Pandemic Pause: Month 3

Tuesday marked three months since shelter-in-place (SIP) began in NorCal. We’re in Week 13. Other than exercise, out the door on my own two feet, I’ve left the house four times; three times I stayed in my car; I haven’t interacted with more than a few people at a time.

I recognize how incredibly fortunate I am. My superstar husband, whose “acts of service” love language has seldom been more apparent, has done all our shopping and errand-running. While my job got “postponed” I have a (tiny) side gig that helps (a tiny bit). We’re also spending less, with little need for gas, new clothes or make up, entertainment, etc.

I wish it weren’t so, but wearing a mask gives me a panic attack. I need to freely breathe fresh air and, though my mother-in-law has sewed us an assortment of masks from beautiful materials, I’d rather stay home than wear a mask for any length of time. (For what it’s worth, I don’t love snorkeling, either.)

Three months is a long time to stay home; Pandemic Fatigue has set in everywhere. Then again, there are those who never took it seriously or who kinda-sorta went through enough of the motions to at least resemble those who played by all the rules. Anyway, reopening has begun and people have ventured forth.

Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm was interviewed by Terry Gross for NPR’s Fresh Air. He points out that, worldwide, we’re all confused as to how to live in this pandemic time.

He warns that so far, only 5-7% of the U.S. population has been infected. “All the pain, suffering, death and economic disruption have occurred with 5 to 7%. But this virus is not going to slow down transmission overall. It may come and go, but it will keep transmitting until we get at least 60 or 70% of the population infected and hopefully develop immunity — or if we get a vaccine, that can get us there too. And so I want to be really clear: None of us are suggesting this is going to stop and go away…”

One commenter did the math: “So given 7% of the population of 328 million has been infected and 119K have died that makes the mortality rate 0.5% over all. Given 70% of America’s population would need to be infected before we get herd immunity I calculate that would be over 1 million dead.” While 0.5% sounds negligible, 1 million dead does not.

Last weekend a neighbor posted this:

I followed the link to a CDC graph of CA cases. Yikes!

Tell me again why we’re reopening?

Another graph specific to our county shows that right now our small town is actually one of the safest places in CA to live in regards to the pandemic. And yet, as the county rushes to reopen, cases have begun to rise. And as people begin to travel and return to shops and restaurants, it may get worse. A county spike of 114% in the last month is nothing to sneeze at. Goodness gracious, please don’t sneeze!

Of course there is the debate about what SIP was meant to do. Even though the CDC graph shows a dramatic spike from March through June, that may be considered a flattening of the curve from what had been predicted. The spike might have been gargantuan, Jack and the Beanstalk tall versus The Hulk. The Hulk is still larger than life, but not Giant in the Sky ginormous.

We needed time for hospitals and medical personnel to prepare, and for medical equipment to become available. So our case numbers are low enough that they could potentially handle a full load of very sick people. Okay.

Some argue that SIP was never meant to drop the infection rate to 0. But why would we not do everything we can if we have it in our power to at least keep the infection rate from climbing? Even if that means not doing things we’d like to.

CDC guidelines specify that reopening should only happen after a downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over fourteen days, which hasn’t happened yet. In fact, according to Dr. Leana Wen, an ER physician, visiting professor of public health at George Washington University, and former Baltimore city health commissioner, “Nothing about the virus has actually changed.”

But…the economy. Our country runs on money. We need money to feed and house our families. Committed to supporting small local businesses, our family seldom ate out before yet we’ve gotten take-out every other week in the last three months. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be eating in a restaurant filled with people and servers milling between tables, even out of doors. And I don’t need anything at TJ Maxx.

But…mental health. New-to-me anxiety soared as SIP began, so I followed all the guidelines to a T and made meticulous shopping lists and got kitchen-creative to manage our needs while limiting Guy’s grocery runs. That helped my mental health, while others in my household struggled differently. We had good conversations and did our best to be gentle with ourselves. No matter who you are, this pandemic pause has taken a toll.

As reopening continues, Managed Risk will be key. I continually ask, “Is it necessary?” Is it necessary to meet in person if we can talk on the phone? Is it necessary to eat out if we can eat at home? Is it necessary to go to the gym if I can go for a run?

For me, the answer tends to be a big, fat NO. Meanwhile, my 16yo son went out last night. Three teenagers in a car together, all wearing masks, drove down the freeway to a fast food place. They got take-out and ate as they drove home. A fairly small risk that certainly helped his mental health.

Sometimes as I have observed loved ones and neighbors differently negotiating SIP, I have felt ashamed, like Chicken Little crying, “The sky is falling!” Maybe I’m just annoying. Maybe I’m not equipped to correctly interpret the scientific data. Then again, maybe I’m not wrong, and maybe I’m reading the info correctly. Caution doesn’t make me a coward.

For now, I’ll continue to stay home.

Cover image by Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay