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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Returning to Normal

I often wonder when my life will truly return to “normal.” CDC guidelines now allow us to visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing; to visit with unvaccinated people from one other household who are at low risk of severe COVID indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing; to participate in outdoor activities and recreation without wearing masks or physical distancing (except in certain crowded settings); and to resume domestic travel. The guidelines are continuing to loosen up over time.

In spite of these expanded CDC guidelines, I find that I have been reluctant to increase my own activities to this extent. Why? Will we choose to return to our pre-pandemic lives because the CDC says that it’s OK, or are there other factors that also determine just what our own level of comfort is? Are we suffering from widespread PTSD? Have some of us become a bit too comfortable with our new lifestyle?

We have been coping with COVID-19 for well over a year. It has truly devastated friends and family, killed nearly 600,000 people in the United States alone, made a shambles of some areas of our economy, severely restricted travel, closed schools and many businesses, and imposed rules about isolating, distancing, and wearing masks.

Now the number of cases has fallen, and a majority of us have been fully vaccinated. The vaccine works extremely well; the latest data suggests that only 1 in 1,100 people who are vaccinated will become infected. In spite of that, when will we actually feel comfortable sitting next to a stranger? If that stranger sneezes or coughs, how will we react? When will we each decide to shake hands and hug again…without first hesitating? (Was shaking hands ever a good idea?) Just what is “normal,” and what life are we expecting to return to? Can we trust that we are ever completely safe?

These are complex questions, and the answers will vary for each of us. Although COVID-19 is far more serious and far more contagious than the flu, vaccinations have made the handling of these two diseases more alike. We each need to decide what level of risk is acceptable for ourselves. If we know that we might become ill, but are unlikely to become hospitalized or die, then we will tend to eventually return to old and familiar habits. After all, we have long accepted the inherent risks of the annual flu viruses.

However, note that COVID-19 is capable of mutating beyond our current vaccines. It is not likely to disappear, and may well circulate forever, as many viruses do. Therefore, “normal” and “freedom” will require that we are able to control risks to a sufficient level.

I suggest that we don’t wait for herd immunity and a reduction of cases to zero before making efforts to restore a version of normalcy to our lives. Let’s follow the CDC guidelines, decide on our own acceptable level of risk, and live our life. Let’s move forward. Let’s be tolerant of one another, maintain some social distancing, avoid coughing or sneezing in the direction of others, maintain good hygiene, and eat better foods and exercise. And finally, let’s remember to practice plenty of gratitude for what we’ve managed to achieve so far.

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