Omicron will end the pandemic, but our divisive pandemic mentalities will be harder to vanquish

Omicron. It is really changing everything about the not-so-roaring 20’s COVID experience. With this new variant, we now live in a different world than we did only a few months ago. However, we still haven’t allowed ourselves to really believe it. We are still talking about the need to test more, quarantine more, and even continue to go remote with some schools and work. Pessimistic pundits are predicting a large number of future deaths. Sure, people are still getting sick, and hospitals are busy, but we can also reliably predict that virus prevalence is soon going to drop precipitously and the COVID-19 pandemic will forever transition into an endemic fifth coronavirus.

You see, Omicron is simply and plainly less virulent than the previous SAR-CoV-2 variants. Not only is the actual virus itself less virulent, but the effect it can have on our society has been mitigated. Omicron has blazed across the country in record speed and people are testing positive left and right, but ICU admissions and death due to COVID itself have not increased commensurately. This is because we live in a country with a decent vaccination rate and a large population of folks with immunity developed from previous COVID infection- both of which are protective against severe illness. We also have a better understanding of the natural course of the disease and improved access to novel therapeutics for those who do get sick. Omicron is so different from the previous COVID variant experiences, we should consider calling it by a new name. I would propose a name that doesn’t sound too menacing- maybe like “Boobear-22” or “Yogi-virus”?

However, just because the virus is receding doesn’t mean the pandemic effects will immediately end.

Let’s be honest. We have PTSD as a society. Some of us have seen people get sick and die from COVID. I mean, as a critical care doctor I have personally had dozens of folks die in my arms. Health care workers have had their souls beaten down, along with their bodies and their minds. Lots of us gained weight from all the free meals and snacks donated to icu staff at the start of the pandemic. Now doctors and nurses are losing pounds as they run away from abusive patients and families tired of all things COVID.

But the tragedies of the COVID experience did not only take place inside the walls of the hospital. We lost more than lives. We lost jobs, lost years of school, lost friendships, lost faith in our neighbors. We’ve lost nights out with friends, lost birthday parties, lost first dates, and lost seeing the random smile of a stranger. We grieve the loss of unrecoverable time.

We each dealt with these challenges in our own way. Some embraced a defiant continuation of life on their own terms damn the consequences. Others discovered that a life at home without the obligations of daily life could actually be liberating. And some people’s lives fell apart. But through all of the upheaval, there was one emotion that permeated our society none of us could escape. Some of us buried it, and some of us were buried by it.

Anxiety.

All of us have been living a life overflowing with with anxiety for two years. All of us. It may have been our own anxiety or it may have been the anxiety of others overflowing into our lives. Now I guess there might have been one guy living alone on an island or in a space station who just kept living the chill life, but most of us, even those who never personally encountered the virus, were infected with anxiety.

We have been bathed in fear for a couple years. It was not unjustified fear, and it over time it became manageable. There was a novel virus we did not understand that was killing people. Some of us locked ourselves in our houses like hermits, wearing an N95 mask as we watched the nightly news, eating canned sardines, and taking a shower with bleach each night. While others, decided they would not be “ruled” by fear, so they convinced themselves that COVID was no big deal and it could not hurt them no matter what they did. They refused to wear masks and equated being cautious with being weak. Most of us were caught somewhere in the middle, but felt a pressure to choose a side.

If we are honest with ourselves, we were all full of shit. We spent a lot of time justifying everything we were doing with some sort of logic. But the reality was, every guideline, every bit of advice, every mandate was a best guess- as was every decision to ignore them. Various authorities or medical personal or politicians or pundits claimed to know what we should do, citing study after study. We confused their opinions for facts.

Then as Americans, we started to do what we do best: We irrationally dug into our opinions. COVID-19 became either the zombie apocalypse or it was “just a flu.” We chose our team and pledged allegiance. We were the ones who wore masks and stood six feet away, or we were ones who didn’t think all that was needed and everyone was overreacting. We got the vaccine as soon as it was available and were ready to boost ourselves ad infinitum, or we thought vaccines are the worst thing medicine has ever invented and are someone inherently different than other types of treatment. We thought that if we caught COVID we were very likely to get sick and possibly die and infect everyone we know (as we cannot evaluate risk) or we thought the virus is a natural and because it is natural it must not be that bad (as if the world isn’t on a constant mission to kill us). We became two sides of a coin. We became the Democrats and Republicans of COVID. Those of us in the middle didn’t have a group to join.

We all did our “own research”. And it became abundantly clear, few of us are prepared for a career in academia. We pretty much suck at doing our own research. For example, Aaron Rodgers, a pretty solid jeopardy host and NFL quarterback, did his own research, came to his conclusions, and confidently told the world. I wanted to tell him that my internet research tells me he should be playing more two tight end sets and dumping off to the running back more as he rolls left. However, I’m guessing he wouldn’t want to hear my opinion on football because obviously I have no fricking idea what I am talking about. But anyone can apparently easily become an expert on infectious disease and vaccine science if you get access to the right Tik-Tok videos.

In retrospect, what each of us truly craved is what we always crave in our lives- and what almost never exists: a black and white answer. COVID was neither the flu, nor the zombie apocalypse. It was a gray mess. We have yet to really figure out why some healthy folks got so sick and even died and why some people had virtual no symptoms. Our knowledge evolved as our treatments evolved, as the virus evolved. There was never, and will never be, an absolute right answer on how to deal with this virus- as there is never a right answer in anything in health. Medicine is not a yes or no question.

And this uncertainty tore our country apart. We either became anxious by what we didn’t know or cockily self-assured by what we pretended we did. There was little middle ground. We continue to make each other angry and call the other team stupid and selfish, or cowardly and controlling. We read and listen to points of view we already agree with. Our “own research” supports what we already decided we believe. These are the mentalities the pandemic experience has created and our viewpoints get stronger by the day. It is hard to see the other side. We have become trapped by our own perspective.

Now to me, Omicron is clearly the beginning of the end of the medical component of the pandemic. It is “Boobear -22”. But our pandemic mentality is going to more difficult to relinquish.

It is time for a reckoning. I think we have all dreamed that the pandemic will one day just end. That’s not what is going to happen. The virus may be much less deadly, but it’s aftertaste will be with us for a very long time. We will need to confront our mistakes with COVID and celebrate our successes. We must conduct a post pandemic autopsy on how we chose to face a foe we didn’t understand and how we coped, reacted, and failed.

The only way to get out the purgatory we have built in our minds, is to allow ourselves to really examine the opposing perspective. Let’s pretend for a second that everyone who doesn’t wear a mask is not selfish. Maybe they have read more recent studies that show that one high quality mask need be worn by a high risk individual to protect themselves from COVID and others don’t also need to wear a mask to protect them. And those of you who mock the folks who want to wear an N95 and continue remote activities or even lockdowns, maybe you should have sympathy for their anxiety; maybe they have a harder time tolerating risk? Maybe they need a minute to catch up? Somehow we need to find a way to meet in the middle.

In the next few weeks hopefully we can safely start to say goodbye to the anxiety that has, in a rather co-dependent way, comforted us for last couple years. Our masks became our best friend… who we also hated. We can soon let them go, along with excessive testing, along with vaccine mandates. The effective and necessary tools we used before will no longer be needed. We need to be ok with that. Because for some of us, masks, testing, mandates actually reduce anxiety. The mask and testing business will continue to flourish because they became something we depended on. But we can soon leave them behind like an old boyfriend who did us wrong.

We aren’t going back in time to 2019. Life is going to be different for a while. But hopefully we can slowly find some sort of reconciliation. We must forgive those we disagreed with. We must actively try to see things from a perspective we may have never considered… at least try and be ok with politely disagreeing. This is the only way for our societal anxiety and fear to dissipate.

It would be nice to once again reserve our irrational inability to compromise for only politics and religion.

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