Snow has begun to carpet the world outside my home in northern Vermont, and I find myself taking slow, grounding breaths, as if my body is bracing itself. I — like most people I know — am dreading another COVID winter. Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, my little state has the highest COVID transmission rates it has ever seen, breaking its new record highs every couple of weeks. And that’s without Omicron, the new variant identified in South Africa.
I can feel tension building all around me as the general anxiety — both seasonal and pandemic-related — picks up. Masks are once again being mandated, people I speak to are less at ease, and my relationships feel strained as we try to respectfully navigate each person’s different COVID boundaries.
For young, fully-vaccinated, healthy friends with no children, many are choosing to just continue living the way they did when our state’s case numbers were in the single digits. The odds of them being seriously ill from COVID are pretty low. The impact on mental health from life with continued COVID restrictions, on the other hand, is not insignificant. And so, they continue going to restaurants, shows, and indoor gatherings.
For those of us with young (and therefore unvaccinated) children, elderly household members, or compromised immune systems, however, this increased activity carries more risk. We are much more likely to become seriously ill or to transmit COVID to someone with higher risk. Some in this category are taking that risk, recognizing their mental health needs a breather. Others are staying put in the lockdown that kept them safe thus far, especially if their mind has benefitted from not having to constantly assess the risk level of their activities. Most find themselves somewhere in the middle — trying to live life enough to find enjoyment but without unnecessary risk. Where these lines are drawn is complicated and varied. For example, they may go to see a movie but wear a mask. Or they may choose to go to a gathering if everyone there takes a rapid test first.
As we attempt to navigate these incredibly delicate choices, it is crucial to our relationships that we respect everyone’s boundaries and not carry judgement into the conversation. We are all doing what we need to feel ok.
If you are someone living with vulnerable people or an iffy immune system, know that we see you. We know how lonely you likely feel every time you see others out and about, and how painful every decision is.
If you are not feeling at risk and choosing to just live your life (without putting others at risk), that is wonderful! Self-care and letting yourself feel good is absolutely something to celebrate. And we understand that it may feel confusing, frustrating, or just sad to not be able to include people you love if they do feel at risk.
Wherever you fall on this spectrum, we hope these tips and reminders will help you find connection this winter:
1. tweak the situation
Your usual fun activities can be made safer with small adjustments — masks, social distancing, ventilation, and testing. Wearing masks can truly make a difference, especially if everyone is masked and if the masks are multi-layered and well-fitted. Anyone at higher risk can wear an N-95/KN-95 or double-mask.
Social distancing has become second nature for many people at this point. Sitting six feet apart may feel awkward in some settings, but is not an insurmountable barrier if it helps you and yours feel safe. You may, for example, choose a restaurant with tables six feet apart over one with seating closer together, or sit several seats apart at the movies.
Air ventilation can be tricky in the winter, but if you can, open some windows! Here in New England, we love wood stoves, so cracking a window for oxygen flow is fairly commonplace. You can also buy an air purifier to filter out viruses and other germs or allergens.
And finally, testing is now more widely available! The most sensitive — and free! — test is the PCR, which you have to get at a testing site. It can accurately tell you whether or not you had COVID on the day you tested, but it takes 1-3 days for results to come back. Also, COVID can be undetectable for the first few days, so if you get tested a couple of days after contracting COVID, it will likely come back negative, only for you to become infectious later on. So, if taking the PCR test, it’s best to limit your exposures for 3-5 days before getting tested. The antigen rapid tests are now more widely available but can be tough to find (this website helps), and are unfortunately still not free or covered by insurance in the US. They have a higher chance of false negative (~15%) and false positive (~2%), but are most likely to pick up on COVID if you are currently infectious. Meaning, if you get a negative result, you can be fairly confident that you aren’t going to infect anyone that day. They are great for a one day gathering, but not for, say, a week long getaway where you might become infectious a few days later. But overall, testing is a great way to bring a sense of normalcy to your gatherings while lowering the risk of spread. They are also a great tool for peace of mind. If you start to feel funny, just take an at-home test and in 20 minutes you can fairly accurately determine whether what you have is COVID or just a cold.
2. get outside
Ok, depending on where you live, outdoor seating at restaurants and bars may be on hold for a few months, but there are plenty of other ways to get outside with your favorite people! And getting outside is still the most effective way to limit transmission. Going for a walk with a friend not only lets you connect without risking getting sick, the exercise can also give your mood a boost! Getting into nature can also have significant mental health benefits; do some research and find out if there are nice trails or other nature escapes in your area. Gathering around a campfire can be a festive way to stay warm and make the night feel special. And if you have access to winter sports, what better time to learn skiing or snowshoeing than in a pandemic?
3. make it virtual
For loved ones you can’t see in person — whether because of COVID or just distance — there are always virtual options. Hop on a video call, or make it a game night with Jackbox, netgames, or Amazon Glow! You can even do activities you once loved together, now that so many activities like paint nights, yoga studios, and religious services have gone virtual. Or, come up with your own virtual activity, like a knitting or book club.
4. go old school
If you are sick of virtual hang outs, you can always bring back some nostalgia with snail mail! Remember how special it feels to receive a handwritten letter or care package in the mail? It can be a wonderful way to connect. If you’re like me and chatting in person isn’t always the best way to communicate (thanks introversion and brain fog…), writing letters can actually be a welcome change of pace to share what’s been on your mind. And you can save the letters for days when you need a reminder that someone was thinking of you! Connection doesn’t always have to use words, either. I’ve been part of some incredible long-distance craft projects this year. In your group of pals, each person can design a few pages with photos, poems, drawing, whatever. Make copies and mail your pages to each person. Then, bind them into a gorgeous keepsake of a book! You can also use this model to create a quilt, collage, or really any multi-part craft.
Whatever path feels right for you, we hope you will find joy and connection this winter ♡
Looking to connect with other patients and caregivers online? Join our Friends in the Fight facebook group!