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VOL. 45 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 2, 2021

Emerging from the pandemic's uncertainty

‘It’s OK not to be OK’ as we ease forward into new routines

By Catherine Mayhew

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Have we had enough liminal space yet? We’ve been in this time of uncertainty and anxiety for more than a year and have most certainly changed. We’ve learned new things, about ourselves and our way of life. The Before Time seems so long ago now. Can we even remember what used to be our daily routine?

Routine smashed onto the rocks early in 2020. Our concept of safety evaporated. Our expectations of the future were challenged. And now we appear to be casting off the liminal space we’ve inhabited for so many months.

So what have we learned? How have we changed? And why has the anxiety persisted for so many of us?

“Liminality is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where people can begin to think and act in genuinely new ways... It is that graced time when we are not certain or in control, when something genuinely new can happen… Much of the work of the biblical God and human destiny itself is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough to learn something essential and genuinely new. It is the ultimate teachable space.”

– Author and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr

We all approached the pandemic differently, the Pew Research Center finds, with 89% of Americans reported at least one negative change in their lives. But 73% mentioned an unexpected upside. Younger Americans more commonly talked about positive changes in their lives, while more women reported challenges and difficulties.

“I’m going to highlight that nothing has been normal since February 2020 to now,” says Dr. Abhinav Saxena, a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt Medical Center. “It’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK that you’re feeling anxious.

“We’re all in uncharted territory. And not all anxiety is not bad. A little anxiety can help us feel safe or prepared. But you don’t want there to be a ton of fear.

“Last year has felt like a repeated never-ending series of adjusting. And that consistent adjustment can turn into a micro trauma.”

A few things we’ve learned over the last year.

Science changes

Remember back in late February 2020? Recall how much we didn’t know about COVID-19?

At the beginning of the outbreak, scientists based public health advice on what they knew about previous viral events, Scientific American reports. And a lot of people never let go of those early predictions, a phenomenon known as “anchoring bias,” in which some remember the first thing they hear about a new subject.

Many of us were busy wiping down every surface, including groceries, with disinfectant wipes (if we could even find them) and waiting for warmer weather when the virus would surely recede. We were told to put on masks, wash our hands and stay away from other people – advice that for a time was absolutely valid.

Then the vaccines came and we were told we could take off our masks and hug our friends if we were fully vaccinated. And that has caused a fair amount of anxiety.

“These are strange times we’re living in, obviously,” says Dr. Calvin Smith of Meharry Medical Center. “It’s confusing for people who have been following all the rules and regulations all along when there’s an abrupt change. We turned a corner in terms of the number of vaccinated adults, particularly older adults. It’s a bit safer with them.”

The new Centers for Disease Control guidelines are based on a compilation of six studies that support the updated information.

“The CDC’s May 13 announcement that masks are no longer required in most indoor settings for fully vaccinated Americans was backed by numerous reports in the literature that demonstrate the safety and real-world effectiveness of the authorized vaccines,” according to a statement by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director.

The next question is how long does the vaccine last before a booster shot is required? The jury’s still out on that one, but as we’ve come to understand the science changes.

“People are funny,” says Barry Johnson, who lives in Gladeville. “Everyone who put on a mask because we were told that it helps trusted the judgment of the CDC and Dr. (Anthony) Fauci, myself included. Now that we are told by the same sources that they can come off, people are unsure and apprehensive. It seems that if the source is trusted up front, there is no reason not to trust it on the back side.”

Technology is our friend

Let’s start with Zoom. The internet-based meeting service made more money in the three months –May-July 2020 – than it did in all of 2019. Work meetings moved to Zoom and similar sites as workers left the office and took up their work places at home. Book clubs Zoomed. Cocktail hours Zoomed. Classrooms Zoomed. Even funerals were held via Zoom.

“If nothing else, COVID has shown us how resilient and adaptable humans are as a society when forced to change,” Joseph Huang, CEO of StartX, a nonprofit that helps tech companies get off the ground, told the AARP Bulletin. “We’ve been forced to learn new technologies that, in many cases, have been the only safe way to continue to live our lives and stay connected to our loved ones during the pandemic.”

Lots of relatively new technologies found wider use in the early days of the pandemic and will most likely become permanent fixtures. Many restaurants started using QR codes (abbreviated from Quick Response code) that allow patrons to read the menu with their cell phones by way of a special bar scan that’s placed on tables throughout the restaurant. That eliminates the need for printed menus, not only making ordering more hygienic but also reducing printing costs.

As an aside, the restaurant industry is surging back as pandemic restrictions ease. Reservations to eat out soared 46% in April. In some places, dining out is surpassing pre-pandemic levels proving that Americans are, indeed, tired of their own home cooking.

Online grocery shopping skyrocketed during the height of the pandemic, now claiming 10% of all supermarket shopping. And consumers say they’ll continue to use the service post-pandemic. Fifty-two percent of those who started buying online say they plan to continue, a Shopping Insights study by Moxxy Marketing reports.

And the liquor store became our go-to stop during the pandemic. A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found a 14% increase in alcohol consumption from 2019 to 2020.

While alcohol use might go back down post-pandemic, there are two innovations that will stay – online ordering and curbside pickup.

Cool Springs Wine and Spirits quickly moved to the model when the pandemic started, using a system that allowed consumers to order and pay for their purchases online and then pull into specially designated curbside spots to pick up their packages.

And remember those long pre-2020 waits at the doctor’s office before you got called back for an exam? Telehealth reduced that greatly during the pandemic. The CDC reports that more than 30% of weekly health center visits were via telehealth between June 26 and Nov. 6.

“It quickly became the only way to operate at scale in today’s world,” Huang told AARP, “both for us as patients and for the doctors and nurses who treat us. Telemedicine will turn out to be a better and more effective experience in many cases, even after COVID ends.”

Work is anywhere

Many people went home and stayed put when the pandemic struck full force. Stanford University found that 42% of the American workforce started doing business from their kitchen table or home office – almost twice the number of people who remained in the workplace.

The move home was a double-edged sword. Employers found working remotely didn’t decrease productivity. In fact, a survey by Ranstad found that 78% of companies discovered that working at home was more effective than they anticipated.

REI abandoned plans to open a new corporate campus in Bellevue, Washington, and other giants like Microsoft and Facebook announced that staff would work from home indefinitely.

And that jarring shift caused its own anxieties as interpersonal interactions diminished and some workers found it difficult to balance work requirements with caring for children who were also at home learning remotely.

Now, as pandemic fears ease, many companies are considering a hybrid workweek with a few days at the office and the rest of the week at home.

Trauma expert Elizabeth Power of Nashville says she expects a bumpy road as businesses try to return to normal.

“I suspect a major clash coming between companies insisting on a return to the office and workers saying why?” she says.

Saxena says we should ease into a new routine to alleviate the anxiety of returning to some kind of normal.

“It’s OK to take it slowly,” he says. “Core parts of our system were put on hold. People weren’t physically going to church or work as much and it added stress to the already busy lives we had. Even simple tasks like going to the grocery store took on risk.

“And now we have to get back in the game. It’s scary but we have to tip toe back into being a social society. Isolation, not being in a routine, staying at home is not how we were meant to function. Don’t be afraid to take your life back.”

To mask or not to mask

And, finally, there is the anxiety of the mask. Before the coronavirus vaccines were available it was pretty clear that there were two points of view on wearing protective facial coverings. If you chose to wear a mask there was some comfort in being in a public place where everyone else was masked as well.

But now, even though the CDC has declared if you’re fully vaccinated you can take the mask off in many cases, a lot of people aren’t sure they’re ready. Many continue to wear one if only to signal to others that they are taking the danger of the virus seriously.

“A lot of people are going to continue to wear masks,” Meharry’s Smith says. “People who don’t want to wear masks and are unvaccinated are at a much higher risk of getting the virus. The numbers don’t lie. They support the science.”

He also points out the additional health benefits that have come from masks. “We had the lowest flu season on record in quite a while,” he adds. “For me, not having to deal with that kind of issue is huge. When you see me in public, I’ll be wearing a mask.”

Church organist Tami Newsom of Knoxville agrees.

“I will not ditch my mask yet. It has nice to have not been sick at all since I began wearing a mask. There is little to lose by keeping it on.”

Cassy Gilchrist, an autism consultant for Williamson County Schools, still wears her mask in public although she’s relaxed her stand when she’s in social situations with other fully vaccinated people.

But Gilchrist fears that the pandemic is far from over.

“I am so excited to see things getting more ‘normal’ and I enjoy the times we feel like things are improving, but in the pit of my stomach, every time we have a ‘normal’ moment I have a sense of dread that we will later regret it. This means that the times that bring us great joy, such as gathering with friends or hosting a gathering at our house, are also the times that spike anxiety.”

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