Opinion by Allison Hope, CNN
It started with one person releasing a long, productive unmasked cough into the stale, recycled air on the rush hour train.
The bodily fluids hung in the air like a certified holiday wrecking ball. In a matter of days, that single exhalation had transformed into a chorus of viral aerosols reverberating, unbridled coughs and sneezes and gargled throat clearings working in a sort of crude, sick harmony backed by a nose blowing percussion I envisioned infecting all bystanders, myself included.
There’s not a place I’ve been in the past few days — public transportation, the supermarket, school, the office — where someone hasn’t been hacking, glassy-eyed, congested or hoarse.
Move over Rudolph, there’s a new red-nosed apparition that’s coming to town this holiday season. Everyone and their mother are sick right now.
It’s not just little old colds, either.
Babies and small kids, in particular, have been ensnared in the RSV wave. What is scarier than worrying your child might not be able to breathe? How about that the hospital that could save their life is too overwhelmed to help? Not to mention that Covid-19 is again on the rise, sending tens of thousands of people to hospital — and thousands to their graves — each week.
“Multiple respiratory viruses are in high circulation right now… On top of that, there is an immunity gap after two winters of few people — including children — having many of these viruses,” said Dr. Leana Wen, CNN medical analyst, emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
To add insult to injury, rather than facing the disease deluge armed with all we’ve learned over the past three years — proper hand washing, masking, social distancing — it seems like many people have crossed enemy lines. It’s as if we learned nothing from the global pandemic that has claimed more than six million lives; like we don’t understand the death toll continues to climb.
Vaccine fatigue is contributing to the exponential uptick in illnesses plaguing our schools and workplaces, towns and cities. We can’t seem to be able to do what we’re supposed to even though we know better.
“After being physically and mentally exhausted by circumstances, people begin to ‘tune out’ to protect themselves and function during a high-stress situation such as the current flu/RSV/COVID surge,” said therapist Dr. Miriam Davis, clinical director of Newport Healthcare Virginia, via email. “‘Tuning out’ is similar to denial, a common psychological defense mechanism where one refuses to acknowledge objective facts in an unconscious effort to protect oneself from anxiety or discomfort.”
So few people are masked, even in epicenters like New York City, which had to install portable refrigerators in hospital parking lots to stack the overflow of bodies of loved ones, neighbors and friends taken by the first waves of the pandemic back in 2020.
The blatant disregard — for taking simple steps to stay well and stop the spread of viruses that are potentially deadly at worst, and definitely disruptive at best — feels like we’re daring the universe to test us. I don’t know about you, but I’m not trying to take on Mother Nature. I want to open my stocking stuffers in my jammies without a debilitating illness in tow.
Why on Earth would you want to give grandma a trip to the ICU this Christmas? A dragonfly broach, tea service or the Agatha Christie box set are all vastly preferable options if you ask me. Speaking of grandma, nursing homes have failed to keep pace with life-saving preventive care. Just 50% of nursing home residents have received their covalent boosters — and only an atrocious 25% of nursing home workers.
What is wrong with us?
Put your snotty noses behind a mask if you have to go out. Better yet, stay home if you can. Last time I checked, pretending sickness isn’t in the air (or your body) doesn’t make it go away. Plausible deniability doesn’t have to be our legacy, because it will be our demise.
“There are simple things that can reduce the spread of viruses,” said Wen. “Many of these infections are spread via droplets, so coughing or sneezing into your sleeve or tissue would help reduce the spray of droplets.
“Wash your hands frequently, including after touching high-touch surfaces like shared computer keyboards or elevator buttons,” she said. “Stay home if you have a fever or are coughing a lot. And people at high risk for severe outcomes from viral illnesses should wear an N95 or equivalent mask while in indoor spaces.”
How to break through the psychological trauma of surviving a pandemic while remaining socially responsible and not throw caution (and your N95 mask) into the wind? It helps to practice moderation, according to Dr. Mirela Loftus, medical director at Newport Healthcare.
“We can exercise our individual rights when it comes to decisions about our own health, while being mindful that we often do things to protect others — drive the speed limit to avoid an accident, shovel the snow on the sidewalk so our neighbors don’t fall,” she said.
It’s reasonable for people to take small steps in care of others, but I’m not going to hold my breath. (Well, unless you’re not masking.) For now, I’m thinking of swapping my usual Christmas presents for air-tight hazmat suits and gas masks, so my nearest and dearest can get through this winter without catching or spreading something that could take us out.
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Allison Hope is a writer whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Slate and elsewhere.