I’m Just Not Ready for the New Normal

Feb 23, 2022 — Last week, health officials pleaded with Super Bowl fans to wear masks in a crowded Southern California stadium, handing out high-quality KN95 masks as jersey-wearing attendees took their seats. However, as the cameras panned around the audience, finding someone wearing a mask was more like playing “Where’s Waldo.” Even Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti did not heed the warnings.

The Super Bowl marked the beginning of the weakening of COVID-19 protections across the country, and many people seem ready to move on.

“Numbers are dropping, and it’s time to adapt, “New York Governor Kathy Hochul said, announcing the lifting of restrictions in her state.

While Omicron numbers are down in many parts of the country for me, the pandemic is not yet in the rearview mirror. COVID is still infecting people, sending them to hospitals, and taking their lives. It still keeps children who need to learn in person at home, and it still makes life miserable for immunocompromised people.

I have an unvaccinated 2-year old who needs to be protected and a 78-year-old mother with Asthma. And it seems premature to part with the protection that has so far protected my family. The disguise certainly doesn’t show off my virtues. While my husband’s pale blue eyes and mile-long lashes shine through his facial covering, I’m left with disappointing looks and forehead wrinkles. Even if I’m the only masked visitor to Target, I’ll be wearing my trusty KN95 for now.

While I’m not quite ready to sip on a cocktail in a crowded bar or head to my favorite music venue with thousands of others, that doesn’t mean I won’t be in the future.

James Jackson, a psychologist, and psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, says I’m not alone in feeling this way. He hears similar reluctance in a number of his patients.

“I have a lot of patients who really struggle with it,” he says. “Some of them are now experiencing a lot of anxiety.”

Many of his patients who did not have anxiety before the pandemic now struggle with constant anxiety. And some of those previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are paralyzed with fear. Many patients who have struggled with serious COVID-19 or know someone who has become severely ill or died from the illness are not yet ready to face a world without protection, says Jackson, who is also the director of the Vanderbilt Clinic, which treats people with long-term the course of COVID.

“They are terrified,” he says. “And a certain percentage of them may decide to take another job rather than go back to work in person, or home school their children instead of going back to school without the mandatory wearing of masks. People are so shocked, and it won’t go away.”

These fears could intensify when protective measures against COVID-19 are abruptly lifted, especially in communities where high numbers of cases still persist. Jennifer Lisher, a single mother from Charleston, South Carolina, says she’s overwhelmed by the race to abolish mandates. While South Carolina has had relatively few safety advisories in the wake of COVID-19, a bright spot has been the requirement for her daughter’s school mask. Last year, she took her first-grader from one school and enrolled her in a private school, mainly because of the mandatory wearing of masks.

“You can be careful about everything else — delivering groceries, eating outside, avoiding indoor activities — but kids need to be in school,” Lischer says.

The transmission rate of COVID-19 in Charleston County remains high, according to the state health department, although its 7-day positive rate was “moderate” at 6.5% for the week ending Feb 21.

Knowing that her daughter was protected was worth the expensive tuition fee. But last week, the school administrator sent a nasty message: the ban on the use of masks in the school will be lifted without warning from the next day.

“It came out of nowhere. It’s frustrating and frustrating, and it doesn’t make sense because we recently had positive cases at school,” Lischer says. “I would be comfortable if the school eventually lifted the mask requirement if the positive rate in our community wasn’t still so high.”

But disguise isn’t everyone’s biggest problem. Others are worried about the potential lifting of vaccination requirements in places like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Amy Shefrin, a health policy consultant based in Brooklyn, New York, hopes these protections remain in place. She believes masking restrictions can be loosened if vaccination status is required.

“I believed in masks when we didn’t have vaccines, and now I believe in vaccines as a way to get back to normal,” she says. “I see a future in New York City without the mandatory wearing of masks, but only because we have high vaccination rates and requirements for people to show vaccination cards, and I can’t imagine living somewhere without them.”

Whether you’re nervous about lifting mandatory masks, vaccine requirements, or just a little rusty in society, COVID anxiety comes in all shapes and sizes. And according to Jackson, it’s about finding a way to deal with it without completely isolating yourself. It’s about respecting your anxiety without taking it to the extreme.

For me, that means going back to indoor dining and maybe going to the movies in the near future. But a stadium full of 70,000 exposed superfans – let’s just say my Super Bowl celebration this year was much more modest.

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