Throwing COVID-19-related cautions to the wind

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

Over the past nine months, we’ve lived in a state of hypervigilance. The meticulous precautions we’ve observed throughout the pandemic have taken a toll on us. At worse, we’ve lost a loved one, friend, or coworker to this incessant virus. At best, we’ve been forced to recalibrate our routines and our lives. This collective weariness, to which experts have coined “COVID-19 Caution Fatigue is a prevailing factor in the current spike in cases.

When we are subjected to high levels of stress (e.g., high alert related to COVID-19), it can activate the stress hormone, cortisol. High levels of this hormone can cause us to become desensitized to the stimuli that triggered the stress hormone in the first place. Meaning, we start to ease up on our vigilance because the threat feels less real. These factors compounded—by feelings of isolation due to limited social contact‑—may have caused us to lose the motivation to maintain safe practices.

We see evidence of this as people are increasingly dining indoors, gathering for weddings, going to rallies, and are boarding flights nationwide. These behaviors are considered responsible for “superspreader events,” where COVID positive people expose multiple others. On average, every person with COVID-19 can potentially transmit the virus to two to three additional people. This has a multiplier effect with people spreading it, in turn, to another two to three people, and, well, you get the picture.

Dr. Fauci has warned that large gatherings during the holiday season could lead to “a surge superimposed upon that surge that we’re already in.” The pandemic demands personal sacrifices—which in turn leads to COVID induced malaise. I’ve personally RSVP’d “No” to a couple of family weddings—because the health and safety of my family matters more than joining them for a round of the “Cha Cha Slide.”

We must listen to public health experts. As I write this, the United States has more than 14.2 million COVID-19 cases and 275,000 deaths. These sad statistics will increase throughout the holiday season. Here are some ways you can combat COVID-19 Caution Fatigue:

  • Build a new routine. Find new and safe ways to move, interact with people, and entertain.
  • Healthy behaviors: focus on nutrient dense food, get adequate sleep, and limit alcohol use.
  • Journal: reflect on all that you’ve endured this year. A lot of us have been pushed to grow, expand, and adjust in unexpected ways. Focus on how far you’ve come, how resilient you are, and keep pushing.
  • Limit sreen time: For those of us working from home, it’s become increasingly tricky to maintain a work-life balance. Try to log off at a set time every day and take a break from screens in general (phone, TV, computer) and find ways to decompress from your day.
  • Personal improvement: Use time that would’ve been spent socializing on cultivating a new hobby. Take a free online course to learn a new concept. I personally like Coursera. Or learn a new language through mobile apps like Duolingo.
  • Prioritize self-care. Practice guided meditations via mobile apps like Headspace, read, or even start virtual therapy to process your emotions, through services like Talkspace.

In recognition of the emotional toll of social distancing, the CDC has issued guidelines on how to cope during the holidays. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps several COVID-19 vaccines will be available in the coming months. That said, we have a long way to go, as the demand for the vaccine will far exceed its supply for many months. Remain vigilant and continue to adhere to pandemic-related safety guidelines. Our collective efforts will keep us safe while the vaccines become available across many demographics. Let’s continue to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities safe through care and precautions against COVID-19. Mask up, stay 6 feet apart, wash your hands frequently, and avoid large gatherings. Happy and safe holidays to all!