As we start to see an ebbing of Omicron in the US and our hospitals become less overwhelmed, I find myself once again struggling to decide how much risk I am willing to take to avoid COVID in order to go back to some level of normal life. I make some decisions with the mentality that I am triple-vaccinated and that, even if I contract the virus, it is likely to be incredibly mild. I make other choices as if I must avoid contracting COVID at all costs. In the latter case, I sometimes tell myself I am being careful to protect the vulnerable, but, deep down, I know I am primarily worried about me. Regardless, even as the science suggests I should be revising my risk tolerance higher, I still armor myself like I am walking onto a battlefield every time I venture out of my bubble.
Take the grocery store. Since the start of the pandemic, I have advanced from ordering groceries for delivery and wiping them down at home to suiting up in mask, gloves and glasses to shop myself to now, just masking and not even using hand sanitizer once I’m back in the car. But my in-store habits haven’t changed in all that time. While at least fifty percent of the others shopping aren’t even wearing a mask, I am still speeding down aisles when I see unmasked shoppers and holding my breath if I stop for an item. I still stand six feet away while waiting at the fish counter, and I eye any employee I approach to see if he or she is complying with the store masking guidelines. Last week in a grocery store, I saw an unmasked young girl staring at a bakery case that someone had left open by accident. Her unmasked mother suggested she close the door because it was the “right thing to do.” All I could think about was how these two were unmasked in a store where the average age of shoppers is probably 60 years old, and the mother thought closing the bakery case door was the relevant moral lesson?
Or eating in restaurants. I stopped dining inside restaurants again once the Delta variant hit, except in cities where you must be vaccinated to enter the premises. I have now dined inside at a restaurant three times in 2022, all in the past week and all in locations where mask mandates don’t exist. The first time, my parents requested it which is ironic since they are the ones over 75 years old. With the place fairly empty, they seemed at ease, but I worried every time the unmasked waitress approached closely enough to serve or clear. The next time, we met friends who had requested an indoor table because they knew I get cold easily and thought I would prefer it. They too were completely at ease, but, again, I leaned slightly away every time our unmasked waiter approached the table. Monday this week, we dined with friends at a crowded restaurant in Beaver Creek filled with locals and vacationers. This place has low ceilings, little table spacing, and still air. All of us were uneasy and cited our triple-vaccination status to one another several times. We also kept reminding each other that we are pretty young and really healthy. Still, we all worried we’d be coughing the next morning.
Sadly, I manage conflicting feelings about how much risk to take in terms of COVID every day and several times a day. Join my doctor’s decision to forego the mask when in patient rooms? Wear a mask into the locker room since it’s almost empty? Checkout or leave immediately when the man in front of me at CVS has a coughing fit? Shake a new acquaintance’s hand upon introduction? Rationally, I’m trying to follow the science, but emotionally, I harbor “but what if” concerns about how my body might react if I do become sick. I now have many triple-vaccinated close friends who caught COVID and had no real issues. I have a few friends whose elderly triple-vaccinated parents caught COVID, and they too were fine. Even so, I think these friends continue to feel conflicted too. Whenever I speak to them or others who are fully protected, we tell each other we are so over it, yet almost all of us express the same concerns and behave very cautiously. What will it take for those of us who should be able to see the disease as endemic to start returning to normal human living?
I am starting to think it is about experimentation. We have become so comfortable in the safety of our bubbles and practices that we no longer are used to normal social experiences. I haven’t contracted COVID from my restaurant forays. I also haven’t contracted it since I’ve stopped wearing a mask in my doctor’s office and in empty shops. And, maybe unsurprisingly as a result, I am realizing I am game to push my limits a little more. Assuming nothing harsher replaces Omicron, I’ll definitely dine indoors at restaurants a little more frequently in February, and I am not going to worry about the servers. I’ll keep masking in places like grocery and drug stores, and anywhere the entry door requests compliance, but I’m going to stop rushing past the unmasked in an aisle where I need something. These are baby steps, but they are still a start. My next frontier is international travel: we are headed to Grenada with our kids for spring break in March, and I’m going to resist cancelling for fear of contracting COVID there. Jim and I have planned two trips to Europe for this spring and summer, and while we chose places that are highly-vaccinated, flying over the ocean is another step. Even more ambitiously, we plan to travel as a family to Africa in August (postponed from 2020). Our tour planner told me he has not seen a single case contracted on any of his trips since the start of the pandemic. Maybe by the time we go, I won’t be worried about that either.
Jim and I just finished watching Station Eleven, an HBO show about a post-pandemic world where most people don’t make it. We both felt a little queasy as we watched -- the series reminded us how much worse COVID could have been. The fact is we do have effective vaccines; there are now excellent, pill-based therapeutics ramping up production, and Omicron is less virulent in those vaccinated, a trend that many experts think could persist. Hope looms large, so if I push myself to base my risk tolerance on the science, it’s time to start living. I’m resolved to try. Hard.