I haven’t had my furnace cleaned this year. Back in December, just as the Omicron surge hit, I called the man who had installed my new furnace a few years ago and made an appointment for a maintenance cleaning and safety check. He arrived on time, which was a nice surprise. But when I answered the door, he was standing on my stoop, about two feet away from me, and wasn’t wearing a mask. (I was.)
I asked him if he had a mask in his truck. If not, I could give him one. (Back then, I kept a box of surgical masks on hand, in case. Now, I keep some extra KN95s.)
His answer “I don’t wear masks” was said with a good-ole-boy smile that I might have considered charming in other circumstances.
I was dumbfounded and just stared at him.
“Is that a problem?” he asked.
I said, “Yes.”
That brief interaction left me shaking and feeling violated. As the day progressed, I began to feel angry that someone would refuse to wear a mask in my home while a highly infectious virus was filling the hospitals yet again. Hell, this is my home! My anger eventually turned to righteous indignation.
Back then, the issues were clear. If you respected others and cared about public health, you wore a mask and socially distanced whenever you were outside your established bubble, and you got vaccinated as soon as possible. In contrast, those who refused to follow such basic protocols (which my grandmother would have called common decency) were the kind of people who would rather trust fallacious rumors and misleading reports than science. They were willfully blind to the harsh reality of the toll covid was exacting in terms of hospitalizations, deaths, and the disruption to all our lives. Obviously, they had no empathy for others or a sense of civic duty, and they were taking chances not only with their health and lives, but also endangering all of us.
How easy life is when things are black and white, with no ambiguity. When the “rules” are well defined, and the world divided into those who respect them and those who don’t give a damn, your choices are clear. But with this latest covid surge beginning to retreat, that level of clarity is going to disintegrate, and life is going to get messier and even more confusing.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a comfortable, safe home in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains where isolation presents no real hardship. I have enough to eat, a good internet connection, and a loving dog as my companion. For the first six or so months, I had a great deal of difficulty focusing , but I now have a pandemic routine that has enabled me to get significant work done on my two current works in progress – a new novel and a book of essays. My biggest problem has been loneliness. I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed just being with people, talking and eating together, laughing aloud, all without masks or worry. And gawd! I’ve missed the freedom to hug the people I love, without worrying that my touch might cause them harm.
During the past two breaks between surges, I was able to return to a modified social life that involved masking in public and staying away from crowds as much as possible. I got my vaccinations and booster as soon as I could, which meant that I could spend time with friends and family, share a writers’ retreat with two dear friends, and participate (in person!) in the Worldcon of Science Fiction in Washington, DC. I was even able to share a few hugs after too many months of not touching another soul other than my dog Shayna.
Then came Omicron which broke all the “rules” of my personal new normal by being even more infectious than the previous variants. The numbers were worse than anything Delta had thrown at us, bringing the total number of U.S. dead to nearly a million. Sure, the hospitalized and dead were to a great extent unvaccinated individuals. But we were also seeing a disturbing trend of vaccinated people becoming asymptomatically infected. In other words, we could be carriers of the deadly virus without knowing it. And the more warm bodies the virus could invade, the greater opportunity it would have to continue to mutate, potentially into even more deadly strains. Not wanting to be counted as among the bodies that might help covid evolve and dominate, I went back into my isolation mode for the time being, while I waited out this latest surge.
The big difference between this surge and the previous ones is that testing has now become more readily available. So my isolation didn’t need to be so drastic. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, my sister Lee drove up from Philadelphia for a 3-day visit, and some snow tubing. Because we both had negative results with the rapid at-home antigen tests that we took the morning before she came, we had an old-fashioned visit. We cooked and ate together, rode in the car with our windows closed, exercised, played with our dogs, and yes, we hugged! All without masks or social distancing. In other words, we behaved as though it were 2015, not 2022. What a wonderful sense of freedom and human normalcy.
Now that the Omicron and Delta numbers are going down in my area of the country, I’m about to return once more to the world beyond my comfortable Poconos home. Armed with KN95 masks, my vaccinations and booster, an imperfect understanding of the new social etiquettes, and a supply of at-home rapid antigen tests, I’m ready to embrace life fully. I’m starting in a few days, when four people I love very dearly will be renting a home in a nearby resort. I thought my only worry about their visit was that this unseasonable heat wave we’re having in the Poconos might make it impossible for the resort to make snow, which would put the kibosh on our plans to go tubing.
Then, I asked them to consider testing before we get together, so we could have the same kind of joyous freedom that Lee and I had. Expecting all our tests to be negative, I felt it would give us the opportunity to simply be together without even thinking of covid.
However, the mom and dad decided they weren’t willing to do so. Their young sons were tested once a week at school, and they were all vaccinated and boosted. They felt that was all they needed to do, despite the fact that they have an active life that involves being around lots of other people. I was told, if they had any symptoms they would test, but that’s it. Though they love me as much as I love them, they simply weren’t willing to do any more than that.
“Why not?” I said. After all, the antigen tests are a nothing. A swab and done. And then we could share a loving – and hugging – bubble, separate from the world of worry about infecting each other.
The answer was a flat, unshakable no. If it would make me feel more comfortable, they said, we could stay outside and/or mask when we’d be inside together.
Well, there’s no way that, after all this time of not seeing them, I was going to take the day off to spend a short time outdoors with them and then go home when we got tired or cold. Of course, I would also sit and talk and play and be with them wherever they were, including inside the rented house. But would we then have to be masked and not hug? It makes me sad just to think of it.
This morning, during a Zoom call, a friend made it clear that she felt that I was being overly cautious about this visit out of the fear of becoming ill. Actually, that isn’t my primary, or even my tertiary concern. I have a remarkably robust immune system, inherited from my dad who lived a good life right up to his death when he was 99 ½. I support this legacy with vigorous daily exercise and a healthy pescatarian diet. It’s been years since I’ve had a cold; I can’t remember my last bout of flu.
In other words, if I do “catch” covid, it will probably be a rather mild case. It’s more likely that I’ll be an asymptomatic carrier. And that’s what worries me. I would hate to be patient zero of another outbreak within my community.
To help me come up with a solution, I sat down and wrote out the following lists.
Here are both the good and not so good of what I understand about covid:
- Though we are in a downward curve of infections. According to last night’s PBS NewsHour, more than 70,000 people died last week globally, and the U.S. is averaging 2,100 deaths daily. The Atlantic reported that close to 200,000 U.S. residents are testing positive daily. That doesn’t include the unknown number of people testing positive with the at-home kits.
- A lot of people will eventually get covid, perhaps most of us. But the longer we can delay getting infected, the more effective the treatments will be, as the medical world develops a clearer understanding of the virus and comes up with new medicines and protocols.
- A growing body of evidence seems to indicate that the efficacy of vaccines and boosters, as well as any immunity resulting from having had covid, diminishes over time. Some of the studies seem to say that the immunity provided by my three Moderna shots may be significantly reduced at this point.
- We’re being bombarded by a confusion of conflicting regulations and recommendations regarding masking and social distancing. The one thing we can know for certain is that it’s been proven that both are very effective in shielding us from infection, especially when combined with vaccinations.
- Time is on our side. Though we have no idea what mutations of the virus will develop over the next few months, science is catching up and beginning to fill in the holes. After all, flu mutates every year, and that’s why the flu vaccine formula changes annually.
- We can slow down the mutations and help to bring the end of this pandemic about by doing our best to avoid lending our warm bodies as incubators for the next variant.
Here’s how I feel:
- I would hate to be the cause of someone I love or even a stranger on the street becoming ill and maybe dying.
- I feel a deep moral obligation to do what I can to stem this pandemic and not let it continue any longer than necessary.
- However, the only thing I have any control over is myself; everything other than my body and my home is beyond my influence.
- If covid wants to mutate, I can do my best to not help it, at least in terms of my body and personal space.
- I’m as tired as anyone with the limitations that the pandemic has imposed on us. But I fear that our emotional exhaustion might cause us to make risky choices.
- I am healthy and strong and likely to come out unscathed but there are no guarantees.
- As the covid numbers continue to diminish, I could play the odds and try to live a normal life, as so many of my friends and family living in safer communities are doing. After all, my entire life has been one of taking chances. (Heck, I’m a freelancer which isn’t exactly a career for anyone risk-adverse.)
- I will feel more secure when I receive my second booster.
But where my mind keeps going is the fact that we’re in this pandemic together – globally. How we handle ourselves affects not only the current situation for our most immediate community, it also determines how we will face the future and the kind of world we want to live in. I choose to care about and for the people around me, starting with the people I love, and spreading outward. That responsibility weighs heavily in any decision I make about what I will do and how I will behave as long as covid threatens us.
Still, I’ve missed hugs, and I need them. And in a few days, I’ll have the opportunity to share some with a wonderful, loving family. So here’s what I’ve decided. I’m going to test before seeing them, to protect them. Assuming my result will be negative, I’m then going to forget about covid while I’m with them and simply enjoy their company – unmasked and in close proximity. After they leave, I will assume I’m infected, until I can test again. That will mean a few days of holing up in my home, hopefully finishing the next chapter in my novel. If I become infected, I will make sure that no one else will get covid from me. That’s the best I can do at present in this uncertain and constantly changing environment.
What are your plans, as our communities start to open up?