Just Checking in

I hope this message finds you well, all things considered.

It has been a little over eight months since the coronavirus officially landed in this country. The term “landed” is a little ridiculous and reductive in my opinion. To be more specific, the first U.S. cases of non travel–related COVID-19 were confirmed February 26 and 28 of this year, suggesting that community transmission was occurring by late February.[1] We are also approaching eight months since Philadelphia and many other city’s went into lockdown.[2] What many of us optimistically, yet erroneously thought was going to only be a few weeks, or at most a month or so has consumed a better part of 2020. Starting with confusion and uncertainty and continuing into a period of needless loss and suffering, it seems as if we have now settled into an eerily comfortable place of fatigue, and social adaptation vastly distinctive from the first two months of 2020.

Here we are, it is now October 2020. It is no understatement to say that I am tired right now. I am categorically exhausted. I won’t be presumptuous and say that this is a universally experienced sentiment, but I am confident that we all may be feeling something. In fact, Survey data[3] suggests the scale of what some are calling ‘pandemic fatigue’ is estimated to have reached over 60%.[4] That is comforting I guess. At least I am not alone? You are not alone? Are we in this together? Who am I kidding?

Experts warn that, if morale continues to only sparsely circulate among communities, we will see a loosening of adherence to health protocols and guidelines. This will no doubt result in a resurgence of cases.[5] That is not comforting.

Now, I don’t think I will personally lose any sense about the environment around me, or stop following these easy guidelines; wearing a mask, socially distancing myself, hand washing etc. I am not delusional, or oblivious. Many things, but not those. It is clear the pandemic is still very much a “thing” to put it reductively. In fact, globally, as of October 17, 2020, there have been 39,023,292 confirmed cases worldwide, and roughly about 1.1 million deaths and climbing[6].

Considering those sobering numbers, doing something as low effort as wearing a mask provides me with a peace of mind to know that I am participating in an act that has a positive impact on the community’s health.

Those behavior modifications are easy. If I am being honest, other ways we have had to adapt have taken their toll on me emotionally and mentally. I am now bound to my computer screen, my keyboard, and my mouse. Besides the screen time related eye strain and eye fatigue[7], the monotony of it all has been, to be hyperbolic, a little soul crushing. My eyes hurt from the endless zoom calls and webinars. Zoom meetings can be cold, distant, and almost always immediately afterwards I move to my couch to decompress. I can predict and recite every opening speech a facilitator will give on any given webinar, from any given profession. Call it a gift. The pattern, pace, and protocol are all there; rote and painfully predictable. At times it feels like I am in an endless zoom call, like Groundhog Day, but in a webinar.

For a while, it also felt like my partner and I were cursed to our house and the only view of the outside world was through our computer screens. We took the lockdown very seriously, and we still follow the pandemic protocols in earnest. That is why my capacity for grace has diminished significantly. Especially when I see Philadelphians refuse to wear a mask or socially distance from one another. To reiterate my feelings in more blunt terms, I am fucking spent. Spent in many ways, yes, but I do count myself privileged and blessed in many other ways. I am working at a rewarding job, and mostly from home.

I get to work with talented and knowledgeable experts in various health related professions, and I get to share public health data and information with a large audience. You see, in addition to being tired, I am a social worker in the field of public health education, at a federally qualified health center. My program’s goal is to democratize vital health information to a wide audience, with little to no barriers; great stuff. This work feels vital, especially now. Before the pandemic, along with my colleagues, we would produce lectures, symposia, conferences and a webinar here and there. Emphasis on the “here and there.” Since the pandemic it has been nothing but webinars.

Now, there was a point where I thought this new pattern would have an infinite level of gratification, and I would have the energy to produce webinar, after webinar, and to be honest I thoroughly enjoy the trainings I get to put together. Creating access points for ordinarily cloistered, inaccessible, or hidden health knowledge is both vital and rewarding. My favorite annual program focused on anal health, another training I am fond of was centered around patient advocacy and empowerment where I was asked to read aloud the colloquial terms for various sexual acts. Totally cool and fun. It was never dull, and we presented important topics that corresponded with the public health zeitgeist. Eight months toiling during this pandemic though and I have borne witness to an innumerable amount of zoom pop-up windows, countlessly asked the question “can you please unmute yourself?” and viewed a collective mosaic of frozen screens that is now emblazoned in my memory.

Additionally, indebted to both my job and my own quest for trustworthy and sound health information, I have consumed a treasure trove of health data, and read countless articles and journals. It’s now my hobby. Some people learned how to bake bread while others crafted. For better or for worse I am now a nerd for public health.

Early in the pandemic I recognized that my anxiety was partially triggered by the barrage of doom-laden headlines. There were articles saying we should wipe down our groceries or avoid even just walking outside. I recognized good data and research was being sensationalized, editorialized, and in some cases bad data was being shared. I understood that venturing beyond the scrolling tickertape was necessary for me to remain grounded. Alarmist headlines can cause panic. So, I had to sit with and digest whole news articles. In fact, there were a few I had to read more than once. That later practice is a necessity for me. I was diagnosed with learning disabilities as a child, and I am also on the autism spectrum. So, I wouldn’t say processing information is a challenge, it just happens differently for me. Despite everything, the pandemic to date has taught me to have patience with myself. I can now recognize that even reputable and highly trusted news outlets sometimes bury scientific data in favor of sound bites or talking points. I discovered that I enjoy navigating to linked datasets, I now travers and voraciously consume every reference presented, and I find myself looking up multiple articles on any given subject. I soon realized I was witnessing science and research “do their things” in real time, at an excitingly accelerated rate. It was, to use an overused term, unprecedented. This meant I had to be well informed. I had to wade and trudge through the headlines, the Facebook posts, the infodemic[8] melee.

I discovered that I could be a critical and well-informed consumer of trustworthy public health news, and in fact share that with others. It was not as laborious or difficult as I once thought. This new found love of consuming public health news has been a blessing personally and advantageous professionally. This personal practice has been one of the few bright spots. As they say an ounce of education and prevention is worth a pound of cure.

That is why I want to share my pandemic experience and health data consumption practices in good faith. I plan to look at the daily headlines, dissect the data, and digest information as a lay consumer of public health news in real time and with relatable language. I will also be nothing short of honest and treat this as a space and time to check in emotionally.

There is no need for confusion or uncertainty, and even though I am sure there will be more zoom calls, webinars, and dropped connections our connection to sound research and up-to-date health information does not have to be dropped.

Warm regards

Kyle

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6922e1.htm?s_cid=mm6922e1_w

[2] https://www.phila.gov/documents/eo-and-explanation-of-prohibition-on-non-essential-businesses/?mc_cid=a7853903e7&mc_eid=701a23fa37

[3] https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/335820/WHO-EURO-2020-1160-40906-55390-eng.pdf

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/health-54417547

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/17/us/coronavirus-pandemic-fatigue.html

[6] https://covid19.who.int/

[7] https://lernercenter.syr.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Helander_Cushman_Monnat.pdf

[8] https://www.who.int/news/item/23-09-2020-managing-the-covid-19-infodemic-promoting-healthy-behaviours-and-mitigating-the-harm-from-misinformation-and-disinformation