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Please Do Not Forget the Pandemic

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The case numbers are higher than ever. Yet, I need to go to work in the morning. I read the latest COVID-19 updates as I eat breakfast, during my lunch break, or maybe glance at it before bed. I try to make sense of the news when the headlines seem disorganized. Sometimes, a really important update gets lost in the list of ‘live’ ones. When I do get a chance to read about it, the COVID-19 updates feel more detached from my life than they used to. 

Am I becoming numb to COVID-19? I remember when the scenes from hospitals could make me cry. The news can still make me tear up in general. Details of the damage caused by the set of tornadoes that hit multiple states recently made me cry upon hearing it. I remember the fear of dying or of at least getting severely ill, especially back when we knew next to nothing about the virus. Now, we can share the genetic code of a new variant across countries and quickly track its spread. We have vaccines and recently approved drugs to treat COVID-19. The doctors have a much better sense of how to treat it now. They have spent almost two years at this point figuring out which options work best to save the lives of those impacted by it the most. And yet, the daily case numbers are higher than ever. 

I know high case numbers alone do not mean the pandemic is necessarily getting worse. We have to focus on other data as well, such as data around hospitalization, which helps us know how severe the cases are. Looking at the percentage of tests that are positive can help us see how well contract tracing is going. The experts now talk about the potential for COVID-19 to become more mild and endemic like the flu. They discuss how the new omicron variant seems to be more mild based on initial research. I know academically we should be looking at more than the repeated headlines about how yet another country, state, or city has recently set a new record for their highest daily case number since the beginning of the pandemic. And yet, somehow this terrifies me a bit more in some ways than the early pandemic. 

One of my biggest fears right now is that people might start to ignore the pandemic. It is a big enough problem if people start becoming numb to it and stop taking precautions like hand washing and masking wearing. Although, the honest answer is not everyone followed this public health advice all along. Still, some people who were taking precautions before may stop doing so and fall into old habits that did not include these precautions. Even worse, though, is the people who find themselves having to take bigger risks because society as a whole stops taking precautions. If masks are not mandated, people may choose to not wear them. Even when they are mandated, I have seen fewer and fewer people in grocery stores and other public spaces wearing masks lately. Masks are much less effective if I continue to wear one while the people around me do not. I say that as someone who hates wearing masks sometimes. In the summer especially, my mask fills with sweat and that sweat then sits against my face all day. If I accidentally sneeze into my mask, everything I sneezed out just sits in the mask when I otherwise might have grabbed a tissue. I lost count of how many times my mask started getting sweaty or otherwise dirty and I was somewhere where I could not change it. I tend to get more acne when I wear a mask, with that acne primarily being on the skin the mask comes into contact with. The only good part about wearing a mask, besides it slightly slowing down the spread of COVID-19, is that it helps to hide my expression if I do not want someone to see how I feel in that particular moment. While I know emotions still show in the eyes as well, if not areas of the body besides the face, there have definitely been times I silently mouthed something under my mask in frustration, hid a laugh, or let out some other emotion that would have been more obvious without the mask. 

A lot of the protections that existed earlier in the pandemic have expired. For a while, employers had to provide paid sick leave if an employee was quarantined. Now, if a worker gets quarantined, it seems that they can be forced to take time off without pay. This may have changed again since I wrote this, though. Many workers cannot choose whether to work remotely or not, even in jobs that theoretically can be done remotely. If their boss will not allow them to work remotely, then an employee is forced to choose between the risk of contracting the virus while working in person or giving up that job. The same goes for students when school is done in person, especially for college students, who may consider delaying their studies rather than continuing to go in person while case numbers spike. As case numbers continue to rise, people will have to make hard choices between possibly leaving work or school due to the risk posed by COVID-19 or continuing to attend while putting their health at risk. Sometimes, losing the paycheck or scholarship is a bigger risk. As we go into the new year, more protections are set to expire. For months, a policy was put in place to prevent people from getting kicked off Medicaid during what was deemed a public health emergency. At the time of writing this, it was set to end on January 15th, unless it gets extended. While I do not have any student loans, I also know many people are dealing with the deadline for when the student loan payment freeze will end. These supports all seem to be ending and few new restrictions to help slow the spread have been put in place. I know lockdowns can cause economic and other issues, though few people in the United States seem willing to consider that option. Masks alone have become so controversial, with some resisting even mandating masks, let alone vaccines. What tools do we have left to fight the pandemic right now and support people during the fight, with so many previously used tools disappearing? 

Beyond the burden seeming to fall more on individuals now, the other thing I fear is people letting COVID-19 spread as an endemic some day and no longer paying attention to it. We have come so close to eradicating it at one point, then the hope of that possibility was lost. If we had contained it better and vaccinated people faster, maybe that could have happened. We have done it for other communicable diseases before. I fear what will happen when people ignore the continuing spread of COVID-19. I will never forget when my professor came to class knowingly sick a few years ago and days later, a bunch of people from my class had the flu, including me. I always get my flu shot, so that was not the issue. The problem was a strain of the flu was spreading locally that the vaccine that year had not accounted for. We never confirmed it was the professor coming to class sick that caused a bunch of us to catch the flu, but regardless, it had obviously spread a bit on campus for a bunch of us to be sick with it the same week. However, no one seemed to pay much attention to this. Another time, I was working a retail job when my supervisor came to work sick. He ended up leaving early, though I really wish the social pressure to come to work when only slightly ill did not exist. Countless times, people come to school or work slightly ill only to feel so bad they have to leave early after pushing themselves to come in sick. Meanwhile, whatever they have can spread to their coworkers and classmates instead of them staying home and resting. I became sick with the same symptoms as my supervisor a few days later, except I also became more severely ill than him.

I want to be cautious not to blame individuals too much for coming into work sick. We have normalized the idea of coming into school or work sick, unless you have a really severe symptom, like a fever. Even then, some people come to work anyway due to not having enough paid sick days or simply under the social pressure to not take time off. For some people, taking unpaid days off work for a small cold means they might not be able to pay their bills, if not lead to other issues. Additionally, when I speak of people feeling ill here, I mean from acute, communicable diseases, like colds, the flu, and COVID-19. A whole separate issue is that someone with chronic conditions may present with cold symptoms, such as a cough. I know I can be stuffy from allergies alone and would not want this to force me into quarantine, let alone for the ways my other long-term health conditions occasionally impact me. If anything, I was worried earlier in the pandemic when the list of COVID-19 symptoms started including very common symptoms. I was concerned people with chronic conditions might run into issues where someone who does not know them assumes they have COVID-19 based on presenting a very common symptom. I remember when a woman got mocked in the news earlier in the pandemic for taking the bus while either coughing or sneezing a lot, though while everyone talked about concerns over COVID-19, I wondered if the woman had a chronic condition that lead her to present that symptom and relied on public transportation to get around. While I do not want people to come to work sick from an acute, communicable disease, we also have to make sure any precautions we take to fight COVID-19 do not discriminate against people with chronic conditions or disabilities either. Trying to work with chronic conditions is a whole other issue that deserves further discussion in its own right. 

On the other hand, I have lost count of how many times fellow students and coworkers have shown up coughing and sneezing, if not throwing up or feverish. People were at least being a bit more careful towards the beginning of the pandemic. Now, I am starting to see people come to work coughing and such again. I do not think these individuals are at fault as much as the social norms that teach us not to take off and the lack of financial support given to those who do need to take time off due to illness. I am scared that I will catch COVID-19 now simply because people are being less cautious and are less supported in taking time off if they do feel ill, forgetting that case numbers are higher than ever and a new variant has emerged. I have taken pretty much every precaution I can, including getting a booster. There is not much I can do besides try to sort through the cluttered COVID-19 related news and continue to take the small precautions that are in my control, like hand washing. I am trying my best not to become numb to it. I am also trying my best to cope with any negative emotions towards it. Though the more I cope with any fear or frustration, the more I am concerned about just becoming numb to it. It is not that this is becoming normalized because things keep changing. It is more that people seem to react less strongly and pay less attention to COVID-19 related news. What happens when the pandemic continues to rage on, yet the average person treats it as nothing more than an afterthought? I am not saying every waking moment should be devoted to the pandemic, though we are quickly approaching the opposite extreme where the average person pays it no mind. We need to find ways to live with COVID-19 without completely ignoring it. I am not sure how. I just know what I have observed lately is definitely concerning and I hope we change gears soon. I do not wish to go back to the days of letting major communicable diseases spread in the background as people come to work sick, with few alternatives. We need to give people the tools and options to fight the pandemic still, not let it drift to the background.