You're not alone if it feels like it's almost inevitable at this point that COVID-19 will come knocking on your door. Along with pandemic fatigue, there's this feeling that it's a matter of when, not if, you'll catch the virus, which experts say can not only take a psychological toll but also may make people less likely to stay vigilant.
"You hear a lot of people saying things like, 'At some point, we will all have had it,'" Nicole Ruzek, a clinical psychologist and director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia’s Student Health and Wellness Center, tells Yahoo Life. "This feels very different from how people were talking about COVID at the start of the pandemic. Many people seem to have shifted from fear and avoidance to fatigue and resignation."
While some people who are relatively healthy and fully vaccinated "may actually feel a sense of relief that they don't have to live in fear or engage in the same degree of avoidance anymore," says Ruzek, "if you are someone with an underlying health condition or are close to someone who has not been vaccinated, you may be experiencing heightened anxiety, waiting for the moment when the thing you've been fearing finally happens."
For others, "the impact of facing what now feels unavoidable, despite their best efforts at avoiding it, may be quite frustrating," says Ruzek. "When people's goals are thwarted despite their best efforts, they can become angry or hopeless."
After nearly two long years of trying to dodge the virus and protect themselves and their loved ones, it's understandable that some may be feeling fatigued and even demoralized as Omicron sweeps across the country. "There is a legitimate sense that people have done all the things they were asked to do — physical distancing, lockdowns, masks, vaccines, testing," says Ruzek. "And, yet, we are still in this predicament — the virus has not gone away, and in fact, has proven to be more transmissible than we imagined."
Why you shouldn't deliberately get COVID
It may leave some wondering whether it's "better" to just "get it over with," give up and get COVID, particularly with some reports saying that Omicron may be milder than previous variants (the World Health Organization says Omicron is "less severe" but not "mild").
The 57-year-old Czech folk singer, Hana Horka, who was unvaccinated, recently made headlines for reportedly purposely trying to get COVID so she could attend culture venues after recovering. She tested positive and then died on Jan. 16.
Jessica Kiss, aka AskDrMom on TikTok recently addressed this question for people who are vaccinated — should you deliberately get Omicron? — recalling how people in the late ’90s and early 2000s used to have chicken pox parties to try to contract the virus, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning against this.
"It wasn't a good idea then and it's not now," Kiss said on TikTok. "We can't predict if you're going to get severe illness or not. We can tell you if you're less likely, but it doesn't guarantee anything." She adds: "So as of now, it's not really something you want to do."
Dr. Nicholas E. Kman, an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: "Even a case of mild to moderate COVID will result in time away from work, time away from family and may result in long COVID. It also may result in passing the disease on to someone who is more vulnerable than you" — that includes immunocompromised individuals, the elderly, and children under 5 years old, who don't yet have an approved vaccine available.
Kman points out that many people with Omicron are being hospitalized if they also have "underlying conditions like COPD, kidney disease and heart failure," since the virus worsens those health conditions.
Adults aren't the only ones being affected — children's hospitalization rates due to COVID recently hit record highs. "Although it is true that age 50 and up are more likely to be hospitalized, children’s hospitals have also seen a surge," says Kman. "The health care system is taxed to a point where every extra patient matters and may mean that we can’t take care of that trauma, heart attack or stroke patient."
The risk of long COVID
Even a mild case can put you at risk for long COVID, leaving some dealing with difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, fatigue, difficulty concentrating (i.e. "brain fog"), headache, heart palpitations, joint or muscle pain, changes to the ability to smell or taste, sleep problems and more weeks or even months after the initial infection, according to the CDC.
"It is very common for us to see patients with long COVID or 'post-COVID conditions' in the emergency department," says Kman. In fact, research shows that more than one-third of people with COVID experienced long COVID for up to six months after being diagnosed with the virus. "This has always been one of the biggest reasons to get vaccinated," says Kman. "Unfortunately, we see these folks in the ER even after a mild case or one with no initial symptoms."
'There is still much that we can do and shouldn't give up'
Although it can feel like COVID is closing in on us, it's not all dire — and that’s mostly thanks to the availability of effective vaccines. "While it does seem that this highly contagious variant is going to infect many Americans, those who have been vaccinated and boosted may not get infection," says Kman, "and if they do, will likely have mild infection."
The patients that doctors tend to see coming to hospitals are "unvaccinated with more severe disease," says Kman, "or vaccinated with no booster who tend to have milder disease in most cases."
Making sure that people are fully vaccinated and, if eligible, getting a booster shot is crucial, according to Kman. "Unvaccinated people are 20 times likelier to die, 17 times likelier to be hospitalized and 10 times likelier to be infected than the vaccinated," he says. "We need to continue to get folks vaccinated."
In general, as viruses become more contagious,"protective measures become even more important," says Kman, who points out that Omicron is "so contagious that simply staying three feet apart won’t be good enough."
What we do know is that surgical masks and N95 masks "still work great," says Kman. "We know they prevent infection. That said, there is some new thought that cloth masks don’t work as well" because they don’t necessarily fit as well and aren’t as thick, Kman points out.
He recommends getting a "well-fitting surgical mask and wearing it when you are around others," making sure it covers your nose and mouth. And if you are "vulnerable or want extra protection, grab an N95 if you can find one," he says.
For people who have been vigilant throughout the pandemic, it's advice they know well. But experts say it's important to continue to protect your health and the health of others. "Fatigue, resignation and hopelessness may cause some people to let down their guard, even when we are still experiencing significant consequences as a result of COVID," says Ruzek.
In order to stay motivated, Ruzek suggests focusing on "shared social goals." For example: "We want hospitals and medical personnel to be available when we need them,” says Ruzek. “We want to keep businesses and schools open. We want to spend time with family and friends. We want to be able to go shopping, travel and attend group events. It is important to realize that what we do as individuals helps protect and support the systems we value and need."
These short-term individual efforts — getting vaccinated, wearing masks, physical distancing and avoiding crowds — contribute to the "larger long-term outcome of getting past this pandemic."
Ruzek adds: "It is important to stay vigilant despite COVID fatigue because the virus continues to evolve and we have not yet fully addressed the larger systemic threats posed by this illness."
As Kman puts it: "There is still much that we can do and shouldn't give up."
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