I am 67 years old and semi-retired. I enjoy traveling, and am blessed with six children and 15 grandchildren living in five different cities. Between April 2018 and April 2019, in visiting family, I was in Israel twice, and visited as well Montreal, Canada, Champaign, Ill., and Cincinnati, Ohio. For the destination wedding of a friend’s child I spent a week in Italy. To escape the northwinds of winter, I weathered the storm for a week in St. Lucia. I read books in crowded airports, I sat for hours in cramped airplane mode, stood in line at gas station stores with purchases.
When home, I ate happily in restaurants, shopped in busy stores, worked out in athletic clubs, worshiped in several different houses of worship.
So, how do we react to COVID-19? How do we experience life when a COVID vaccine is in place? Is COVID “just another virus” to be relegated to annual reports, just another morbidity and mortality statistic? Or has the COVID experience changed us forever?
During the time period of my travels, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza estimates show 35.5 million people in the U.S. got sick, 16.5 million sought assistance from their doctor, 490,600 were hospitalized, and 34,200 people died. It is estimated that 480 of the deaths were children. According to the CDC, this compilation of data rates a “moderate severity” tag; the flu season a year prior was high severity, with 810,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths. For the same time period, the World Health Organization estimates 5 million cases worldwide and 650,000 deaths.
All of this illness and death with a flu vaccine readily available.
During my travels I did not mask, I sat side by side with people in travel, in restaurants, shopped next to them in stores, all without knowing either their general health status or their flu status.
We are learning more about COVID seemingly on a daily basis. Just a few months ago it was a last page of the newspaper report from China. Today, its spread is obvious, its destruction well known. It travels wickedly from person to person, much more aggressively than does influenza. For those who survive infection, it can have lingering effects, as well as new effects down the road. Many survivors report a long period of continued shortness of breath. In the hospitalized population that survived we are seeing continued kidney and liver issues, neurological issues, even blood clot issues. There are reports of a chronic sense of fatigue. Of difficulties with concentration. Professional athletes and weekend warriors alike are reporting an inability to regain a prior level of physical fitness; they weaken with exertion, find it difficult to sustain physical activity.
How do we process this information down the road when a COVID vaccine is here? Have we already declared our intentions? The protests of this past week, crowds of people gathering in close physical contact with one another, uniting over a cause, with nary a consideration of COVID—is this our future?
Are we risk-takers, or risk-averse? That seems to be the important remaining question as we face a future with COVID, challenged by the continued presence of personal and collective thoughts, wants, desires, emotions and the realities of everyday life. How do we approach return to church or synagogue? To eating with friends? To sport?
The answer to those gaining COVID-related experience every day is, let’s be smart, let’s be careful, let’s be cautious. In Monroe County we now have more than 3,200 documented cases of COVID-positive patients, of whom more than 7 percent have died. Let us be very careful as we approach our collective future.
Neil R. Scheier M.D. is president of Joseph Avenue Arts and Culture Alliance. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.