We’re closer to pre-pandemic normalcy, but I’m still masking up

June 6, 2022 12:03 am

A sign outside the Richmond registrar’s office, an early voting site, encourages people to wear masks and practice social distancing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Walk into most stores, gather at sit-down restaurants, or chat with fellow Virginians, and the signs are as clear as the faces you can now see: We are so over the pandemic – even though it’s killed more than 20,400 people and infected nearly 1.8 million in the commonwealth. 

These new, close-contact meetings make me wonder if we’ve abandoned caution too soon. That’s despite a top state health official’s guidance that the risk of infection and death has decreased substantially since COVID-19 began in early 2020. More on that later. 

My spider sense, though, is tingling following recent reports that new COVID-19 cases spiked in Southwest Virginia and south-central Virginia. An omicron subvariant is dominant in the state, officials said. 

Also, a Washington Post article noted the United States is recording more than 100,000 infections a day, at least five times higher than at the same point last year. In spite of that, The Post reported, many Americans are traveling around the country, celebrating graduations and weddings and venturing into bars and restaurants. 

Plenty of us have gotten vaccines and boosters, or even caught the virus and then recovered. (I’m in the former category – thank goodness.) 

But the initial burst of antibodies from shots or infections fades after several months, an infectious-diseases specialist told The Post.

My completely unscientific, informal survey of grocery, hardware and other stores in my region reveals only 25 to 33 percent of consumers are masking up inside nowadays. I’m in the distinct minority when I don my mask and venture into the retail marketplace. 

“The unconscious goals of the pandemic seem to have shifted from the need for greater health awareness and setting health-motivated boundaries, to wanting more social interconnectedness and experiences,” Scott Debb, associate professor of psychology at Norfolk State University, and Marnee McClellan, a graduate student there, told me in joint emailed comments.

“Where once health safety was paramount,” they continued, “the need for social connection, perhaps exacerbated by variables like the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) and the need to belong, began to overtake that goal.” 

Trust me, I get it. We all want a return to normalcy, pre-March 2020. We want to mingle. We may have delayed parties, weddings and vacations. 

Business and government types are urging a return to office settings, including Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Some state employees have opposed restrictions on teleworking.

I interviewed Dr. Colin Greene this week. He’s the new state commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health, though he’s been with the agency nearly five years. 

Greene portrayed a tone at times both boosterish and optimistic, extolling the psychological virtues of meeting in person again and seeing each other’s faces – mask-free. 

“We have moved a long way from 2020,” he noted, when there were no vaccines, no treatments and hardly anybody had natural immunity to the virus. 

Since then, in Virginia, 82 percent of the population – or 7 million people – have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines. Some 74 percent – 6.3 million – are fully vaccinated. More than 3 million have gotten boosters. Virginians have faced several waves of the virus, and some people have gotten immunity after being infected.

“The risk of death from catching the virus has decreased substantially, as has the risk of hospitalization” since 2020, Greene noted. 

The restrictions instituted earlier had unpleasant, unintended consequences, he added – including closing schools and businesses, and the onset of social isolation. Mental health issues rose. “Nobody really wants to go back” to that, he said.

The risk isn’t zero, Green cautioned, but “the benefit … from stricter prevention measures is just not that great anymore.”  

If you haven’t already: Get the vaccines, and then the boosters when recommended. If you feel ill, Greene said, get a home test. If it comes back positive, isolate for five days. Wear a mask for five days after that when heading outside the home. 

If you feel sicker, see a doctor or get to the hospital. Immunocompromised people and the elderly have to remain on guard.

That’s only one side of the equation, however. 

“At some point,” Greene continued, “we have to go back to living our lives.” 

That’s a position states led by Republican governors touted months ago, when deaths nationwide were climbing quickly, and way before the levels of vaccination and immunity were this high. It was callous. 

So forgive me if I’m a mite skeptical of these new suggestions.

The push to return to pre-pandemic protocols has more legitimacy today, obviously. Greene noted every individual has his own risk tolerance. 

He’s right. 

Count me on the cautious side, even with the seven-day average of deaths nationwide trending lower. I’m humbled by the more than 1 million who have died across America since this horror started.

I’ll still mask in public. I’ll still give you plenty of space when ordering a sandwich – which I’ll eat outside or at home. Repair techs will still wear masks when they come to my abode. 

You may think I’m crazy. Or maybe just prudent.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]