We’re closer to pre-pandemic normalcy, but I’m still masking myself
Walk into most stores, meet at restaurants, or chat with fellow Virginians, and the signs are as clear as the faces you can see now: We got through the pandemic like this — even though it is killed more than 20,400 people and infected nearly 1.8 million in the Commonwealth.
These new encounters in close contact make me wonder if we gave up caution too soon. And that’s despite the direction of a senior state health official that the risk of infection and death has dropped significantly since COVID-19 began in early 2020. More on that later.
However, my spider sense is tingling after the recent reports of new COVID-19 cases peppered in Southwest Virginia and South Central Virginia. An Omicron subvariant is dominant in the state, officials said.
Also one Washington Post article noted that the United States is seeing more than 100,000 infections every day, at least five times the number at the same time last year. Even so, The Post reported, many Americans are traveling across the country, celebrating graduations and weddings, and venturing out into bars and restaurants.
Many of us have received vaccinations and booster shots or even contracted the virus and then recovered. (I’m in the first category – thank goodness.)
But the initial burst of antibodies from gunshots or infection wears off after a few months, an infectious disease specialist told The Post.
My totally unscientific, informal survey of grocery, hardware, and other stores in my area shows that only 25 to 33 percent of consumers mask themselves indoors these days. I’m in the clear minority when I put on my mask and venture into the retail market.
“The unconscious goals of the pandemic appear to have shifted from a need for greater health awareness and setting health-motivated boundaries to a desire for greater social connectivity and experience,” said Scott Debb, associate professor of psychology at Norfolk State University, and Marnee McClellan , a graduate student there, told me in shared email comments.
“Where health security used to be paramount,” they continued, “the need for social connection began, possibly reinforced by variables such as ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) and the need to belong, to overtake that goal. ”
Trust me I get it. We all want a return to normal before March 2020. We want to blend in. We can delay parties, weddings and vacations.
Business and government officials are pushing for a return to office environments, including Governor Glenn Youngkin. Some state employees have spoken out against restrictions on telecommuting.
I have this week dr. Colin Greene interviewed. He’s the new state commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health, although he’s been with the agency for almost five years.
Greene sometimes portrayed a tone that was both uplifting and upbeat, praising the psychological benefits of meeting again in person and seeing each other’s faces — without a mask.
“We’ve come a long way since 2020,” he noted, when there were no vaccines, no treatments, and hardly anyone had natural immunity to the virus.
Since then, in Virginia, 82 percent of the population — or 7 million people — have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines. About 74 percent – 6.3 million – are fully vaccinated. More than 3 million received boosters. Virginians have been exposed to multiple waves of the virus, and some people have gained immunity after becoming infected.
“The risk of death from contracting the virus has decreased significantly since 2020, as has the risk of being hospitalized,” Greene noted.
The restrictions put in place earlier would have unpleasant, unintended consequences, he added – including the closure of schools and shops and the start of social isolation. Mental problems increased. “No one really wants to go back,” he said.
The risk isn’t zero, Green warned, but “the benefit … from tighter preventive measures just isn’t that great anymore.”
If you haven’t already, get the vaccines and then the booster shots when recommended. If you’re feeling sick, Greene said, do a home test. If it comes back positive, isolate it for five days. After that, wear a mask when you go out of the house for five days.
If you feel sick, see a doctor or go to the hospital. Immunocompromised people and the elderly need to be on guard.
However, that is only one side of the equation.
“At some point,” Greene continued, “we’re going to have to get back to our lives.”
This is a position that states are led by Republican governors touted months ago, when the number of deaths was rising rapidly across the country, and long before vaccination and immunity levels were so high. It was callous.
So forgive me if I’m a little skeptical about these new proposals.
The push to return to pre-pandemic protocols obviously has more legitimacy today. Greene found that each individual has their own tolerance for risk.
Count me on the cautious side, even with that Seven-day average deaths nationwide tend to be lower. I’m honored by the more than 1 million who have died across America since this horror began.
I will still mask myself in public. When ordering a sandwich – which I eat outside or at home – I still leave you plenty of room. Repair technicians will still wear masks when they come to see me.
You may think I’m crazy. Or maybe just cautious.