A Note from the Overly Cautious
In which I scream into the void
(As promised. Note: I wrote this last week, before the 5-day CDC guidelines were released, so just take the amount of barely coherent rage you see here and triple it.)
All right, hi, it’s time to have myself a good old-fashioned blog rant. I’m blacking out the name and profile pic on my inspiration here, both because I don’t know this person and because I see something like this about thirty times a day on Twitter, so there’s no real point in singling one guy out.
[ETA: Actually, I am a genius who failed to black their name out everywhere, so I’m deleting the image and just giving it to you in text:
Tweet from Person 1: “In all my Holiday travel to visit family, here's something I noticed: The folks panicking the most about Omicron are highly likely to be vaxxed & boosted. This level of concern seems a bit misplaced given actual risk profiles. I'm not sure how to explain this reaction.”
Kate replies: “‘The folks panicking most about Omicron are highly likely to be well-informed and responsible,’ in other words. Which dots aren’t connecting for you, bud?”]
Since There Seems to be Some Confusion
I want to tell you what it’s like to be one of those people who remains highly concerned about Covid, despite having a relatively low personal risk of becoming seriously ill from it. (Thanks, science!)
The unspoken accusation here—in fact, that particular guy did speak it in follow-up tweets—seems to be that some of us, drunk on working from home and avoiding crowds, now wish to keep the world in permanent semi-lockdown so we never have to go back to how it used to be. This, despite a few simple facts that should be obvious even to the dimmest observer:
Many of us worked from home and avoided crowds long before the pandemic. Introversion, even misanthropy, does not require other people to isolate themselves; it just requires them to not be near you.
Exactly what I said in my snarky tweet. Being vaxed and boosted is a sign that one listens to public health experts and health care workers in the field, who keep telling us that Omicron is nearly as contagious as measles. (Granted, that’s a meaningless measurement to most of us under a certain age, because VACCINE MANDATES MEAN WE’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED AN OUTBREAK, but I am given to understand it’s real bad!) The same doctors and scientists also tell us the sheer volume of Omicron-infected people is already overburdening the health care system, and it’s bound to get worse. Of course people who value that expertise would change their behavior in the face of such news. What is hard to explain about that?
PERSONAL RISK IS NOT THE ONLY CONSIDERATION DURING A FUCKING PANDEMIC.
Let’s take a few minutes with that one, actually.
I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That Other People Exist
If you can understand what the word “contagious” means, you should understand that there is no such thing as “personal risk tolerance” during a pandemic; as soon as you leave your home, you are imposing your own risk tolerance on everyone you encounter. I can get vaccinated, get boosted, stay home as much as possible, and wear a tightly sealed N95 every time I go out, but if I walk into the bank and encounter a fReEdOm-LoViNg mAvErIck who’s unvaccinated, wearing a cloth mask around his chin, and on his way back from a family reunion in Florida, his level of risk tolerance smashes mine like rock smashes scissors.
Your “personal” decisions about vaccination, masking, socializing, dining out, drinking out, attending movies or performances, even going to work AFFECT OTHER PEOPLE, because we live in A GODDAMNED SOCIETY, and this virus is AIRBORNE, and the dominant variant du jour is INCREDIBLY, RIDICULOUSLY CONTAGIOUS, and vaccines and masks DO HELP SLOW THE SPREAD but can only do so much, especially when large portions of the population REFUSE TO DO THESE BASIC THINGS, and our government bodies, by and large, are STILL TOO CHICKEN TO MANDATE THEM, SANS LOOPHOLES, LIKE YESTERDAY.
Do you know how long it’s been since I wrote a blog post with that many caps? This is what I’ve been reduced to. Writing like it’s 2007.
So. Let me tell you how I’ve been living, as one of those people who’s consistently erred on the side of caution for nearly two years and is now vaxed, boosted, and extremely worried about contracting Omicron—which apparently means I secretly long for forever lockdown and don’t care if anyone ever has fun again.
Almost 47-year-old woman, married to 49-year-old man, both reasonably healthy but with underlying conditions that increase risk of complications. (We’re fat, among other things.) Both have worked from home for ten+ years. Home is a condo in Chicago; walking out our front door means entering shared indoor space. Never had measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, or smallpox—didn’t even need to be vaccinated for that last one, because vaccines worked so well for the previous generation. Had chicken pox long before vax existed; fucking sucked. As far as I know, I haven’t had Covid-19, though I did have a nasty, lingering upper respiratory thing in February 2020, before it was easy to get a test. That’s the last time I was sick, and on top of the 10 million other things I’m about to say, I cannot even tell you how much I’ve enjoyed going nearly two whole years without a cold.
March 2020-March 2021
Left our one-bedroom apartment as little as possible. Got groceries via delivery and curbside pickup. Relaxed a bit about that—and takeout—when it became clear that fomite transition was not playing a big role. (We never wiped down groceries, for the record, because I couldn’t see the need, as long as we washed our hands after touching them.) Created a “pod” with a friend who was also extremely cautious. During summer months, took camp chairs to various parks to enjoy fresh air/not being in apartment. Occasionally invited friends to join us, and talked to them from more than six feet away, behind masks, until it became clear that outdoor transmission was also not a huge concern, at which point we lost the masks. Had a beer outdoors at local pub, sneaking sips behind masks, felt too weird, went home. Went absolutely fucking stir crazy and bought a two-bedroom condo in December 2020, just so we’d have an extra door to close between us sometimes. Moving was the highest-risk activity we engaged in during this time. Got vaccinated at first possible opportunity, in hopes of being able to resume something like normal activity.
March 2021-June 2021? Maybe July? IDK
The glory days. We were fully vaxed by the end of March and started going in stores again, even unmasked! We went to the bar where we had spent a great deal of our thirties, sat indoors, had some drinks, and felt like we were finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Woke up literally the next morning to news of a new “Delta” variant that was twice as contagious. Started masking again when we went into stores and only drinking/dining outside, but otherwise didn’t worry too much. Hung out with lots of vaccinated friends, unmasked. Took public transportation downtown. Went to the Art Institute, twice, with visiting friends. As soon as it got above 60 degrees, we spent at least three evenings a week on patio of local pub, unmasked because outdoors, feeling halfway normal.
(This is the thing about being longtime remote workers: Going out a lot was how we managed to stay reasonably sane while working from the same apartment for almost all of the last fifteen years. We’re both indoor kids who can last a while before we actively miss human company, but working from home is not actually the same thing as social isolation.)
I learned that a friend was thinking of hiring someone at his bookstore and mentioned that I’d always dreamed of working in one, maybe one day even owning one. He hired me for sixteen hours a week.
Let me reiterate: I took a minimum-wage retail job, which I did not need, in the middle of a pandemic. That is how much trust I placed in the following things:
The store’s uncompromising mask policy (which includes the words “NO COMPLAINING”)
Vaccine uptake in the store’s neighborhood
History of the store being open without incident during the pandemic (after a prophylactic closure early on)
The owner’s willingness/ability to close the store and continue paying his two employees as necessary, in the event that one of us actually gets Covid or the overall situation once again feels unsafe. We haven’t gotten there yet, which is good, because it turns out I love this job. I love leaving the house and chatting with strangers again.
Most of those conditions, obviously, do not exist in a typical retail environment—which sucks enormously for people who have to work in those environments, but that’s a whole other rant. Still, even the best retail job in the world, which I pretty much have, involves customers—i.e., a series of potential exposures. Given all the aforementioned conditions, I decided this was an acceptable level of risk for me, my husband, the friends I see unmasked, and the people I might breathe on when I enter establishments where they work.
I wish my personal risk tolerance didn’t affect all those other people—and I’m transparent about it with anyone I have an opportunity to tell—but alas, society. Other people. Existing. The best I can do is stay informed by reliable sources, think things through, and refuse to be cavalier about anyone else’s health. Too many people keep declining to do any of those three.
After it finally got too cold for the patio: Ate inside a restaurant for the first time since February 2020. Started hanging indoors at aforementioned local pub, where they were requiring that all patrons be vaccinated. Planned our first travel in two years, which would include an outing to see a friend’s band, indoors.
Mid-December to present: Omicron has made us both nervous and more cautious. Not “panicked,” mind you—that’s horseshit, ascribing excessive fear to people who simply acknowledge changing circumstances. But I leveled up from surgical masks to N95s at work recently and still spent my last few pre-Christmas shifts, when the store was unusually packed, wondering if my turn in the barrel was imminent.
We stopped going to the pub, even knowing that all patrons and employees are vaccinated, because that was never a guarantee, and now the odds are worse. We canceled our trip. We will not be eating in a restaurant, or going anywhere else that involves being unmasked indoors, for the forseeable future.
But, but, but!
Did you notice all the bold type up there—i.e., all the points at which we took a reasonable opportunity to engage more with the world and eagerly welcomed any hint that things weren’t as bad as we feared? Did you notice us going out all the time over the summer, and wishing we could do it year-round? Did you notice we adjusted our behavior in response to good news as well as bad?
DO YOU KNOW HOW FUCKING BADLY I WOULD LIKE TO SEE A MOVIE IN THE THEATER OR GET ON AN AIRPLANE OR HAVE A MANHATTAN AND A FAT STEAK NEXT TO A BUNCH OF DOUCHEBAG REPUBLICANS AT A DOWNTOWN STEAKHOUSE, WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT THE VIRUS?
That’s the thing. Those of us who wanted real lockdowns—back when it seemed like they might work—and who now want vaccine and mask mandates, unlimited free at-home test kits, the choice to work from home indefinitely, etc., have been trying this whole time to create the conditions necessary to return to something like normal.
The biggest difference between us and people who resist those strategies—apart from a basic ability to evaluate sources—is that we understand “normal” cannot and will not return without conditions. We can’t just decide to go everywhere and do everything we’d like to, virus be damned, because doing so will mean more sick people, more overwhelmed hospitals, and more unnecessary deaths. We can’t prioritize our own selfish desires above all else because WE LIVE IN A SOCIETY. WHERE OTHER PEOPLE EXIST.
So when the news gets worse, we restrict our behavior some more, not just for our own safety but because we are trying not to be links in a chain of transmission. With three shots of Pfizer on board, my husband and I can probably handle getting sick, but there’s always the chance that we’ll pass it on to someone who can’t.
If somebody else’s elderly parent or grandparent—or sibling who lives in a care home, or child with cancer, or best friend with diabetes, or spouse with a heart condition, or aunt with COPD, or teacher/therapist/nanny/barista with lupus—is too abstract for you to give a damn, then try thinking about your local emergency rooms and urgent care. The ones you would need to go to if you had a problem.
Some scenarios to consider:
I had appendicitis last summer, and it presented pretty unusually: nagging but not particularly intense pain that was only concerning because of its location. No other symptoms. If that had happened this week, I might have stayed home rather than risk Covid exposure. (When I went to the ER in July, I honestly thought I was there to ease my ridiculous anxiety about this weird, nothing ache in my lower right abdomen.) In other words, I might have waited long enough for my appendix to burst—which, at best, would have made the surgery and recovery far more difficult. At worst, well, my Covid worries would be over.
A friend recently developed an abscessed cyst on her cheek and waited for the first available dermatologist appointment, nervously ignoring all the internet medical advice that says: “GO DIRECTLY TO THE ER IF THIS HAPPENS ON YOUR FACE, WHICH IS DISTRESSINGLY NEAR YOUR BRAIN.” Instead of seeking immediate treatment, she had to calculate whether the risk of contracting Omicron in a Wisconsin waiting room—and bringing it home to her elderly parents—was greater than the risk that a painful infection would spread somewhere much more serious.
Speaking of brains, early in December, one of my siblings and a friend’s son both had technically “elective” neurosurgeries, which might have been postponed if they’d been scheduled for later in the month. Brain surgery, as you can probably guess, is not really “elective” in the sense of “optional.” It’s just not a right-this-SECOND emergency, which is literally all some hospitals can handle right now.
Everybody I’ve mentioned is fine, I’m happy to say, but the point—and I can’t believe this still needs to be spelled out in 2022—is that Covid is not the only thing we need doctors and nurses and orderlies and phlebotomists and radiology techs and pharmacists for right now. Chronic conditions, household accidents, violence, broken bones, kidney stones, gallbladder attacks, burns, cuts, gunshot wounds, illnesses we knew about before 2019—all still happening, all the time!
You or someone you love could need medical attention at any moment. That’s just the reality of mortal bodies. It’s not pleasant to think about, especially in a country that doesn’t guarantee its citizens health insurance—not to mention one that constantly pushes the false idea that health is completely under an individual’s control. But no matter how stringent your kale consumption and workout routines, you could always get hit by the proverbial bus. Your spouse could start to feel pain on the lower right side of their abdomen. Your brother could blow out his knee while exercising. Your Mom could slip on ice. Your child could go to school and be shot by one of their classmates.
And if the ER waiting room is full of people with a highly contagious illness; if half the staff is at home quarantining because they have it, too; if everybody there is burnt out beyond belief and too tired to think straight, you or the person you love will suffer for it in any number of ways. You will be triaged like you’re on a battlefield. You will wait longer to get less attention of a lower standard, and P.S. during this time, you will DEFINITELY BE EXPOSED TO COVID.
We are entering Year Three of a pandemic. Here in the U.S., we’re fortunate to have easy access to free, safe, effective vaccines. Around the world, more than 4.5 billion people have received at least one dose, so we have a lot of data about those vaccines. We know that both vaccination and masks worn indoors help to slow the spread of the virus—even Omicron, although it’s better at skirting shitty masks and our current vaccines than previous variants were. (Still, any improvement at all over “What if we tried absolutely nothing?” is welcome when unvaccinated people are currently bogarting all of this country’s health care resources and sapping medical professionals’ will to live.) We know that limiting our public movements when particularly virulent strains are circulating helps as well. We know that mandates help. Yet some Americans are very much in favor of these simple measures to increase community safety, and some are staunchly opposed.
If you were an outsider looking at that situation, which group would you identify as the one trying to end the pandemic and get back to normal? Which group would you say is making a sincere effort to move us all forward?
And which group seems actively hostile toward recommendations for slowing the spread, consistently preferring false information that ranges from merely useless to dangerous? Which group encourages reckless choices and a downright sociopathic lack of concern for one’s neighbor during a pandemic?
If you think the more cautious among us want this shit to last one second longer than it has to, you are failing to distinguish between the pandemic itself and things we have to do because there’s a fucking pandemic. Here, I’ll make you a cheat sheet:
Things we have to do because there’s a fucking pandemic: Take reasonable public health precautions with an eye to slowing transmission and reducing severity, until the virus is eradicated or diminished to something more like the flu. (Saying it’s no worse than the flu now, when it is manifestly much worse, does not count.)
The pandemic itself: The worldwide reality of a virulent, deadly virus that is not moved by your putative personal courage, your inability to evaluate sources, your difficulty keeping a mask over your nose, your fear of needles, your hatred of liberals, your magical thinking about supplements, your desire to go on a cruise, your childish rebellion against all the wrong authorities, or your terrifyingly misguided notion of what tyranny looks like, BECAUSE IT’S A FUCKING VIRUS. IT JUST WANTS TO REPRODUCE. STOP HELPING IT.
Please, please stop helping it. I want to go on a cruise! I want to go to Europe on some sort of vessel it currently makes no sense to board, and use the French I’ve been improving with pandemic Duolingo and Belgian crime dramas. I want to take a full plane to Vegas and saunter around a crowded casino, tipping booze into my bare face, then wake up and pay someone to mash two years’ worth of knots out of my muscles.
I want to go to Canada and see my family there for the first time since my dad died (only not right now, because three of them have Covid). I want to return to my local bar and restaurants and theaters and museums and libraries.
I want to go back to a bold lip as my primary makeup move. I want to smile at customers. I want to dream about having my own bookstore without being terrified that, like so many others in the last two years, I’ll be put out of business by a virus. (I wish to be put out of business by people’s lack of interest in books, like god intended.)
I want this to ennnnnnnnnnndddddddd.
Every precaution I’ve taken in the last two years has been because I want this to end, so much. The problem is, no individual—not even a lot of responsible individuals—can fix it. To some extent, no one and nothing can, because, once again: fucking virus. Not deep. Just wants to reproduce.
But there is so much more we could be doing systemically, starting with vaccine mandates everywhere. Every flight, every bus, every train, every public building, every private building open to the public. If you want to be indoors in the United States, you get vaxed, period. You want to pitch a fit and call it fascism when the government tries to save you from yourself (hey, quick question: have you had smallpox? Polio? Measles? Or have you benefited your whole life from other people nobly sacrificing their ~freedom~ to reject lifesaving vaccines?) then you can stay home while the rest of us try to live (something like) normally.
There’s a lot more to do, including making vaccines widely accessible around the world, not just here; apart from any altruistic motive, big problem with a pandemic is the whole “pan” thing. Rapid tests need to be free and available everywhere, now. Universal health care and day care would also help enormously in the U.S., but we can start small. JUST MANDATE VACCINES, FOR THE LOVE OF FUCK.
I want this to end.