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Not Ready to Return to Normal: Those with Underlying Health Conditions are Still Apprehensive About COVID

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Like you, we’ve seen the signs all around us that people are “done” with COVID. In spite of a stubbornly high infection rate, most cities and businesses have dropped their mask mandates, and people are returning to restaurants, theaters, and airports. A few months ago, 90 percent of customers at our nearby grocery stores seemed to be wearing masks when shopping, but today that figure feels closer to 25 percent, and dropping. Plenty of people seem ready to get on with life.

But not everyone feels that way. For millions with autoimmune conditions or other health worries, the return to so-called normal is putting them at risk and making them fearful of going back out into the crowd. If that describes you, or a friend or loved one, we think this recent article from NextAvenue, written by freelance writer Randi Mazzella, provides a helpful perspective, and maybe a big dose of empathy. It’s a valuable reminder that not everyone is ready to go back to the way things used to be just two short years ago.

Putting COVID in the Rearview Mirror

Mazzella begins, “After over two years of dealing with COVID, everyone wants to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror.” But,” she goes on, “for people with underlying health conditions, it still isn’t possible to go back to their pre-pandemic everyday lives.”

Between ever-shifting mask mandates, declining cases, and vaccine requirements, it really does feel like everyone is trying to get back to some idea of normal. But not every person is truly able to do so. For example, the article cites Rena McDaniel of South Carolina, who has a rare form of rheumatoid arthritis. She said, “Before the pandemic, I was able to go out shopping and meet friends for lunch. Now it’s been over two years and I am still afraid to leave the house for fear of catching COVID and getting really sick.”

For people like McDaniel, it’s not just paranoia. Infectious disease expert Dr. Sanjeet Singh Dadwal said, “COVID is still out there, as well as other respiratory viruses like RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) and the flu. If you have a compromised immune system due to illness or a transplant, you still need to be vigilant. People who come in contact with this vulnerable population also have to be mindful.”

We Are (Still) All in This Together

Mazzella notes the unique sense of unity that typified the early stages of the pandemic, despite the fears. “When the pandemic began in the United States in March 2020, the world seemed to halt,” she writes. “Schools closed, offices went remote and social events were canceled. While essential workers fought the pandemic, everyone else remained home to stay safe. As scary as it was, there was also a camaraderie.”

Maritza Martinez Quintana of Puerto Rico has myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disorder, which forced her to a strict doctor-ordered quarantine. She remembers believing—like most of us did—that the pandemic would only last for a few weeks. Soon, the mask mandates, social distancing rules, and vaccine requirements actually made it easier for Martinez Quintana to feel comfortable leaving the house.

But as the article explains, that confidence has slowly ebbed into fear as the mandates have lifted more recently, and as highly contagious variants have kept infection rates high.  She told Mazzella, “My mother recently remarked that it looked like the end of the pandemic phase was drawing near. But for people like me who are on immunosuppressive medications, it will take a while before we can begin getting clearance from our physicians to go out and about without a mask. I know I’ll have to deal with people asking, ‘Why are you still utilizing a mask?’ It’s going to be a circus.”

Feelings of Isolation

This feeling of being the only one who still needs to follow the protocols for safety from COVID can lead many to a sense of isolation, Mazzella warns. “Feeling almost like you’ve been ‘left behind’ while others begin to travel again, or even run simple errands without thinking about masks or crowds, can feel limiting and lonely,” said Alyssa Mairanz, owner and executive director of Empower Your Mind Therapy.

McDaniel said, “I still haven’t been to a restaurant. The only people I see in person are my husband, two daughters, and grandchildren.” In a similar vein, Martinez Quintana noted, “I want to go back to activities and enjoy things like going out to dinner without fear, but it is hard to navigate. I have trouble believing the pandemic is over.”

Support Systems and Self-Care

But it’s not all bad, as people find coping mechanisms. McDaniel and Martinez Quintana have found positives hiding in the negatives about their situation, despite the challenges. “I have had a lot of time to think,” said Martinez Quintana. “I started a blog/journal to help me with my feelings and do watercolors. My life isn’t as big as it used to be, but it is not bad either.”

McDaniel has found connection through phone calls and emails, as well as a deeper sense of freedom in the outdoors. “Getting outside and gardening, which I started doing during the pandemic, has saved me,” she said. “The fresh air gives me new breath. Sometimes, my husband and I go for a car ride, not to go anywhere but to get out of the house.” 

Along those lines, having supportive partners to help with errands and shopping has been a lifeline for both Martinez Quintana and McDaniel, but it’s something they know not everyone in their position has access to.

Respect for Each Other

Mazzella writes, “If you are lucky enough to be able to go back to more normal activities without restrictions, try to be conscious of those who are not.” We think this is especially true for friends of seniors who still feel isolated and at risk.

It goes without saying that no two people will respond to the stresses of a global pandemic in exactly the same way, whether they are ill or not. And being ill adds whole layers to the experience that others can’t comprehend, so patience and understanding are paramount, even if that means fighting your own sense of phone, mask, or Zoom fatigue for the sake of those who still need it.

Dr. Dadwal said, “If you are going to be in contact with a person with a compromised immune system, you must be vaccinated and boosted for COVID as well as vaccinated for the flu. Before you see them, you should take a home antigen test. And if you think you have cough or cold symptoms, even if you test negative or think you might have allergies, stay away. Reschedule the visit or suggest a video chat instead.”

Don’t Leave Friends and Family Members Isolated

Most importantly, check in with your loved ones. Mazzella suggests, “Continue activities such as virtual game nights or book clubs so that friends that aren’t able or comfortable going out yet don’t feel isolated.” And she adds, “If you see someone still wearing a mask, be compassionate, not judgmental.”

Mazzella ends her article with a tweet from New York City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan, and we felt it appropriate to share here: “Let’s be kind to each other when it comes to managing our own risk. You don’t know what life circumstances someone might be accounting for in their choice to mask.”

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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