Sep 3, 2021 - Health

America's in a COVID funk

Animated illustration of a pair of eyes blinking and then rolling with covid shaped irises.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The pandemic may not be over, but Americans are over the pandemic — and it's starting to show in our collective willingness to cooperate with public health guidance.

Why it matters: Over the last several weeks, the Delta variant dashed hopes of getting back to normal at a time when our patience for safety measures — and sometimes, each other — is already wearing thin.

What they're saying: "I certainly feel it, myself," said Anthony Santella, director of the doctorate of health sciences program for the University of New Haven School of Health Sciences.

  • "Unfortunately, it's not just a feeling. It's impacting people's health behaviors," said Santella, the university's COVID coordinator. "It'd be one thing if this fatigue and burden didn't have an impact on the pandemic, but it clearly does."

The big picture: Public health measures often rely on people doing what's best for the collective good. For instance, the CDC asked unvaccinated Americans to avoid traveling this Labor Day weekend — and suggested the vaccinated still take precautions.

Yes, but: That's getting harder.

  • Politics around the response become more entrenched — sparking sometimes violent fights over mask mandates in schools and in industries like air travel.
  • As the pandemic closes in on its second year, experts say COVID fatigue is becoming more widespread. It's causing many people to stop taking precautions, like proper hand hygiene or social distancing, or assessing risk the way they once did.
  • "People have let down their guard. There's a whole segment of the population that believes the pandemic is over," said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University.

What's happening: One of the big problems is our expectations — and how often they've been forced to shift.

  • Most people were sent home in March 2020 expecting to be back in a couple of weeks.
  • In the spring of 2021, the CDC announced the vaccinated could remove their masks. Then, at the end of July, scientists began telling the vaccinated to start using masks again as new data showed they could transmit the virus and hospitalizations began to skyrocket among the unvaccinated due to Delta.
  • "For a lot of us, the hope was that this summer would be a good one and we would be entering the fall with a low level of infection," Wen said.

By the numbers: It's taken a hit on our collective psyche. The share of Americans who say they feel hopeful right now has plummeted to 34%, from 48% in March, according to the latest installment of the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

But, but, but: The number of Americans saying they feel motivated, energized, inspired or resilient has risen by at least as much.

  • That suggests that, rather than giving up, these Americans are reassessing their expectations about how quick a fix the first generation of vaccines alone can be— and resolving to do what it takes over the long haul.

The big picture: "We are in a very confusing time in the pandemic where people are making very different choices depending on their own family circumstances, their risk tolerance, as well as the activities that are most important to them," Wen said. "It makes navigating life very challenging and leads to individuals questioning one another for the choices they're making."

  • The way she thinks about it is, if you are vaccinated, you should be able to make the choices that make sense for you.

The bottom line: We may all need to take a step back and reassess our expectations for how long it may take to get back to normal — and understand that timeline may change based on how much we're all willing to do to get there.

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