Tuesday, May 12, 2020

ROBERTS: Finding a new normal with coronavirus

Sid Roberts, MD
Lufkin Radiation Oncologist
Member, Texas Medical Association

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in The Lufkin Daily News and Dr. Roberts' blog.

We have been self-distancing through the COVID-19 pandemic for a few months now. What a wild ride it has been! Despite the number infected — well over 1.25 million — and more than 75,000 deaths, many still question the legitimacy of the extraordinary measures that shut down our economy.

Uninformed proclamations comparing COVID-19 to the seasonal flu are an affront to anyone who has been sickened or died from this disease. The average length of stay of those hospitalized (especially those requiring ICU care and ventilator support), not to mention the number of deaths, is far greater than with the flu.

Still, should we have shut down the economy? Professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University called it a “brutal trade-off: inducing massive economic suffering in order to save human lives.” Their research concludes that not closing the economy ultimately would be much costlier to society, potentially tens of trillions of dollars in addition to major loss of life. Consider it a “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” choice. I am grateful we chose to flatten the curve and save lives.

How do we recover from this mess? Many states, including Texas, are starting to loosen restrictive measures to reopen our economy. Trillions of dollars have been designated for businesses and individual taxpayers. That will help ease some of the financial suffering. But we have paid a collective price psychologically as well.

The unpredictable factor in this recovery is going to be people. What are we willing to do when we emerge from isolation? Some never really changed their behavior to begin with. For those who did take the pandemic seriously — and still do — it is not as easy as flipping a switch and going back to a pre-coronavirus routine. Predictions for a rapid economic boom assume we will all be hitting the malls and restaurants as if nothing ever happened.

Me? I think I have PCSD — Post Coronavirus Stress Disorder. My habits have changed. My sense of personal space and need for barriers is heightened. I avoid people. It will take me months or longer before I go back into a store and don’t wonder whose germy fingers have been on everything.

Interacting with strangers — or even friends I haven’t seen in a while — has a more dangerous feel to it. Consciously or not, we are figuring out what our personal risk tolerance is. Are there too many people in that store? Are the employees at that restaurant being careful enough? We decide with our feet and our pocketbooks.

Some will emerge sooner and more confidently than others. Peggy Noonan, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, called for patience and grace when other people are moving faster or slower in the recovery process than perhaps we think they should. “What will hurt us is secretly rooting for disaster for those who don’t share our priors.”

In the church, we refer in jest to some theological differences as “non-salvation issues” over which we can agree to disagree. As we emerge from our coronavirus self-isolation, we should respect that not everyone will be either as cautious or as cavalier as we may be. Extend grace.

The ideal conditions for me personally to feel truly comfortable again would be a) I have been infected (and recovered), and am proven immune, or b) I have been vaccinated. Only then will I regain my more nonchalant attitude toward life. Either of these conditions is imperfect assurance; only time and testing — and good science — will provide clarity on the true COVID-19 status of any of us.

In the meantime, I will continue my new habits (obsessions, really): self-distancing and cleanliness. I will avoid crowds for the foreseeable future. When I attend church services — at least in the beginning — I am at least going to mask myself on entering and exiting, if not the entire service. The last thing I want is to be an undiagnosed carrier who infects an elderly or at-risk fellow church member.

In public, I carry disinfectant wipes for use in the grocery store, at the gas pump, etc. Finally, I wash my hands. No, I really scrub them. Lots of bubbles all around. Often. (Admittedly, I still have trouble not touching my face.)

One more thing. Once we have a vaccine, we cannot let the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists have their way. Legislators must remove conscientious and religious exemptions from vaccination requirements.

Eventually — hopefully next year sometime — enough of us will have recovered or been immunized and life truly can return to the pre-coronavirus routine ... at least until the next pandemic comes along. Please, can we wait another century for that?

Dr. Sid Roberts is a radiation oncologist at the Temple Cancer Center in Lufkin. Previous columns may be found at angelinaradiation.com/blog.

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