Mina,  Mohammad Sajadi, James V. Grimaldi, Stephanie Armour, Joshuah Bearman, Brendan Nyhan

And for more on the proposed Santa vaccine deal, see Julie Wernau and her colleagues' reporting at the Wall Street Journal here.

Original art for this episode by Zara Stasi. Check out her work at:

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LATIF NASSER: Hey, it's Latif. Last week, Jad threw down a challenge. We want 5,000 new donations to RADIOLAB before the end of the year. And the challenge worked - almost. A lot of people donated. Thank you if you're one of them, especially this year. But we still haven't reached our goal, and we really think we can. Like, this should be a doable goal by December 31. But to do it, we need you.


Everything you hear on RADIOLAB, everything that makes you laugh out loud or cry out loud or look at the world in a whole new way, that's possible because of donations. We're public radio. We're journalism that is funded by you. So if you have been fortunate enough this year to still have the ability to donate, please do - or text the word RADIOLAB to the number 70101. And to sweeten the deal, if you become a monthly sustaining member or if you're already a member, you'll have the chance to hang out with the whole Radiolab team at our first-ever virtual trivia night. And like RADIOLAB, I promise it will be trivia without being trivial.


If you've already donated this month, thank you. If not, just help us hit that 5,000 mark. We hit our goal last year. And if we don't do it this year, they're just going to blame the new hosts, which is me and Lulu. So don't let them do that. Go to, or text RADIOLAB to 70101. Now onto the show.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Listener-supported WNYC Studios.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wait. Wait. You're listening (laughter)...





UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You're listening...







JAD ABUMRAD: OK. Latif, is this is our first time doing the thing together?


JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. In the spirit of turning over the old and bringing on the new - hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

LATIF NASSER: I'm Latif Nasser.


LATIF NASSER: And before we get started today, just a quick warning - this episode contains some strong language and fact-based discussions of a certain bearded man in a red suit.


JAD ABUMRAD: Who could it be?


JAD ABUMRAD: And yeah, this is our final episode of the year, which we should just get out ahead of and say, this year has been awful.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah, just - it really sucked. It sucked hard.


LATIF NASSER: Not going to rehash it all, obviously, but - and I hate to use this phrase, but these are unprecedented times.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Several new unwanted records...

LATIF NASSER: Like every day...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Crossing the 9 million mark.

LATIF NASSER: ...We're seeing new COVID numbers...



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: ...To 11 million...

LATIF NASSER: ...Total cases...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: A hundred-thousand people are in the hospital.

LATIF NASSER: ...Hospitalizations...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: A staggering milestone...

LATIF NASSER: ...Deaths.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Three-hundred thousand confirmed coronavirus-related deaths in less than a year.


JAD ABUMRAD: It's terrible. So eventually, we were just like, you know what, 2020? Fuck you.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Oh, deck the hall with boughs of...

JAD ABUMRAD: We're going to do a goddamn Christmas special.

LATIF NASSER: We're going to have fun whether we like it or not.

JAD ABUMRAD: We're going to have some fun (laughter).

LATIF NASSER: So today, to put a cap on this godforsaken year, we have two different stories related to the pandemic, both Christmas-themed stories.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) La, la, la, la.

JAD ABUMRAD: And we're going to start with...


JAD ABUMRAD: With you. I just want to - I just want to note. Is it irony? I'm not sure if it's irony that currently we have two different people talking about two different aspects of Christmas, and they're both Muslim and don't celebrate Christmas. I love it. I love it.


LATIF NASSER: I was not only talking about - not only talking about, I was - last night, it was a midnight. I was texting Santa. I'm deep in this story. I'm deep.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK. So I know we're talking about Santa, but that's really all I know.

LATIF NASSER: OK. Well, I think the important place to start is, of course, as always, with Dr. Fauci...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Dr. Anthony Fauci reassuring kids around the world, Santa is going to be OK.

LATIF NASSER: ...Who said to a couple of USA Today reporters that Santa Claus is exempt from COVID-19.


ANTHONY FAUCI: Because Santa, of all the good qualities, has a lot of good innate immunity. So Santa's not going to be spreading any infections to anybody.

LATIF NASSER: He was just trying to get kids not to worry about Santa Claus, say that he's going to be fine.


So here's the thing. Santa is not immune to COVID-19. In fact, it's the opposite. He can get it, and he's very vulnerable. And frankly, he's worried about it. And that's what I was texting about with him last night. Like, he's worried he's going to get it. He's worried he might be - he might spread it to somebody else.


LATIF NASSER: So let me first say I learned about this story about Santa and COVID from another journalist named Julie.

JULIE WERNAU: I'm Julie Wernau. I'm a reporter at The Wall Street Journal.

LATIF NASSER: What - how did this even happen? What do you actually usually normally cover? I'm guessing not Christmas-related things.

JULIE WERNAU: No, I mean, that's my whole beat, right? I just cover Santa Claus and...

LATIF NASSER: (Laughter).

JULIE WERNAU: ...Mall Santas.


No, I actually write about the restaurant industry. And I was working on a story about winter coming and the fact that people, you know, are going to have to figure out how to sit outside in winter. And as a lot of people have seen now, there's igloos and all sorts of things and heat lamps. And I thought to myself, what else happens in winter? Christmas. What are the Santas doing? And then, you know, it just is what it is to be a reporter, right? You have, like, a germ of an idea, then you just go down a rabbit hole, and you get paid to do that. So...

LATIF NASSER: And that rabbit hole eventually led her...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We're skipping down. I'm sorry.

LATIF NASSER: ...To this.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Our next speaker is...

LATIF NASSER: Back in August, Santa actually gave a speech to the CDC.



RIC ERWIN: Thank you. Not since the depths of the Great Depression or the darkest hours of World War II have so many sane and sober adults wondered aloud whether America may be facing a year without Christmas.

LATIF NASSER: This is Santa Ric Erwin. He's the leader of a group of over 500 Santas called the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas.

JULIE WERNAU: Which is exactly what you expect it to be - it's men who look like Santa Claus and have real beards.

LATIF NASSER: It's a nonprofit trade group of, you know, Santa performers with real beards as opposed to the Santa performers with - that are, as they say, theatrically bearded or faux bearded or designer bearded (laughter). So Santa Ric basically gets this slot to talk via Zoom to this - to a group at the CDC called ACIP. They're the people who basically decide who gets the vaccine first.


RIC ERWIN: This year, Christmas will be more important to the American psyche than ever before. Our country is enduring an historic disaster trifecta, and nearly all Americans endure unparalleled suffering. But promising vaccines are in phase 3 testing already, and remaining social restrictions may be easing by Christmas. We're asking that professional Santas and other frontline seasonal workers be granted early access to the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as practical after tier-one release.

LATIF NASSER: It almost feels like it's out of a Disney movie. Like, it's like CDC, we need to save Christmas. And to do that, Santas need to be bumped up in line for the vaccine.


RIC ERWIN: Americans are going to want Santa to be at Christmas 2020. I await your questions or comments. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: On behalf of the voting members of the ACIP, Santas in America, we want to thank you for your comments and really enjoyed hearing from you. Thank you again.

RIC ERWIN: Thank you.

LATIF NASSER: And the response...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And I really did believe in you all my life.

LATIF NASSER: ...Is kind of like a pleasant chuckle.

JULIE WERNAU: And that was kind of where he left it.

LATIF NASSER: But the next day...

JULIE WERNAU: He got a call...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Unintelligible).

RIC ERWIN: This is Santa Ric Erwin.

LATIF NASSER: From a fairly high-ranking official in the Trump administration...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

RIC ERWIN: Well, hello to both of you. And just for the record, you're both on the nice list this year.

LATIF NASSER: Not nobody.


MICHAEL CAPUTO: Oh, that great. That's great.

RIC ERWIN: (Laughter) Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho.

JULIE WERNAU: ...Saying we want to work with you.


MICHAEL CAPUTO: From my perspective, if - if you and your colleagues are not essential workers, I don't know what is.

RIC ERWIN: Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho - I love you.

MICHAEL CAPUTO: So here's what I'm envisioning. We're going to be doing a lot of regional events right around...

LATIF NASSER: And when Santa Ric, like, laid out the deal, can you kind of, like, lay it out as he told it to you?

JULIE WERNAU: Yeah. I mean, he basically said that they knew that the vaccines were coming. They're talking about having Santa Clauses stationed in sites all over the country...


MICHAEL CAPUTO: (Unintelligible).

JULIE WERNAU: ...And that they're going to help get the word out and get people the vaccine. And in exchange, they'll have early access to the vaccine.


MICHAEL CAPUTO: You go to your colleagues who are in the different cities where we're having events, and have them come - and when the vaccine is available, get vaccinated first.

RIC ERWIN: You set up a station in Southern California, and I'll put 50 Santas in full costume in front of the cameras. And you let me know what other cities you're operating in, and I'll send Santas there.

MICHAEL CAPUTO: All right. I'm in, Santa, if you're in.

RIC ERWIN: I'm in. I'm 100% in.

JULIE WERNAU: And he was - you know, you can hear in his voice how excited he is.


RIC ERWIN: I live to serve Your Holiness. Thank you very much.

JULIE WERNAU: This is a big deal. Like, he's gotten through to the most powerful administration in the country.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah. Now, on the call, Ric is super enthusiastic. But then when I talk to him later about it...

RIC ERWIN: When he specifically invoked the phrase Operation Warp Speed...

LATIF NASSER: ...He told me he was actually just being nice on the phone to kind of cover up for, deep down, these misgivings that he had. He said he felt like he was kind of, like, almost, like, ice skating on a knife's edge because he's just not a Trump guy.

RIC ERWIN: This is the greatest mass casualty event since World War II, and it's responsible to one team of individuals - the clown car in the White House. But there was a conditional that I would dance with the devil by the pale moonlight if it would save a single Santa or a single American citizen.

LATIF NASSER: So it's kind of a hard position that he's in. But he says yes. And then he gets a second phone call.


RIC ERWIN: Yes. How are you, Mr. Secretary?

MICHAEL CAPUTO: Pretty good. How you doing?

RIC ERWIN: I'm fine. I'm fine.

LATIF NASSER: This time, you know, it's a few days later. Now he's even more enthusiastic. They're talking about specifics...


RIC ERWIN: Well, how about one Santa at each inoculation...

LATIF NASSER: ...You know, how many Santas. Caputo is like, I cannot wait to tell the president. He's going to love this.


MICHAEL CAPUTO: He's going to just - he's going to love this.

RIC ERWIN: (Laughter) All right, my friend...

LATIF NASSER: So things are getting really real.

JULIE WERNAU: He took to his Facebook page and informed all the other Santa Clauses that they had gotten a deal. You know, they would be getting early access to vaccine.

LATIF NASSER: Like, this is actually happening. He's thinking, we're going to save Christmas.


JAD ABUMRAD: No, no, no, no. Shut the music down. This feels like a conspiracy. And how is Santa an essential worker? That doesn't make sense to me at all. And it's very not Christmas-y (ph) in spirit.

LATIF NASSER: (Laughter).

JULIE WERNAU: At first glance - right? - I mean, it's ridiculous.

LATIF NASSER: Julie Wernau now from The Wall Street Journal again.

JULIE WERNAU: Santa Claus is a make-believe character that lives in the North Pole.

LATIF NASSER: (Laughter).

JULIE WERNAU: But I actually thought that Santa Ric's arguments made a lot of sense.

LATIF NASSER: Julie was like, OK, let's take their argument seriously for a second. For one thing, she says...

JULIE WERNAU: The Santa Clauses and Misses Clauses are, by and large, in this vulnerable population.

LATIF NASSER: A lot of these Santas are old, overweight. Lots of them have diabetes, heart conditions.

JULIE WERNAU: And I think that the argument that the Santas were trying to make is, look - we're really important, especially this year, for people's happiness, that we are essential, and we have really direct contact with the public. And so is it really that ridiculous to think that the Santa Clauses of America are essential?

JAD ABUMRAD: I kind of think it is kind of ridiculous.

LATIF NASSER: Well, to sort that out, let's ask. Like, technically, what is an essential worker?

KELLY MOORE: Well, that word is tricky all by itself. Who among us wants to feel they're not essential?

LATIF NASSER: So we called up this woman named Kelly Moore.

KELLY MOORE: Associate director for immunization education at the Immunization Action Coalition.

LATIF NASSER: She used to serve on that CDC board that decides who gets the vaccines first. And she basically was like, look - the essence of it is...

KELLY MOORE: Who must be exposed to the public or to others in order to do their jobs - and their jobs involve the life, health or safety of our other fellow citizens?

LATIF NASSER: So firefighters, police officers, teachers - you know, the people you would expect. But that definition also includes all of these sort of edge cases, like a server at a fancy restaurant. Or I saw a quote from a carpenter in The New York Times who was deemed essential who said, quote, "I'm essential to the pocketbooks of rich contractors and essential for spreading the virus. But that's about it." Or there was a case - a Baskin Robbins employee who was dressed up, like, as the mascot, like, dressed up like an ice-cream cone, and the person was taking a selfie in the mirror and was like, (laughter) why am I an essential worker? Like, it's a fuzzy line.

KELLY MOORE: So we like having, actually, these broader categories. If you try to get just the right person vaccinated with each precious dose, you'll end up vaccinating people so slowly that many people will die needlessly waiting for you to figure out who the perfect recipient is.

LATIF NASSER: So the essential worker box is big. And if the ice-cream cone guy is in there, why not Santa?

JAD ABUMRAD: Wait a second. Wait a second. So Baskin Robbins' - the Baskin Robbins ice-cream scooper is an essential worker?

LATIF NASSER: Depends on the state, but yeah, potentially, yes.

JAD ABUMRAD: But when you call someone an essential worker, you mean they are essential to society - right? - or to a neighborhood.


KELLY MOORE: Actually...

LATIF NASSER: Kelly says, not necessarily.

KELLY MOORE: Part of this is also about people who don't have choices about exposing themselves to others in the way they make their living. That Baskin Robbins worker may not feel essential, but if Baskin Robbins says she needs to be at work and she has to face a line of customers every day, she could be exposed to the virus. She could also have the virus and expose people in the workplace.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, that's interesting. So it's essential in both directions. Like, I am essential to people, and me seeing people is essential to me, and so therefore I am an essential worker.

LATIF NASSER: Right. And according to Julie from The Wall Street Journal, that's what a lot of Santas are looking at this year.

JULIE WERNAU: There are places all over the country that have deemed Christmas to still be essential. They want the Santas to be working. They want them out at the malls. They want them at the holiday parades. They want them at private events. They want them to be out talking to kids and parents and who knows what.

LATIF NASSER: Some of these Santas, that is their livelihood. They need these parties that only come once a year, and if they miss it, they're going to be in trouble for, you know, the next 12 months. And for some of these Santas...

SANTA ROBERT: Had a little bit of a gig earlier tonight and...

LATIF NASSER: ...Or for one of them I talked to, anyway...

SANTA ROBERT: ...Just vegging out now (laughter).

LATIF NASSER: ...That sense of need goes even deeper.

SANTA ROBERT: It's a calling. We are called to it. It's - but it's one of the most heartwarming and also heartbreaking things you could ever do.

LATIF NASSER: This is a longtime Santa...

SANTA ROBERT: This is my 38th year.

LATIF NASSER: ...Named Santa Robert. He told me that a lot of the work he does is pro bono.

SANTA ROBERT: The Ronald McDonald House is a charity. We go to assisted living homes, churches.

LATIF NASSER: But this is also his job.

SANTA ROBERT: Yes. And it pays quite well (laughter). You can...

LATIF NASSER: So is this...

SANTA ROBERT: You can make bank as a Santa.

LATIF NASSER: And Santa Robert told me even though business is down this year...

SANTA ROBERT: Some families want nothing to do with it because of COVID.

LATIF NASSER: He's still getting a lot of gigs.

SANTA ROBERT: A lot of them are outdoors. They want to do it in the daytime. Instead of a nighttime party, they're doing it in the daytime. They're doing it outdoors.


SANTA ROBERT: But, I mean, I'm still able to do it. I'm still able to be Santa. But it's kind of hard because when - the mask I wear is a red mask, and it covers most of the face. A lot of people will ask if I could take pictures without the mask. They're not posting pictures on social media, which is fine with me because we could all get into trouble, theoretically.

LATIF NASSER: Oh, like, they're coming up to you and they're saying, can I take a picture without a mask? And what do you say to that?

SANTA ROBERT: I usually say, yeah, if they want to get one without a mask. I try to be as accommodating to people as I can. I mean...

LATIF NASSER: OK. And they are also without a mask or just you're without a mask?

SANTA ROBERT: Yeah, they take off the mask as well.

LATIF NASSER: Oh, wow. Does that feel scary? Does that feel dangerous?



SANTA ROBERT: I know - this is - and yes, I understand this is a virus. The virus is out there.

LATIF NASSER: I should add, a few days ago at a Christmas parade in Georgia, a Santa potentially exposed dozens of kids to COVID. Santa Robert is not the only one who's doing this.

SANTA ROBERT: It's kind of hard to put it into words. This is Christmas, you know.


SANTA ROBERT: And everybody wants it to be normal. Everybody's been devastated by what's been going on all year long with the lockdowns, with work, with school. People are losing their jobs or maybe having cut-back hours, and they got to wear mask eight hours a day. Everybody wants a normal Christmas. I just - I bring in that sense of normalcy of - hey, it's all right. Let's do what we always do. We're going to have a party. Santa's going to be here. It's just going to be like old times. And they can kind of relax. They can kind of get back into it. They can forget their troubles for a half-hour or whatever. And that's, I think, very comforting to a lot of people.

LATIF NASSER: It's - but it's - like, it's a funny thing to argue for. And I get the craving for it. And yet at the same time, like, these are extremely abnormal times...


LATIF NASSER: Like, and kind of dangerous and scary times, where - like, right now - and I'm just saying LA because I know we both live not so far from - like, in LA, like, I just saw an article this morning that said, literally, one person is dying in LA every hour in LA County every 20 minutes of COVID. What is the thing that feels so - I don't know - that for you it, like, makes you say, OK, this is the scary thing that is out there, but I'm still going to do this anyway?

SANTA ROBERT: I think - well, part of it is that I need that sense of normalcy, too. But, you know, there's a lot of things in life that have happened to people. And, yes, sometimes you can take as many precautions as you can - something bad may still happen to you.

LATIF NASSER: But, like - but this is so clearly dangerous. Like, I don't know...

SANTA ROBERT: Well, I survived a workplace shooting, so - (laughter).

LATIF NASSER: Oh, because you worked at the post office?

SANTA ROBERT: Yes. The last big shooting they had there, the Goleta postal shooting.


SANTA ROBERT: And, yeah, that kind of probably has something to do with my kind of somewhat cavalier attitude, I guess you can say, because having to deal with having six of your co-workers getting their brains blown out...


SANTA ROBERT: ...By another former co-worker who went off the rails - and, yes, I knew her. And...


SANTA ROBERT: ...The world doesn't stop. The world ain't going to stop because this is happening. It's still going to go on.

LATIF NASSER: What if there was - like, the governor, like, expressly forbade it? Would you keep going out and trying - and Santa-ing (ph)?

SANTA ROBERT: Yeah. Yes, I would. My take is - a lot of people who are going to follow these rules are going to regret it. And...

LATIF NASSER: But what about the flip? If these parties, God forbid, happened to become one of these superspreader events, like, what would happen? That wouldn't just affect the people at the party; that would affect so many more people. That would ripple way further out, you know what I mean?

SANTA ROBERT: Yeah. I don't know. You know, you're making me think a lot. You're making me think, maybe I am nuts (laughter). But...

LATIF NASSER: No, I - like, this is...

SANTA ROBERT: People need Santa. That's the only way I can think to put it - is people need Santa, and I guess I need to be Santa. And it's not going to stop with this.

JAD ABUMRAD: Damn. That is a committed - and I got to say - kind of scary Santa.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah. And, now, I should say that I talked to multiple Santas for this story, and most of them are doing Santa-ing online.


LATIF NASSER: You know, over Zoom. And there are all kinds of new websites like Ringle Jingle (ph) or whatever. There's a lot of innovating. But there's also a lot of traditional Santas, like Robert, who are still doing what they do in person. And I don't know. I - like, I think maybe we should vaccinate them.

JAD ABUMRAD: What? No, they can't bad-behave themselves into being categorized as essential. No, give some of those doses to the nurses, the teachers. Those are the people who should be getting vaccinated - not the Santas, who shouldn't even be out anyways.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah, I mean, I hear you. I hear you. But those Santas are still going out anyway.

JAD ABUMRAD: Mmm. Hey, whatever happened to the whole Santa backroom deal with the Trump administration anyways?

LATIF NASSER: Well, OK. So Santa Rick had these calls with Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary from HHS. Everything looked like it was falling into place. And then all of a sudden, nothing.

JULIE WERNAU: The Trump administration stopped responding.

LATIF NASSER: Julie Wernau, from The Wall Street Journal, again.

JULIE WERNAU: They ghosted the Santas.

LATIF NASSER: What soon becomes clear...


JONATHAN KARL: ...The embattled head of communications for the agency...

LATIF NASSER: ...Is that that guy, Assistant Secretary Caputo at HHS, went on Facebook Live and just went on a rant.


MICHAEL CAPUTO: The partisan Democrats, the conjugal media and the scientists - the deep state scientists - want America sick through November.

JONATHAN KARL: He predicted a violent conclusion of the presidential election.

MICHAEL CAPUTO: If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it's going to be hard to get.

JONATHAN KARL: And civil war.

MICHAEL CAPUTO: This is war.

LATIF NASSER: It later came out that he had just gotten diagnosed with cancer. So it's unclear exactly what was happening with him, but they put him on medical leave.

JULIE WERNAU: So ultimately, it was left to us to find out what happened, you know? The Santas thought they had a deal. Do they still have a deal? And then, you know, the word back from the government was, no, they don't. And that was how Santa learned that there weren't going to be any vaccines for Christmas this year.


LATIF NASSER: The real-person Santas, that is. But...


ERICA HILL: Elmo is back for something else that I think is on a lot of kids' minds.

LATIF NASSER: In a weird twist that is keeping with our 2020 world, where often fantasy feels more powerful than facts...


RYAN DILLON: (As Elmo) Elmo's friend has a question about Santa Claus.

LATIF NASSER: ...Santa, Santa...



LATIF NASSER: ...The imaginary Santa...


ANTHONY FAUCI: ...So what I did a little while ago, I took a trip up there to the North Pole.

LATIF NASSER: ...According to Anthony Fauci...


ANTHONY FAUCI: I went there, and I vaccinated Santa Claus myself.

LATIF NASSER: That Santa - he got the vaccine.


ANTHONY FAUCI: He is good to go.


HAL DAVID AND JOHN CACAVAS: (Singing) Hello, Santa. Hello, Santa. Everything I say it true. When you come on Christmas Eve, the milk and cookies are for you.

LATIF NASSER: We will be back with another COVID Christmas story after the break.


HAL DAVID AND JOHN CACAVAS: (Singing) ...Even freezing can be pleasing. See the children bundled up and making snowmen in the snow all because of Mr. Santa Claus. This is the time to be merry...


EMILY: Hi. This is Emily (ph), and I'm calling from Toronto, Canada. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at Thanks.




JAD ABUMRAD: Radiolab.

LATIF NASSER: Back with Part 2 of our COVID Christmas show. And for this part, we're bringing in...

SARAH QARI: Hello, hello.

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, Sarah Qari. Producer Sarah Qari.

SARAH QARI: How's it going?

JAD ABUMRAD: It's going well. How are you?

SARAH QARI: As you'll hear in a second, my brain is, like, utterly spinning with numbers.

JAD ABUMRAD: So just to set things up, back in April, as we sort of switched to doing all these

dispatches, Sarah did a story about the 6-feet rule, explaining the science behind this new number that had suddenly taken over all of our lives and created these bubbles that we were living inside of. But since then, scientists have learned so much more about this virus, and all of these other numbers have started to emerge.

SARAH QARI: Yeah. It's like we were literally looking at one dimension of it. And since then, like, our understanding of the disease and managing the pandemic has, like, exploded in all of these different directions.

JAD ABUMRAD: So we asked Sarah for an update.

SARAH QARI: Yup. But, OK, we're going to do it, like, Christmas style so not the 12 Days of Christmas but the 12 Numbers of COVID.


SARAH QARI: And you know what? I'm not sure we're going to make it to 12. But it's a global pandemic, Jad. Just roll with it, 'K?

JAD ABUMRAD: All right. Hit me.

SARAH QARI: OK. So maybe the place to start is three to six air changes per hour for ventilation.

JAD ABUMRAD: Three to six air changes per hour for ventilation. OK. What does that mean?

SARAH QARI: Basically, that means how often in an hour does most - so more than 50% - of the air in a space completely change out for fresh air?

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, like if the air is a circulatory system, it needs to completely sort of filter in and filter around and out three to six times every hour?

SARAH QARI: Yes. Exactly.

JAD ABUMRAD: I'm suddenly looking around my house and thinking, how often does the air in this house change?

SARAH QARI: Yeah. Like, most homes, the number of air changes per hour that are currently happening is less than one.


SARAH QARI: Yeah, which I did not realize and made me feel very gross all of a sudden.

JAD ABUMRAD: Did you have to, like, open a window?

SARAH QARI: Yeah, basically.

JAD ABUMRAD: What happens if - well, let's say I'm in my house in Brooklyn and I open a window.


JAD ABUMRAD: Just about six inches - like, crack it six inches. How long would it take for the wind coming in through this six-inch gap to completely turn over the air in my apartment?

SARAH QARI: Well, so this one study of average houses from 2011, this - a scientist named Shelly Miller told me about this - showed that opening even just one window those six inches would make air changes happen about 30% faster - so you know, going from, like, 1 1/2 hour to one hour. And the more windows you open and the wider you open them, the better.

JAD ABUMRAD: Interesting. This is kind of interesting.

SARAH QARI: Let's see. What else do I need to say on this? Oh, so to give you some context, like, I found out that on the New York City subway, there's 18 air changes per hour, which is pretty good.

JAD ABUMRAD: Whoa. That's cool.

SARAH QARI: Planes have, like, 20 air changes, which is kind of crazy.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. That's really - this is really interesting. I find this air change thing interesting. You know what you need, Sarah Qari?


JAD ABUMRAD: You need to get some carolers for this.

SARAH QARI: (Laughter) You're so right.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the first day of Christmas, COVID gave to me...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Singing) Three to six air changes per hour.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...For ventilation.

SARAH QARI: (Laughter) Oh, my God. All right. So that's day one. OK. Day two.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK. (Singing) On the second day of COVID, my true love gave to me...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) COVID gave to me...

JAD ABUMRAD: Now you do the number. So it gave...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Three to six air changes per hour for ventilation. And CO2 levels of 600 to 800 parts per million.

SARAH QARI: (Singing) CO2 levels of 600 to 800 parts per million. (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: Perfect. OK. Cool, cool. So what does that mean?

SARAH QARI: So I called up Linsey Marr...

LINSEY MARR: Professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

SARAH QARI: She was in our Six Feet episode. And she told me that when it comes to this ventilation, air recycling stuff...

LINSEY MARR: You know, it's almost impossible for the average person to know what the ventilation rate is.

SARAH QARI: Like, you can't just look at the air and say, oh, it's new air.

LINSEY MARR: So that's why we've also talked about the carbon dioxide level.

SARAH QARI: Because we're all breathing out carbon dioxide. And so if there's a ton of carbon dioxide in the air, then you can tell that, OK, ventilation's probably not very good 'cause all this air that we're exhaling is not leaving.


SARAH QARI: And Linsey told me that the reason this number might be better is because...

LINSEY MARR: Because you can take a sensor with you - and these cost maybe 100 to $200. And then you're looking for a target number that indicates that the ventilation is poor.

SARAH QARI: And I was like...


I am outside. It is a windy day...


...Hmm, maybe I should get one of these. Do you have one of these sensors?

LINSEY MARR: Yes. I have one, and I've been carrying it around with me.

SARAH QARI: Trusty carbon dioxide detector.


What should I be looking for?

LINSEY MARR: I think if you see a number of 600 parts per million or lower, that's great.

JAD ABUMRAD: Does that mean 600 parts of CO2 per million parts of everything?


LINSEY MARR: So outdoors is going to be 400 parts per million.

SARAH QARI: Four-hundred and eighty - yeah, sounds about right.


Have you gone a lot of places with it?

LINSEY MARR: Yeah, I've taken it to the gym.

SARAH QARI: Let me try walking into Planet Fitness. That's 635 parts per million.

LINSEY MARR: I've taken it in our car.

SARAH QARI: In the car - ooh, it's going up. OK, 970, 980, 990...

LINSEY MARR: We got up to maybe a thousand parts per million.

SARAH QARI: Whoa. Holy smokes.

LINSEY MARR: But if we open the windows...

SARAH QARI: ...Cracking the window. And sure enough, it's gone down. We're back...

LINSEY MARR: I haven't spent time in any restaurant, so I haven't looked there.

SARAH QARI: Outdoor driving's (ph) not happening in New York right now, so we're going to go inside a bodega. I'm hovering by the pasta sauce. Around 615 parts per million - not bad, local bodega.

JAD ABUMRAD: See, this is the problem with our new pandemic reality. It's just so many more things to measure.

SARAH QARI: I know. It's, like, both empowering in a way if you choose to be empowered, but it's also incredibly overwhelming.

JAD ABUMRAD: Crazymaking. Like, I bought a pulse oximeter, and I got that thing on my thumb for, like, every - like, every couple hours for the last six months.

SARAH QARI: Well, if you want, you could just buy an air purifier. That is one thing that multiple scientists that I talked to recommended. They're like, just buy an air purifier.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow, that's interesting. I've always thought those things are a little bit, like...

SARAH QARI: Gimmicky.


SARAH QARI: Yeah. No, apparently they really help.

JAD ABUMRAD: Are we onto the next...

SARAH QARI: Indeed. Indeed we are.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...Day of Christmas?

SARAH QARI: So wait. Wait. This one actually - hold on.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Vocalizing).

SARAH QARI: Let me - oh, OK, OK. Yeah, so - (singing) on the third day of Christmas, COVID gave to me...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Three layers of masks.

SARAH QARI: Wait, do you already know that one?


SARAH QARI: OK, so continue the gallop (ph). OK...

JAD ABUMRAD: (Singing) On the next day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...

SARAH QARI: COVID gave to me.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, right. Sorry.

SARAH QARI: OK, you know what? I'm not even going to front. This one just fell apart in fact-checking.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter) OK.

SARAH QARI: So we're just going to move right along to the next one. OK, Day 5 - this one - oh, this one is kind of hard to do.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the fifth day...

SARAH QARI: I'm just going to let the carolers do it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...COVID gave to me...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Maybe try whispering or just not speaking so often.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

SARAH QARI: OK, another factor in all of this, in protecting yourself, it turns out, is volume. Like, how loudly are you talking can affect the number of aerosols that come out of your mouth. So this comes from a 2019 study. And in order to tell you about it, I'm going to take out my little decibel meter app. So I'm about one meter away. OK, perfect.

JAD ABUMRAD: Got the tape measure.

SARAH QARI: OK, so let's say I am whispering, OK? Can you hear me? Yes, you can hear me. OK. OK. So right now, I'm whispering at, like, 45 decibels.

JAD ABUMRAD: This right here is just 45 decibels?

SARAH QARI: Forty five decibels, yes.

JAD ABUMRAD: It feels in my heart like it's, like, 10. But wow, 45? OK.

SARAH QARI: Yeah, but 45 it is. So right now, when I say good morning, there's a ton of aerosols that are flying out of my mouth.


SARAH QARI: But then - OK, I started at 45, and now I'm going to go up to - I'm like an average 50 right now.

JAD ABUMRAD: So this right here is 50.

SARAH QARI: Yeah. Or, like, 50 - actually 51, let's say. So there's a six-decibel difference - OK? - 45 to 51. And suddenly the number of aerosols that are flying out of my mouth are twice as many in number than they were just six decibels ago.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, really? So if you just go from a whisper to barely...


JAD ABUMRAD: ...A whisper, you're doubling the amount of aerosols.



SARAH QARI: And let's say I go up another six decibels - 57 - yeah, 57, which is right around here, I think - then I'm again doubling.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my God. So every six decibels of loudness doubles the amount of aerosolized particles.

SARAH QARI: Yeah. And then, let's say, I keep going, and I go all the way up to 80, which is like me shouting at you. I don't know how to shout neutral - in a neutral voice (laughter) but I'm shouting (laughter). As we've gone up, every six decibels, we've doubled. And by the time you get to 80, I'm expelling 50 times more aerosols and droplets than I would be if I was whispering. Isn't that crazy?

JAD ABUMRAD: That's crazy. I'm a little scared.


JAD ABUMRAD: You've never yelled at me before.

SARAH QARI: I know. I'm so sorry.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter) That's wild. Wow.

SARAH QARI: Isn't it?

JAD ABUMRAD: The lesson here, I guess, is we just need to - all of us need to turn it down. We just need to whisper.

SARAH QARI: Yes. Yes, exactly. So - OK, so the scientist, William Ristenpart, that I was talking to about this, he said it's not just volume, though. Like, it's also how much you're talking. You know, obviously if you talk more, then you're putting out more aerosols into the air. And so it's not just, like, speak more quietly, but also, like, just less. Just do less.

JAD ABUMRAD: Talk less. Talk quiet. Talk less.

SARAH QARI: Talk less, and do less, and have less things to say. So yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: So one more time, and then we'll do the last one.

SARAH QARI: OK, I have just a few more. Just to sum up really quick, so far we've got three to six air changes per hour, 600 to 800 parts per million of CO2, three layers of masks. Then we had that number that was fake news. Whispering, not talking - that's not really a number, but whatever - 50 times. And No. 6 is 40 to 60%...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Relative humidity.


SARAH QARI: OK, so humidity - turns out, it's very important. So one is that drier air actually - actually, I'm going to pause because there's a very loud ambulance.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah, this is the...

SARAH QARI: Can you hear it?

JAD ABUMRAD: ...The soundtrack of the second wave.

SARAH QARI: Soundtrack of New York City in the second wave. Yeah, that's right.


SARAH QARI: So - OK, so the idea is, let's say you - I don't know - you're standing a few feet away from your wife, and you open your mouth - or near your kids - and you open your mouth to say good morning, right?

JAD ABUMRAD: Good morning, children.

SARAH QARI: Yeah (laughter). Like, just imagine for a second - like, let's slow that down. So you're like - you open your mouth, and you're like (vocalizing) right?



SARAH QARI: And as soon as you open your mouth, there's all of these particles that are flying out of your mouth.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah, yeah.

SARAH QARI: Some of them are bigger droplets, wet from your own saliva. Some of them are these light, you know, airy little aerosols that kind of can just, like, float out, like, as if you were breathing out smoke. And what happens is when the air is dry, there's no moisture in the air. There's no water molecules to, like, slow these aerosols down. So they're not running into any challenges. They're just, like, floating out into...

JAD ABUMRAD: They're like...

SARAH QARI: ...The air...


SARAH QARI: ...Coasting out of your mouth. You're like, moo, moo (ph), you know.

JAD ABUMRAD: Pew, pew, pew (ph). Shoo (ph).


SARAH QARI: And another thing that happens is that the larger droplets that are, like, sort of flying out of your mouth, like, catapulting almost and sometimes sinking - because the air is so dry, the moisture in those droplets evaporates, and those droplets then suddenly transform into lighter aerosols that can also go farther.

JAD ABUMRAD: I see. Interesting. So the little missiles coming out of my mouth are just going - are zipping through the air, basically.

SARAH QARI: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. But now imagine you're in a room...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Can you compare the more traditional way...

SARAH QARI: ...Let's say it's your kitchen.


SARAH QARI: You're doing some cooking.

JAD ABUMRAD: Making some eggs.

SARAH QARI: There's a little bit of steam in the air, and the humidity is just at that sweet spot of 40% to 60%. And let's say you go up to your kids - good morn (ph).

JAD ABUMRAD: They're like, Dad, why are you talking to me?

SARAH QARI: All these particles fly out of your mouth. Let's say you have COVID, which - you know what COVID looks like - the ball with the...

JAD ABUMRAD: Little spiky ball, yeah.

SARAH QARI: Spiky ball, yeah. So that shoots out into the air...

JAD ABUMRAD: Boo, boo, boo (ph).

SARAH QARI: ...And slowly, like - or actually, very quickly becomes, like, enveloped in, like, a thin coating of water from the air.


SARAH QARI: So the humidity almost, like, surrounds the virus particle and causes it to, like, literally fall apart.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, that makes sense to me. That makes sense to me because, I mean, that's kind of one of the principles of handwashing. Is it...

SARAH QARI: Right, yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: I mean, that plus soap, water - it rips open the membrane. So I wonder if it's getting, like - it's a little bit like a prewash, a pre-handwash.

SARAH QARI: Yeah (laughter). Should we keep going?


SARAH QARI: Quick duet?



(Singing) On the seventh day of Christmas, COVID gave to me, Sarah?

SARAH QARI: (Singing) Fifteen minutes of close contact.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Cumulative over 24 hours.


JAD ABUMRAD: OK. What does that mean?

SARAH QARI: So throughout the pandemic, the CDC was saying to contact tracers, you should consider someone a close contact when they've been within 6 feet of someone who is infected for 15 minutes, consecutively.


SARAH QARI: But they changed it to - as long as it adds up to 15 minutes cumulatively over 24 hours, then you're considered a close contact. And the reason that they changed it is kind of interesting. It's basically based on one person getting COVID.


Are you there?

JULIA PRINGLE: I am. Can you hear me?

SARAH QARI: Yes, I can. Hi, this is Sarah from Radiolab.

JULIA PRINGLE: It's so nice to meet you. I'm a big fan of the show.

JAD ABUMRAD: This is not the person you're talking about.

SARAH QARI: No, this is Julia.

JULIA PRINGLE: Julia Pringle. And I'm an epidemiologist.

SARAH QARI: So Julia told me that last summer, there was a group of inmates at a Vermont prison that tested positive for COVID.

JULIA PRINGLE: So that's when my team at the health department got involved.

SARAH QARI: And it was her job to track down anybody that they might have infected at the prison.

JULIA PRINGLE: ...Video surveillance footage, talked to staff.

SARAH QARI: And it turned out there was this one correctional officer that appeared to have gotten COVID around the same time as the inmates. But this person didn't appear to have had close contact with them, according to the CDC definition.

JULIA PRINGLE: ...Didn't have 15 minutes within 6 feet in a row.

SARAH QARI: And this was confusing because that was the rule - 15 consecutive minutes of contact means that you are at risk.


SARAH QARI: And so what they do is they go back to the surveillance footage.

JULIA PRINGLE: And one thing we kept noticing was this correctional officer, over the course of their shift, there were multiple brief encounters.

SARAH QARI: There'd be a couple of minutes where they'd bring food to the inmates, or they'd see somewhere else in the tape, like, a few minutes spent giving the inmates their medication. And Julia said that when they added up all these little encounters...

JULIA PRINGLE: Collectively, they approximated about 15 minutes of exposure.


SARAH QARI: And so they published a paper about this. And based on that one paper and that one correctional officer, the CDC ended up changing their contact tracing definition for the entire country.


SARAH QARI: So that's - those are just more numbers.



SARAH QARI: I think that's it. I think those are all the numbers I have.


SARAH QARI: But I guess there's just one last thing that I want to tell you about. You know, like we were saying before, these numbers obviously can be super helpful in certain ways. However, they are also extremely paralyzing and could potentially be really debilitating.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah.

SARAH QARI: And so one person I talked to, this guy named Martin Bazant at MIT - who's, like, a professor in the engineering department, I believe - he actually made, like, an online calculator, essentially, which I thought was really cool. I talked to him about it. And it's this - basically, yeah - this website you can go to, where a lot of these factors that we've talked about, you can plug in different variables for, like, whatever room you expect to find yourself in, plug in the humidity levels, plug in...


SARAH QARI: ...Will you be wearing a mask or not? Will - what kind of mask are you going to be wearing? You know, ventilation - are you going to be talking? Are you going to be exercising? You know, how big is the room? You can plug all of that in, and it'll give you a recommendation. And so it'll tell you, then, how many people can safely be in that room for how long. So, for example, I was, like, on - in the interview with him, and I plugged in - let's say you're in the average classroom.


SARAH QARI: And everyone is sitting and wearing masks and talking.


SARAH QARI: And it spits out this number that is basically like, OK, 50 people can safely be in this room for seven hours, which is, like, a very...


SARAH QARI: ...Surprising finding - right? - a surprising recommendation.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wait, is that a real number that you just said?

SARAH QARI: Yeah, yeah. That's a real number. Yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, shoot. That's...


JAD ABUMRAD: ...Very heartening to hear.

SARAH QARI: Right. So - and it's sort of this, you know - he finds himself in this interesting spot where, on the one hand, he's like, you know, receiving backlash because it's like, OK, you're enabling people to then, you know, go do stuff and, like, maybe be unsafe. But his...


SARAH QARI: ...Whole argument is like, well, you know, like, I don't know. If there's a way to navigate all of these variables, you know, and to move beyond just the, like, don't see anyone indoors ever, you know? Like, if there's a way to, like, account for all of these different factors in a way that makes us safer, in a way that helps us keep classrooms open, in a way that helps us, you know, keep other facets of our lives going, then, like, why wouldn't you want to do that? And so he was...


SARAH QARI: ...Telling me he's, like, heard from people, like people emailing him, that have used the online tool and have been like, I was able to keep my dance studio open because I, like, plugged in the numbers and, like, it seemed to make sense.


SARAH QARI: And so I had this many people in, and we were really safe. And yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. That's cool.

SARAH QARI: Pretty neat, right?

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. You know, it's funny. It's like, that's - I mean, you know what I find myself wondering about? - which I don't know if it's a helpful argument I'm having in my head. But - I mean, I just - I find that way of thinking very liberating...


JAD ABUMRAD: ...Because it - I mean, what we all have to do right now is we kind of have to be poker players. We have to sort of understand the odds and the risks involved and make decisions in the face of those risks, which is what a poker player does. They make a bet when they don't know what's going to happen. But they can't not bet, right? So we have to sort of do that ourselves in the way we behave and where we choose to go and whether we choose to put our kids in school and all those things.


JAD ABUMRAD: They're all kind of bets. And...

SARAH QARI: And it's sort of like, right now we're all playing poker with, like, a really poor understanding of how probability works. Right?

JAD ABUMRAD: Yes, yes.

SARAH QARI: And, like, the question is, do we educate ourselves on probability and then perhaps maybe become riskier poker players. (Laughter) Or do we...


SARAH QARI: ...Just keep playing with, like, our really crude understanding, you know?

JAD ABUMRAD: Right. And then there's this sort of a public messaging layer on top of that, which is, can we afford nuance right now?


JAD ABUMRAD: Maybe we just need to say to people, wear a mask and stay indoors and don't see anybody.


JAD ABUMRAD: And go slightly crazy and have some serious mental health blowback, but you'll be safe that way. I mean, we could say that to people, which I think is probably more effective. But it also creates this whole, like, politicization thing, which we won't even get into. But yeah, I like the online tool. I suddenly want it to be like a little drone that's flying over my head. And it just watches me as I walk in and out of spaces. And then it gives me...

SARAH QARI: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: It gives me, like, a risk rating for every...

SARAH QARI: This, like, magic device that we're slowly...

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

SARAH QARI: ...Creating through all these numbers.

JAD ABUMRAD: That is a killer gift right there.

SARAH QARI: Yeah (laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: Well, thank you, Sarah Qari.

SARAH QARI: You're welcome. And I should say thank you to my carolers - Sue Nelson (ph), Elizabeth (ph) and Sandy Laprelle (ph) and Noah (ph) and Brian Dauphin (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the 12th day of Christmas, the COVID gave to me the long-awaited Pfizer vaccine. Yay.


(Singing) One big plastic face shield, maybe try whispering or just not...

JAD ABUMRAD: All right. Well, I guess this is us trying to slip out the door, slip out of the year.

LATIF NASSER: Yep. Oh, special thanks to Akiko Iwasaki, Martin Bazant, Julia Pringle, Linsey Marr, Shelly Miller, William Ristenpart, Bill Nye, USA Today, the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas and the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.


JAD ABUMRAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

LATIF NASSER: I'm Latif Nasser. Hope you have happy, healthy - emphasis on the healthy...


LATIF NASSER: ...Holidays and New Year. And yeah, we'll check you on the other side.

JAD ABUMRAD: Thanks for listening.

DAMON: This is Damon (ph) calling from Hobart, Tasmania. RADIOLAB was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Matt Kielty, Tobin Low, Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster with help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach and Johnny Moens. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.



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