Michael (name changed) is a 40-year-old Virginian who had been extremely careful about social distancing and following the stay-at-home rules since March. Of late, the summer weather had become a lure while the constant staying at home had begun to wear at him. He yearned to venture out of his self-imposed exile.
A friend was having a cookout for Memorial Day, and it seemed the best get-away. A few others were invited. No one was “sick.” It was a cozy get-together with drinks and food. And a way to chase away the COVID jailhouse blues.
While returning from the event, he found himself surprised at how much fun he had and how people were so carefree, and enjoying themselves, and joking over their pathetic lives over the past couple of months.
The next day he started feeling really sick and started developing severe respiratory symptoms. They seemed more serious than the flu. He decided to check into his doctor’s office. And got the news a couple of days later: He was positive for COVID.
This was scary. Never did he think this would happen.
This was followed by two weeks of hospitalization and feeling very ill as the virus slowly made it through his system. Although he was once healthy and in relatively good shape, he remained on a ventilator during much of his hospitalization, with lasting damage to his brain, a reminder to all that the virus is still a risk to all of us Virginians.
As Virginia has continued its reopening plan, gradually relaxing limitations placed on social gatherings and businesses, daily new cases have risen again. When Virginia began Phase II (June 12) of the reopening plan, there were 496 daily new cases on average. The daily case counts began to rise sharply. At the beginning of Phase III (July 1) of the plan, the new average daily case count was 744. As of August 1, we had risen back up to 919 new cases per day.
Think back to the beginning of the pandemic in Virginia. The first signs of its presence were the closing of schools and businesses. Then came the guidelines that advised people to take precautions to reduce the transmission of the virus. At the time, there was a heroic attitude associated with these precautions — whether it be avoiding large gatherings, distancing, or wearing face coverings — because people felt that they were protecting not only themselves, but also their friends, family, and community. Unfortunately, this did not last long.
Gradually, many people found that they were not personally affected by the virus; none of their friends and family had it. This made it difficult to act heroically in the face of seemingly nonexistent threats, and people started to see the precautions as burdens.
What these people didn’t know was that the reason they had never been personally affected was that they had been cautious. This distancing from the dangers of the pandemic had reduced the coronavirus to a simple set of statistics. People began to use the death count (2,684 in Virginia at the time of writing) to measure damage, disregarding the months that a person could spend on a ventilator, the potentially necessary lung transplant, or the long-term organ damage.
All the while, the attention of the public and the media shifted away from the virus. In the United States, internet searches for the coronavirus peaked in mid-March, then dropped sharply. To many Virginians, it seemed either that they were fighting a lost cause or that the virus was no longer a threat. So, they attempted to begin the transition back to normal. Many people cited mental health and the desire to return to normal as the reason why coronavirus precautions were no longer necessary.
Although as schools, bars, and businesses reopened, COVID cases increased and every large gathering had the potential to be the next super spreader, people couldn’t stand the thought of keeping up the “new normal” of restricting their activities and their contacts with others.
This phenomenon has been termed COVID fatigue. It’s where people no longer take coronavirus precautions because they feel that the risk is decreasing, or they feel that nobody else is remaining cautious. Though neither is true, it plays a major role in determining the ebb and flow of COVID cases.
So what can we do to reduce or eliminate COVID fatigue?
» Follow the facts. What we know about the virus changes every other day. Whether it be new research, new policies, or new cases, it’s important to stay updated. Read the news to see what the most recent recommended guidelines are. Read stories about what others have experienced with the virus to reduce abstraction. Understand why each of the precautions is necessary. These are all great topics for discussion with your virtual communities.
» Build a routine. Sitting around streaming shows and scrolling through social media can make every day of the pandemic feel exactly the same. This repetition can be demotivating, and it’s what drives the urge to return to the pre-COVID normal. Instead, create a new normal for the pandemic. A schedule might include working on hobbies, exercising, working, or volunteering.
» Connect with others virtually. Humans are social creatures. Sitting at home and interacting with people once a week won’t do it. Set up a time with friends and family to call and simply discuss recent events. Form a community online and set up meetings. Seeing their faces and hearing their voices will help enhance the experience.
» See the virus for what it is. Why do we put on a seatbelt or wear a helmet? The answer lies in the clearly visible threat of being hit and hurt. It’s important to remember that the virus is just as dangerous, if not more so, than automobile or bicycle accidents. This recognition will help build these precautions into our daily lives.
» Remind yourself that this is the only way to end the virus. Many people are currently hoping for a vaccine. Even in the case that a safe vaccine is produced soon, it will certainly be difficult to roll out. The only certain way to eliminate the virus is if each individual protects himself or herself to prevent transmission.
We need to keep up the fight against this virus. Without certain knowledge of when a vaccine will be created and rolled out, we remain unprotected.
We should advocate for strong public health efforts such as greater testing availability, contact tracing and stronger enforcement of guidelines from the governor and the Centers for Disease Control, such as physical distancing and facial covers.
We also need to provide areas of self-isolation for those who believe they have symptoms of the virus.
Despite strong advances in our knowledge of the virus, many things remain unknown. It is certainly not easy to keep up the cautious behavior associated with the pandemic, but it remains an essential step we all in Virginia have to take to protect ourselves, our community, our state, and our country. Spread the word and remember: We are, and always will be, in this together.
Rajesh Balkrishnan is a professor of public health sciences at the University of Virginia. He can be reached at email@example.com. Ryan Chou is the communication lead at EndCoronavirus and a senior at McLean High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Both are a part of a citizens action groups called Virus Free Virginia and EndCoronavirus.org.
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