Pandemic fatigue, holiday stress create ‘perfect storm’ for COVID surge

By: - November 19, 2020 4:00 am

People are tired of staying inside, missing friends and family and having to wear masks and Georgia experts worry pandemic fatigue could lead to a spike in cases. damircudic/Getty Images

Journei Hayles of Paulding County pushed her baby in a stroller past the colorful Christmas displays at Kennesaw’s Town Center Mall Tuesday.

It was the type of morning outing she missed dearly just a few months ago, when the pandemic sparked business shutdowns across the state.

“Honestly, I didn’t know if it was real or fake sometimes because I feel like the media boosts up a lot that isn’t actually real,” she said. “But I obviously stayed home and stuff. But at some point, you just get tired of it and so you just want to leave no matter if there’s a risk for it or not. You know what I mean? You just get tired of it all.

“I miss just socializing in general, and like, not having to wear freaking masks whenever I go everywhere. It’s very annoying. It gets tiring, not being able to be close to people,” she added.

These days, Hayles said she’s going out more often and she only wears a mask in places where it’s required.

“I don’t feel like my life should stop just because there’s a virus, so I’m going to keep doing what I need to do,” she said.

Hayles is far from the only one taking the threat less seriously after months of wearing masks and avoiding crowds. “Pandemic fatigue” is largely to blame for a nationwide spike in cases, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told NPR’s “All Things Considered” Saturday.

“The virus hit different places of the country at different points,” Adams said. “And so you’ve had people who’ve been doing these things since February, March, April, but they didn’t really start to see the wave until later on. And they’re just plain tired.”

Georgia is faring better than most states, but stability in new cases and an increase in test positivity point toward future deterioration, according to a White House report released Sunday.

According to the report, 62% of all counties in Georgia have moderate or high levels of community transmission, with 21% having high levels of community transmission, and this percentage has been increasing week over week.

During the week ending Nov. 14, an average of about 1,929 new cases of COVID-19 were reported each day. That’s significantly lower than the summer, when the weekly average peaked at above 4,000 cases per day, but the trend is moving in the wrong direction, experts say. Just a month ago, during the week ending Oct. 17, Georgia was reporting about 1,322 new cases per week.

Pandemic fatigue is likely contributing to that surge, but it’s not the full picture, said Georgia State University public health professor Dr. Harry J. Heiman.

“The combination of pandemic fatigue with the holiday season, which is already, in a good year, a highly stressful time for people, together with colder weather moving people indoors, and other factors all create a perfect storm, if you will, for the pandemic to go from bad to worse,” he said.

“But I think we need to be careful not to blame the public and pandemic fatigue for a problem that could be mitigated significantly by consistent policies, consistent messaging from public figures, and by providing people the support they need to address some of the fatigue and stress and anxiety that they’re feeling.”

Public health professionals have learned that making sure people have the knowledge and ability to make healthy choices is more effective than simply reminding them it’s the smart thing to do, Heiman said. Clear messaging from public officials about what is and what is not safe could help people feel less trapped, he said.

“There’s a difference between ‘batten down the hatches and stay locked in your home’ versus ‘here are the things you can go out and do relatively safely, and here’s how to do it safely, and here are things you should be cautious to avoid,’” Heiman said.

That could mean encouraging people to choose restaurants with outdoor dining and stressing the importance of getting out for fresh air.

“Exercise is critically important for mental and physical health at all times,” he said. “If you want to take a walk with a friend who’s not someone you’re living with, keep the mask on. It’s about messaging, creating appropriate expectations, and also messaging that provides positive and proactive ways they can manage not only their pandemic fatigue, but their stress and anxiety in general.”

The mental toll

Americans’ mental health is suffering from the pandemic. An August poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 53% of adults in the U.S. reported their mental health suffering because of COVID-19-related worry and stress.

Licensed professional counselor Tiffany Alberto of Atlanta is seeing the effect on mental health every day. Alberto said every one of her patients has spoken to her about COVID-19 related anxiety or stress.

“It’s affected everyone,” she said. “I work quite a bit with young people, people in their 20s and early 30s that are maybe less financially secure, so that’s been a huge stressor along with the risk of the virus and the scariness of that. There’s been quite a lot of stress around financial scarcity and also isolation, because they’re not able to kind of get out and socialize and do those formative things that kids do at that age.”

For some, living in the age of COVID can feel like going through life knowing that there is a panther hiding somewhere in the trees but never knowing if it will pounce.

“Even though we’re having to go about our daily lives, go to work, make breakfast in the morning, we’re always sort of in the background, fearful, and we can’t really pay attention or focus on what’s happening for us in this moment, because there’s this huge fear, danger, risk, and it’s affecting us and it’s also affecting all of our loved ones and our communities, and that can impact health as well.”

Media coverage of the pandemic could be contributing to peoples’ anxiety.

Atlanta therapist Michelle Berry said about 90% of her patients talk to her about anxiety stemming from COVID-19. When COVID-19 anxiety becomes unmanageable and interferes with one’s life, it’s good to focus inward, she said.

“With all of the things that are going on in media, I tell my clients to turn the television off, grab a book, be creative with the people in your home, get out and walk 30 minutes a day, drink plenty of water, do the things that are going to give you calm, listen to audio books that are going to give you a positive outlook in life,” she said. “You really have to get out of the bubble of the current situation. You cannot allow your worries to take control of your life.”

Positive news coverage about vaccine manufacturers should not be seen as cause for taking more risk, said Dr. Isaac Chun-Hai Fung, associate professor of epidemiology at the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University.

“Even though we have good news from Pfizer last week and Moderna Monday that there are potentially efficacious vaccines that will be available next year if the interim report from the release turn out to be confirmed by independent reviews in peer reviewed journals, it still takes time for vaccines to be distributed and administered into the arm of Americans,” he said. “So this winter, we still have to protect ourselves.”

One of the most important things people can do is remember to take care of themselves, Alberto said. That could mean getting enough sleep, remembering to exercise or staying in touch with loved ones, even if it has to be done digitally.

“It can be a momentary relief, if it doesn’t solve everything, that’s OK,” she said. “Just having that sort of moment of respite or relief can be really helpful to just sort of have our nervous system reset from being always in that place of fight or flight.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.