Two years ago, about one month into the pandemic, I wrote a column called “On Hold.” I lamented the sudden restrictions and our anxious dependence on information that couldn’t come fast enough. The analogy I used was being on the phone waiting for someone to answer. Three months later, my small book “Old and On Hold, Aging in Place during the Pandemic” was published following my publisher’s request to authors for small books on the pandemic.
Last month I was interviewed by Olive Martini of KSQM fame as part of Sequim Soroptimist International’s 75th anniversary celebration and focus on aging. The topic was “Old and On Pandemic Hold … what’s next?” Despite the name, it was not about my book which ends at the beginning of the pandemic.
Rather, the Soroptimists wisely knew that our community was going into a post-pandemic transition and that we have many questions, especially those of us considered “vulnerable.”
Since I am not a public health expert, I turned to our Health Officer, Dr. Allison Berry and Deputy Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke for perspective and advice which I offered in part during the interview and will offer in today’s column.
Wondering if life could be the same again
Before we get to the present, we need to acknowledge the pandemic experience and the sudden dramatic upheavals in our personal and community lives. We knew lockdowns, isolation, spraying mail, masking, not masking, online school, remote working, longing to see children and grandchildren in person, vaccinations, no vaccinations, essential workers, and fear.
The rural nature of our community along with precautions seemed to protect us more than those in populated areas. We learned about the terrible nature of the COVID-19 virus by hearing and seeing stories of enormous suffering and death of those who contracted the virus. We heard and saw the unrelenting grief of families who could not be with their most loved one except on a screen.
We begin to experience more cases locally as the virus mutated and gave us Delta and the more contagious Omicron and its variants B.1 and 2. Our community moved into higher risk categories. We began to read of local deaths of people who mostly vaccinated old people with serious compromising diseases and unvaccinated younger people.
Dr. Berry’s report and analysis was daily front-page news, her advice always the same – get vaccinated and wear a mask indoors, especially among those you do not know to be vaccinated. She was walking a narrow but steady tightrope around the needs of individuals, businesses, and the community.
I cannot think of anyone who liked the pandemic and its consequences. We all know people who rejected some or all recommendations and restrictions. In any case, we need to recognize we have been through a difficult, even traumatic time and need to give ourselves the time and kindness to recover as we move into a new stage.
Hope sprung unexpectedly early when less than a year into the pandemic, scientists delivered a vaccine that was highly effective and begin to slow the number of cases and significantly slow severe illness and death caused by the virus.
We need to remember that as the virus mutates, so must the vaccine develop. I imagine scientists running as fast as they can to keep up with and eventually be ahead of the virus. We can expect to be boosted more often.
Preparing for risk
Dr. Locke tells us, “We are entering a strange phase of the pandemic response when efforts to control transmission are shifting from a community response approach to individual risk-based choices. The Omicron subvariant BA.2 (and its related subvariants) are highly contagious — on a par with measles.”
We are responsible for determining our risk tolerance, which is knowing how much we are willing to risk contracting COVID. No other individual is responsible for keeping us safe in public spaces through their own behavior.
The first public health recommendation is to be vaccinated and keep up the boosters especially if you are in a vulnerable category. Both Berry and Locke emphasize that being fully vaccinated (initial and boosted) is highly effective in preventing severe illness and death from recent COVID variants but not as effective in preventing breakthrough infections.
Dr. Berry tells us, “Those who are unvaccinated remain 3-4 times more likely to contract COVID-19.”
I asked Dr. Berry about the risk of being with an unvaccinated person, someone you want to see. In addition to both masking while together, she suggests asking that person to test before the gathering.
She goes on to say, “Those who have had COVID-19 in the last 90 days are unlikely to get reinfected in that time period (though it’s not impossible). So, if you have someone you know who was infected >10 days and =N:E= days ago, now would be a safer time to meet up with them.” Berry points out that test kits are widely available and currently free of charge at libraries.
He points out it is especially important to vulnerable people at medium to high risk who test positive that they can contact their health care provider and start a course of treatment (Paxlovid) in the first five days of illness.
Health officers recommend precautions and reassure us about the degree of risk, but we alone will decide if we will attend the Mariner’s baseball game or our granddaughter’s wedding. Moreover, we can practice precautions such as wearing an n-95 mask and keeping distance from those not known to us.
We have come a long way since our first pandemic warning, a journey that would be amazing if not so exhausting. Spend time with friends listing the positive changes like zoom allowing our public officials to hold hybrid meetings – in person and zoom – allowing more people to attend meetings and participate. Telehealth is now paid for by Medicare. Restaurants may continue home delivery of great meals.
We have also learned we have resilient and responsive healthcare in our community – OMC, Jamestown Family Health Center, North Olympic Health Care Network, and the Health Department.
For daily Clallam County coronavirus statistics and recommendations, go to Clallam County — Coronavirus Information an excellent resource on all you wanted to know.
And forgive yourself for feeling confused by what could become daily decision-making. As confusing as it, it is also extremely hard. Take care.
Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation and it the author of the award-winning “Women, We’re Only Old Once.” Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.