Day 436

Since we’re evidently about to throw out our masks and forget about social distancing, can we once and for all stop with the hygiene theater?

For almost a year now, scientists have largely agreed that the risk of contracting COVID from a contaminated contact surface is low. Fomites stopped being our enemy for some time, but the obsession with hand sanitizer, disposable wipes, and spraying countertops and doorknobs continues.

This morning was my third weekly trip to the gym, and I got on a treadmill that was two away from the only other in use at the time. Fifteen minutes into my run, some guy gets on the treadmill next to mine, despite there being several others available. He wasn’t wearing a mask, like I was, but he decides to wipe down every surface of the console before beginning his run.

In other words, he ignored the two proven methods to prevent transmission while opting to perform an action that has little effect. And it’s easy to see why, because his chosen defense, ineffective as it was, is the least inconvenient for him, involving the least bit of forethought or consideration. I think that’s why we continue to disinfect surfaces even though there’s no science to justify the activity. It’s a brief action that makes us feel like we’re doing something useful, gosh darn it.

At the grocery store where I work, cashiers wipe down the customer conveyor belt after each order. When I check out a book from the library, a janitor sprays the self-checkout monitor. I walked into a bank the other day, and a teller wiped down the counter as I left.

When the next flu outbreak happens, as early as this fall, I have no confidence in our ability to fight it. Most of us will ignore the lessons we were taught this past year.

***

Sorry for the pessimistic screed today. I’m angry, and sometimes it’s better to express that anger than let it fester. I’ll try to find something more positive to write about for next week’s entry in this ongoing journal.

Day 431

In 13 days, I won’t have to wear a mask outside my home. Wish that news made me more joyful.

Following the Center for Disease Control’s revised guidance for vaccinated people, our state’s governor announced that COVID health orders will be lifted June 2.

The announcements seem sudden and dramatic. Yesterday we were told to keep on keepin’ on, and tomorrow we’re back to 2019.

Have I become too comfortable with the minor inconveniences of the pandemic? Am I upset at having to drive to writing groups and workshops? Perhaps. But I’m also thinking of a previous period of high optimism, one in which I shared.

I made a giddy projection sometime around June or July last year that the pandemic was nearing its end. New cases, hospitalizations, deaths — all the scary numbers were going down, and I expected the downward trend to continue. That didn’t work out well.

And yes, the vaccines have made a major difference. But there’s so many people who can’t or won’t get their shots. The coronavirus has also mutated, several times.

Perhaps my attitude will change in the next two weeks, but discarding my mask in public doesn’t seem right to me. An overreaction to the progress we’ve made the last few months.

I want to be wrong in my pessimism. But I also want us to get it right this time.

***

My wife and I have reserved condo time on Maui for December and January.

We haven’t bought plane tickets yet, in part because we recognize there’s plenty that can still go wrong between now and then. We usually book travel arrangements around September, and if the virus situation continues to improve by then we’ll likely decide to go, even if we have to wear masks on those long flights back and forth.

I also like to travel, by plane or car, to see my siblings in Maine during August. I’ve never been away from them this long, so I’m perhaps even more anxious for this trip.

Vacations have been one of the more minor casualties of COVID. One of the reasons I hope we’ve actually turned the corner now is to get back that part of my life.

Day 422

My wife hasn’t received a vaccination card, and might not ever get one. And it’s all her fault for trying to be a good citizen.

At the end of last year she volunteered to participate in a clinical study for a COVID vaccine; we can’t disclose the manufacturer’s name. It’s called a double-blind study, in which each participant receives two pairs of shots. One pair is a placebo; the other is the actual vaccine. She received her first shot at the end of January, the second a month later. The second pair of shots began last month, and she’ll soon receive her fourth overall injection. Patients are asked to record their temperature daily and report any health issues. Her only reaction to the three shots she’s already received has been arm soreness.

She may have been inoculated in February. Or maybe she got the placebo and has yet to receive her second dose of the vaccine, meaning she won’t have developed antibodies until June.

The manufacturer may never tell her which pair of shots was the actual dose. And because this particular vaccine hasn’t been approved — it’s the reason for the study after all — she won’t be issued a vaccine card.

She’s heard many people dropped out of the study when they became eligible for an approved vaccine. I attempted to volunteer for the study in January, but didn’t receive any responses to my inquiries. Based on my wife’s experience, I’m glad it didn’t work out, because by now I would have joined the dropouts.

I’ve written before about my opposition to vaccine passports. If they truly inconvenienced the COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers, I’d be all for them. Yet I’m pretty sure the deadbeats will forge vaccination cards or find some other way to cheat the system, while those who’ve played by the rules — and those who’ve made sacrifices, like my wife — will be the ones who are punished.

Day 415

Didn’t blog much last week, and while COVID and my increasingly busy schedule are convenient excuses, the truth is that I didn’t feel inspired. Rather than go through the motions, I decided to take a week off. Now I’m back to continue this odd little journal of pandemic-inspired observations.

***

Went to the gym this morning for the first time since at least November, most likely further back.

Today was about feeling comfortable and getting re-acclimated rather than pushing myself. Got on the treadmill and jogged for 25 minutes, with a maximum speed of 3.0 MPH and no incline, a pace brisk enough to produce a full-body sweat. My knees are always the most sensitive part of my body when running, and I felt enough tension down there to convince me not to dial up the speed or incline. As I write this a few hours later I feel fine, but the chance of overnight stiffness is pretty high. Assuming I’m not terribly laid up tomorrow, going to the gym on Tuesday morning will return to my weekly routine.

I wore a mask designed for exercising the entire time. When properly tightened the edges fully cover the nose and mouth, with the fabric around the mouth molded into a kind of pouch that makes heavy breathing noticeably easier. It never went unnoticed, but it wasn’t uncomfortable either. If I have to wear it to work out, I’m more than willing.

How that mask will hold up when I return to the fencing club, where I get my most rigorous and enjoyable exercise, could be another story. Until I stopped going in the fall when the pandemic reached dangerous levels, wearing a cloth mask under my fencing helmet, with its sturdy metal cage close to my face, was at times unbearable. I had to take frequent breaks when sparring at practice; competing in tournaments was overwhelming. But if I employ the take it easy approach I used today at the gym, I expect to enjoy getting back to stabbing people (and getting stabbed by them) for fun.

I’ll use the busy schedule excuse to explain why I’m not going to the club this week. Next week should work out, and I’m looking forward to seeing my people again. Some of my friends there I haven’t seen since the fall, others in over a year. Walking into the club will be a victory far greater than any I could achieve in a bout.

Day 405

It took 24 hours after the shot, but I did have a reaction to my second inoculation — severe aches to almost every joint in my body. Fortunately a couple of Advil relieved the pain almost immediately, and it never came back. Four more days until I return to the gym and the fencing club.

***

I recently joined a Saturday morning writing club. We all get on a Zoom call, spend a few minutes talking about what we’re currently working on, then go on mute and write for the next couple-few hours. There are days when I miss sleeping, but I like the discipline of starting the weekend with a solid block of writing.

There was talk today about meeting in-person starting in June. A studio has offered a bargain rate on rental, and many in the group seem eager for the face-to-face interaction. After over a year of isolation, I can’t blame their desire.

The topic of vaccinations came up, with one member asking if vaccination cards would be required. The feeling among the group was that inoculations should be emphasized but proof won’t have to be demonstrated. There was also talk of setting up one laptop in the studio and running a Zoom session from there for participants not comfortable with in-person meetings. I probably will choose remote attendance, not so much out of pandemic concern but rather for the convenience. Why drive half an hour each way when I can get the same meeting benefit from the comfort of my home? Maybe I’ll make the drive once a month, just for a change of pace.

I expect a similar conversation will take place during my monthly critiquing group’s next session. We haven’t met in person since at least March of last year, and members were eager to resume face-to-face meetings by summer. There was even talk of meeting in a parking lot and address each other through open windows; fortunately that absurd proposal never came up for a vote. We had been meeting in libraries, but I don’t know if meeting rooms are available there yet. Attendance at our Zoom meetings has been declining the last few months, and I suspect fatigue is a major contributing factor to the decreased enthusiasm. Perhaps some type of hybrid model will work for this group as well.

Day 394

Received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine this afternoon. Two weeks from now, after my body has built all of its viral antibodies, I’ll be able to resume some of the activities I’ve had to put off during this difficult fall and winter.

I now have a 4″ x 3″ (10 cm x 7.5 cm) sheet of cardstock that shows where and when I received my shots:

There’s been discussion of using these cards as “vaccination passports,” and restricting access to indoor events and even air travel to those who possess them.

I’m all for inconveniencing those who refuse to get vaccinated, but I’m somehow certain the religious zealots, political whack-jobs, and science deniers will find a way (such as paying for counterfeit vaccination records) around any vaccination passport restrictions. Requiring people to show their record will only affect those who don’t have access to the vaccine — which isn’t the point.

***

It’s been three hours since the jab, and not a hint of side effects. Not even a sore arm. I’ll wait until tomorrow morning before declaring victory in that battle.

I’ll be amazed if I don’t need a booster shot in the fall. By that time the vaccine might even be part of that season’s flu shot. Inoculations are going to be frequent in the coming years, especially for people my age. If they’re as uneventful as the two shots I received for COVID, it’ll be like dental checkups — not something you look forward to, but the health benefit far outweighs the temporary inconvenience.

Day 386

In a phone conversation with my brother yesterday, I spoke of my relief at receiving my first shot of COVID vaccine and how I was eager to restart my out-of-house recreational activities. I then asked if he’d received or scheduled his vaccinations.

I didn’t like his response.

“People keep telling me I should get my shot,” he told me, his voice ominous with hesitation. But no, he hadn’t looked into it.

He then asked me if I knew anyone who had died or suffered from a bad case of COVID. An odd way to question the severity of an illness. I’ve heard malaria’s a pretty bad disease, but I don’t know anybody who’s actually had it. Must be fake news!

But I do actually know people who’ve had COVID. A high school friend was hospitalized a few days. A former co-worker, after months of dismissive Facebook posts about government lockdowns and mask mandates, nearly died from COVID last fall; he now harangues his Facebook friends about ignoring the virus. A member of our temple also suffered from the virus.

These examples didn’t have much effect on my brother. “I heard some healthcare workers are choosing not to get the vaccine,” he then said. And if they also jumped off the Empire State Building… “And some businesses are paying their employees to get shots.”

“If we had everybody in the family give you five bucks, would that motivate you?” I asked. I could soon tell he was no longer interested in talking about the issue, so I left him with the hope that if he just got his shot then he could tell me, as well as everyone else nagging him about vaccinations, to shut the hell up.

Later that evening I talked to my sister, who had seen our brother earlier that day. A physical therapist who works with many elderly patients, she received her vaccinations as soon as they were available. She’s even more dismayed than I am about our brother’s reluctance. “He has respiratory issues,” she reminded me; he’s suffered with asthma for as long as I remember. “And he’s over 60. If he gets COVID, it could kill him.”

We agreed that travel restrictions, such as not being able to purchase an airline ticket if he doesn’t have a vaccination card, will probably what finally gets him to get his shots. “The world’s never going to be what it used to be,” he’d told me earlier that day, a statement I agreed with completely. My brother’s stubborn and is overly selective with his facts, but he doesn’t a zealot of denial. His siblings will keep reminding him that this new world requires minor inconveniences until he finally gets his shots.

Day 380

My mother’s parents spend winters in Hawaii and usually return to the mainland in the spring. That wasn’t really an option for them in 2020, so they’ve been out there since the fall of 2019.

After getting their vaccinations with no side effects, they’ve decided it’s time to head back here. Their flight is in early May, by which time everyone in my family will also have been vaccinated, including my 24-year-old son, as vaccinations in our state are now available to anyone 16 and over.

The flight to Hawaii is long, but has the advantage of crossing timezones in reverse; it’s like gaining time. Coming back, however, and losing all that time is one giant bowl of suck with a side order of bleh. And being in a small enclosed environment with not-so-great circulation for over half a day is hardly a comforting proposition when there’s a deadly virus floating around.

My in-laws will continue to be cautious, and knowing how much family means to them I’m not going to argue with their decision. But I’m going to be anxious when their long journey back begins, and probably won’t fully relax for a couple weeks after they return.

***

Just when infection, hospitalization, and mortality rates had seemed to be consistently trending down, those numbers all picked up again this past week.

While broad dissemination of vaccines has undoubtedly been helpful, it also seems to have spurned another round of premature relaxation. People are gathering in large crowds again; the disciplines of social distancing and mask wearing have broken down. (I’m deliberately not writing about states that have lifted all restrictions, or the sizable percentage of the population that refuses to vaccinate, because writing on either subject will make me furious.)

To use a term from American football, many of us have spiked the ball before getting into the end zone, while others have decided to leave the field while there’s still time on the clock.

I really do wish I could end this ongoing journal, but COVID-19 remains too large to ignore, even for those who can’t be bothered to pay attention to science.

Day 372

At 10 AM last Tuesday, I received a call from my manager at the grocery store where I work. The store pharmacy had three openings for COVID vaccinations, and if I got there by 1 I’d receive one.

The store is two miles from my home. I was there at 10:15.

My appointment for tomorrow is no long necessary and has been cancelled. Second and final shot has been scheduled for April 13. Since it takes two weeks after the second shot to develop full immunity to COVID, I have 4/27 marked on my mental calendar as the day I can resume my communal physical activities — returning to the gym, the Pilates studio, and most important of all, the fencing club.

In May, my wife will receive her fourth shot in the vaccine lab study she’s enrolled in. It’s a double-blind study, where one group is given two shots of a placebo at the start and the other receives the vaccine; two more shots are administered a month later, with the group roles reversed. She’ll either be vaccinated by the end of May, or find out she’s been vaccinated since March.

She asked me the other day if I’d feel comfortable going to a restaurant once we’re both fully inoculated. I told her I could do it with outdoor seating, but being indoors with the pandemic still in effect, without knowing whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus, doesn’t sit well with me.

***

We also received our COVID stimulus checks from the federal government last week. Unlike the previous two payments, this time college-aged dependents were included.

My elder son is home after graduating in December, and is working as a delivery driver for a pizza chain. He took on extra shifts last week because order volume was higher than usual — a result, he was told, of the stimulus checks.

Americans get money from the government and splurge on fast food. Sometimes the jokes write themselves in this country.

Day 365

It would be over in three months, I hoped. By the end of summer, at the latest. Those were my thoughts on how long the COVID-19 pandemic would disrupt our lives when I began this journal a year ago. I certainly didn’t think I’d write a post marking this plague’s anniversary.

There’s cautious optimism now that, with case numbers steadily declining and vaccines increasingly available, this summer will look closer to 2019 than 2020. Concerts in the park? Sitting in the stands of a ball game? Outdoor dining at restaurants? All those routine enjoyments still seem distant, perhaps because it’s been so long since I’ve enjoyed them.

***

After weeks of frustration, I was finally able to schedule a vaccination. My first shot will be a week from tomorrow, and the second should be scheduled at that time a month later. Doctors advise waiting two weeks after the second shot before being more active socially.

That means in early May I’ll return to the community gym and fencing club, still wearing a mask but relieved to reclaim some of my lost freedoms. Fencing will be especially important, as it’s not only my favorite form of exercise but also where I’ve found many of my closest friends. Hanging out at the club and weighing the value of a popular Netflix show, ridiculing the latest conspiracy theory, or just finding out what’s going on with all my buddies… Zoom is great, but it can’t replicate those types of breezy social interactions.

If “going back to normal” means resuming the lifestyles we enjoyed in 2019, then I don’t think we’ll see normal again for some time. But normal and happy are not synonyms, and one can exist without the other. The days ahead are going to be better than the 365 that came before it, and while those days will have their difficulties I look forward to them anyway.