January 21, 2022 by Jean
Like many people, I entered 2021 with an almost-giddy anticipation that vaccinations would soon bring the pandemic to an end. Almost a year after I got my first vaccine dose, I am wiser about the limitations of vaccination, about the wily mutation strategies of viruses, and about the ways that humans’ lack of control over pandemic disease triggers emotions that stoke social and political conflict. If I was looking forward in January 2021 to a return to normal, in January 2022, I am settling in for the long-haul and trying to find a new normal.
I have been reading Nicholas Christakis’s Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live (Little, Brown Spark 2020). Christakis is a medical doctor with an understanding of infectious disease and a sociologist who specializes in human social networks; he uses his expertise to set the Covid-19 pandemic in the context of humanity’s long history of plagues, pandemics, and infectious disease. His comparative analysis provides insight into what we have been experiencing for the past two years and helps me to think about how to move forward in 2022.
Christakis was writing his book in the late summer of 2020 – during the summer surge of Covid-19 in the southern states, before we had vaccines, and before the virus began to mutate rapidly. And yet, by drawing on his analysis of past pandemics, he does a remarkably good job of predicting what will come. For example, he says that it is “not inconceivable” that we will have one million Covid deaths in the United States by the time the pandemic ends; we have now experienced more than 850,000 deaths, and at the current rate of death, we will get to the one million mark by spring. I also found Christakis’s division of pandemics into three stages very helpful: He distinguishes an immediate pandemic period, before we have sufficient herd immunity from vaccines and infections to significantly slow the spread of the virus, an intermediate pandemic period, after we have reached herd immunity but when people are still dealing with the clinical, psychological, social, and economic effects of the pandemic, and a post-pandemic period, when things will return to “normal,” albeit with some lasting changes. He predicted that we would not reach the end of the immediate pandemic period (during which we must still deal with waves of infection and with the need for wearing masks and avoiding crowded places) until sometime in 2022. He didn’t expect that we would reach the post-pandemic period until 2024 or 2025.
Do I wish that I had been aware of these realistic predictions earlier? I don’t know. I’m not sure whether they would have helped me to plan more realistically or just led me to despair. Nevertheless, understanding that the pandemic and its immediate after-effects are likely to last another two-to-three years has made me realize that I need to find my way to a new normal; I am in my mid-seventies and can’t afford the luxury of just putting things off until this is over.
I am risk-averse by nature, so job one for me in finding my new normal is learning to be less cautious. Don’t get me wrong; I’m never going to become one of those throw-caution-to-the-wind, “I’m done with Covid” people. But I need to recognize that I can’t eliminate all risk of becoming infected, and I need to do a better job of realistically assessing risk and calibrating the line between taking reasonable precautions and being overly cautious. Yes, the omicron variant is raging in my part of the country, with infections and hospitalizations at a record high for the pandemic. But I’m also fully vaccinated and boosted, and I always wear a high-quality mask in indoor public settings – all of which dramatically lower my risk.
In recent months, as we’ve dealt with the delta and omicron infection waves, I’ve been learning to step outside my comfort zone and take some reasonable risks. I’m proud of myself for having participated in my choral group’s concert in December. Over the New Year, I drove down to southern New England to visit with various family members (including a sister who lives in a nursing home with recent infections). Last week, I both had a friend over for lunch and went to the first singing rehearsal for a March classical music concert.
In dipping my toes into the waters of increased risk, I’ve been helped by at-home rapid antigen tests. I managed to stock up on these in late November and early December, before they became just about impossible to find, and I used them throughout the holiday season to test myself before going to indoor gatherings with others. The testing does not protect me from infection, but it does greatly lower the risk that I am unknowingly infected and transmitting the disease to others. If I do become infected, I am likely to be an “epidemiological dead-end” who does not pass the virus on to anyone else. Because I’ve been testing myself an average of twice a week, the tests have also provided me with some pretty quick feedback that my riskier behaviors (like visiting my sister in the nursing home) have not been too risky.
For the past two years, I have put off various activities in favor of waiting “until the pandemic is over.” In my new normal, the question I want to ask myself is not “Should I do this now or wait until after the pandemic?” but “How can I do this safely?”