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As pandemic hits another pivot point, so do many Americans

UniqueThis 34 Jan 24

As the pandemic approaches its third year, many weary Americans seem to have reached a mental turning point. While omicron has led to record cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, putting strain on health care systems, much of the public does not appear to be reacting to this latest surge with high levels of fear. And many seem to be shedding their fear altogether.

Some of the shift is being driven by omicron’s relative mildness compared with other variants, and the fact that vaccines and treatments are now easier to get than ever. It’s also just pandemic fatigue, as patience for restrictions wears thin.

Amid the recent omicron surge, more people seem to be questioning the value of continued restrictions – and concluding they’re not worth the cost. Parents, in particular, are yearning for normalcy in their children’s lives.

At the same time, there’s a growing awareness of the importance of in-person activities and social contacts – particularly in the lives of children.

Ileana Schinder, an architect in Washington, says she still would prefer to avoid getting COVID-19. But after watching their kids fall behind while shuttling between in-person and virtual school – and seeing things like insufficient testing hamstring the government’s response – she and her husband have concluded they can’t keep letting caution circumscribe their behavior.

“We cannot postpone life,” she says.

Ileana Schinder is done making sacrifices. 

Since the pandemic began, she and her family have been careful. They’ve missed family celebrations, summer camps, in-person school, and time with friends. An architect in Washington, Ms. Schinder is grateful she’s stayed healthy and still has her job. But over two years, the costs have added up.

So when the omicron variant recently sent caseloads soaring, and she and her husband weighed whether she should stop going to the gym – the one thing she felt was keeping her “head above water” – they quickly agreed: no. Their family is vaccinated, and while they won’t abandon all precautions just yet, it’s time to move forward. They’ve planned a trip to New York in February.

Amid the recent omicron surge, more people seem to be questioning the value of continued restrictions – and concluding they’re not worth the cost. Parents, in particular, are yearning for normalcy in their children’s lives.

“We cannot postpone life,” she says.

As the pandemic approaches its third year, many weary Americans seem to have reached a similar mental turning point. While omicron has led to record cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, putting strain on health care systems, much of the public does not appear to be reacting to this latest surge with high levels of fear. And many seem to be shedding their fear altogether.

Some of the shift is being driven by omicron’s relative mildness compared with other variants, and the fact that vaccines and treatments are now easier to get than ever. It’s also just pandemic fatigue, as patience for restrictions wears thin. Paradoxically, the feeling that the virus is “everywhere” has led many to conclude that an overly restrictive approach is no longer worth it.

And in many ways, the pandemic has resulted in growing awareness of something wholly separate: the importance of in-person education and social contacts in the lives of kids. As restrictions since 2020 have taken a toll on children’s education and mental health, Ms. Schinder and others still would prefer to avoid getting COVID-19 – but they’ve concluded they can’t keep letting caution circumscribe their families’ lives, either. 

It seems like the nation just got “comfortable with being afraid, and making decisions out of fear,” she says.

Of course, this shift in public attitudes doesn’t mean that letting go of precautions is easy – or that everyone agrees the time to begin doing so is now. For one thing, there’s still plenty of uncertainty about what the future might bring. And omicron itself has brought some of the biggest challenges of the pandemic to date.

Many people spent the holiday season foraging for scarce tests and upgrading their masks. Public health messaging – like the CDC’s revised guidance on isolation – left even the most conscientious citizens feeling awash in confusion. After two years of trying to avoid the virus, many felt a certain amount of whiplash when public health officials started saying that everyone would ultimately encounter it.

“It’s a balancing act between managing uncertainty yourself while maintaining some realistic optimism,” says Steven Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who studies the psychology of pandemics.

Some medical experts now feel little hope of vanquishing COVID-19 – but say that fact isn’t cause for more pessimism.

Bob Wachter, chair of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, lives in one of the most COVID-19-cautious cities in America, and has taken what he calls a “conservative” approach for most of the pandemic. Yet as soon as the omicron surge passes – and barring an unexpected new variant – he says he’s planning to resume a fairly normal life. That means traveling, dining indoors, only wearing a mask in special settings like airplanes, and visiting more freely with friends.

He says he started planning this return to normal in November, when the United States appeared to have hit a “steady state” with the virus. And while omicron temporarily derailed things, his sense of the bigger picture hasn’t changed.

“Am I going to hunker down for the next 10 years?” Dr. Wachter asks. His view is, “We probably – or at least me personally – will have to accept a mild level of risk.” 

“I can’t let this ruin my life”

Anna Boustany, a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, has been diligent in maintaining safety protocols throughout the health crisis. She wears a mask, gets tested whenever exposed, stays careful about her contacts, and is happy to offer proof of vaccination whenever required. Lately, though, those tools have felt less effective. 

“I feel like I’ve done everything right,” she says. “But also, my friends who have also done everything right are getting [COVID-19].”

The sheer number of people she knows who’ve been diagnosed recently has made her both less afraid of the virus and less willing to upend her life to avoid it.

“I can’t stress out about this anymore because I’ve spent a year stressing out about it and not being able to do anything, and that was just – to be frank – depressing and sad,” says Ms. Boustany. “I can’t let this ruin my life.”

Many parents in particular have undergone a shift. For the past two years, Ms. Schinder says, the message from officials in her area has been that parents who are willing to make sacrifices can keep their families safe. But after watching her children fall behind while shuttling between in-person and virtual school – and seeing things like insufficient COVID-19 testing hamstring the government’s response – she now feels like those sacrifices don’t make sense.

Public health experts acknowledge that every strategy to limit COVID-19 has a cost. And different people have different risk thresholds, which can change over time.  

“We know that people are fatigued, and no one expected that this pandemic would linger on this long,” says Jerome Adams, U.S. surgeon general from 2017 to 2021.

Still, he would encourage people to find a path that balances minimizing harm while maintaining daily life. That’s true even for people who feel burned out after two years of safety measures.

“People really can make a more educated risk assessment about whether or not they want to go to a football game or go out to a restaurant,” says Dr. Adams. “But the challenge is that many of the people who are saying ‘I’m done with the pandemic’ haven’t shown themselves to be willing to do the things that will allow them to go out safely and interact in society with this virus still circulating.”

A new phase, especially for schools

Alex Sherlock follows a strict set of safety measures at work as an environmental planner in Cincinnati. He’s vaccinated, keeps his mask on around people, and keeps his distance. Per company policy, a positive contact cues an immediate 10-day quarantine. 

But in his personal life, Mr. Sherlock is less careful. He goes to restaurants and bars and sees friends without much hesitation. Omicron has made him more aware of COVID-19’s spread, but it hasn’t made him feel anxious. 

That was true even on Christmas Day last month, when he tested positive. Even though he had to cancel his holiday plans, contact the people he’d seen, and reschedule a lot of work, Mr. Sherlock stands by his approach. He says he’ll continue to follow safety rules whenever required, but he doesn’t feel afraid and doesn’t plan on changing his behavior.

“I would say I’m more or less done,” he says.

Yet others are finding it much harder to let go of caution, after two years of pandemic life.

Marc Gosselin works as school superintendent in Lenox, Massachusetts, where student cases have risen quickly since the holidays. That’s led some parents to keep their children at home – even when healthy. 

So this month, Mr. Gosselin wrote an open letter to the community, asking that it trust the school system to take the right steps. Data have shown that almost all transmission, he says, happens outside the classroom. Their schools work to ensure students are socially distant, tested, and masked.

A parent himself, Mr. Gosselin knows how important it is for children to be in school. He also believes the pandemic is entering a new phase, and that families will need to be brought along. He was asked recently whether he would want to know if his child was exposed to the virus. At this point, he says, no.

“We need to just continue to assure parents that their schools are safe and ... to be able to listen to their fears,” he says. “We’re going to have to learn at some point how to live with it.”

Professor Taylor of the University of British Columbia says history shows there’s often a natural progression in pandemics, where governments and institutions begin easing up on restrictions as it becomes clear fewer people are willing to follow them.   

“It’s a matter of finding ways that are personally meaningful of toughing out this situation,” he says. “The bottom line is, we need to remind ourselves this will end – pandemics always end.” 

Nick Roll contributed to this report.


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