PHOENIX — Remember earlier this summer and how this July 4 was much like Independence Day celebrations of the past? Barbecues, beer, groups of folks enjoying fireworks and fun much like any normal summer celebration.
It was almost as if the previous year with highly virulent and potentially deadly disease rampaging through our society (a.k.a. the pandemic) was behind us.
The problem, as you know by now, is that it is not. We are still in the midst of it. It has not gone away. It continues to spread and people are still becoming sick and some are dying. The continued lack of leadership and consistent messaging from community leaders are misleading many to believe at the pandemic is a thing of the past.
Nothing could be farther than the truth.
As a physician, it is my job to look at scientific data provided to the medical community and to communicate those to my patients. At my practice in Chandler, Arizona, we are continuing to follow CDC guidelines, encourage social distancing and mask protocols even though masks are now optional for those vaccinated in the state. The problem is not that COVID is not being addressed. It is that so many are just simply ignoring it. By that, I mean literal ignorance. Many are acting as if it is no longer a reality. Such is a true delusion.
Sadly, these people who share this delusion are allowing it to become a default reality. In psychiatry and psychology, once enough people believe a delusional thought, it morphs into perceived reality. For those in that reality it is no longer delusion, but fact. A scary thing when it comes to infectious and potentially deadly diseases like COVID-19.
How do you educate, and inform those who disallow your reality? This is the same logic that allows for belief in astrology, the Loch Ness Monster and that the Earth is flat. This is compounded by the ability of people to choose information sources and ban others. Thus, solidifying their desired reality around them.
Regardless of what deniers think, COVID-19 is real, very contagious and potentially deadly. Variants will continue to pop up around the world and societies must be agile and cooperative enough to pivot when strategies need to be changed or restrictions restored for the common good. A challenge indeed, during these times. However, we now have precedent. The last year showed us how to manage within a pandemic. The rules are simple to follow and allow us to protect ourselves, our families and one another.
The WHO, CDC and many other health organizations recommend a three-pronged approach:
- Social distancing and masks
- Contact tracing
- Aggressive vaccination programs.
It is only with an emphasis on all three simultaneously, that a society can best manage to keep their citizens safe and their economies running. Unfortunately, many countries do not have the ability to do so. The U.S. leads the way in vaccinations but has engaged in zero contact tracing. Other countries that have been successful with the latter, due to mobile communication devices like your phone, still do not have access to a vaccine. They are struck with social distancing and quarantining of those infected or exposed, often forcibly. Still, other countries rely solely on social distancing and masks. This does not allow for these people to work, socialize or receive any other medical treatments that they may need. Dying of an infected tooth because you cannot get in to see a doctor is something out of the 1800s, yet it is happening today.
The “deadliness” of COVID-19 was never the full issue. It was its virulency. The reality that so many people in such a short time could become ill and thus overwhelm our healthcare system and potentially shut down much of our working economies was the main concern. Especially if many of those stricken were health care workers themselves. If one cannot be treated for other issues such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, broken bones, etc., without putting those others patients at risk, many more people will suffer.
The risk of the pandemic was much more significant in the sense of comorbidities than direct fatalities due to the virus itself. However, a significant point of contention and misunderstanding still continue to come from deniers. Some of their doubt arises from the constantly evolving response to a novel disease. In science and medicine, we respond to changes in the data. We do not “change our minds” due to politics or media pressure. With COIVD-19, we had never seen it before. The data we are responding to is being collected in real time and was, and is still, not complete. Those in leadership made the decision to assume the worst and take precautions rather than not. A controversial decision, but one I and most of the medical community support.
Criticism of the WHO, the CDC, HHS and, of course, Dr. Fauci is misplaced. They are not “lying” to you. They are changing their minds and policies based on the new data being presented. Such is the reality of science and a novel virus. However, for many in an alternate reality or of those clinging to a delusion or political belief, it can seem as though these authorities are posting falsehoods. Instead, they turn to more provincial sources of information such as social media, local political leaders, pastors, friends and family—all of whom do not have the same level of information as the research organizations tasked, trained, staffed and funded to handle these specific situations like these. Therefore, to them, the vetted sources that we professionals rely on may seem wishy-washy or downright fraudulent, when they are not.
The facts as they stand are that the virus is still active and spreading. It is also struggling, as viruses do, to survive by mutating. The latest mutation, the Delta variant, being particularly problematic because it seems significantly more transmissible.
The solution is to keep doing what we have been doing all year. Continue to mask when not able to social distance. Socially distance when you can. Stay healthy by eating and exercising wisely. Do your best to keep your stress levels down. Sleep, connect with friends and family (safely). Do your best to share significant data—such as who in your circles has COVID-19, may have it, or has contracted it. Basically, a grassroots form of contact tracing.
Remember to also be responsible. If you have been exposed, think you have been exposed or have tested positive for COVID-19, quarantine yourself appropriately. Simply put, do the right thing. Keep yourself and others safe and support your community. And, of course, go get vaccinated. It is safe, effective and free.
It will most likely take up to another full year for us to truly get COVID-19 under control and to re-establish safe practices and norms post-pandemic. However, we must accept the reality that there will be future pandemics to come. So for these next 365 days, do the right thing. The pandemic is NOT over. Missteps now could lead to a recurrence of illness that may be worse than the initial spread.
There is significant light at the end of the tunnel. However, we are still in the tunnel. Continue to live your life with this in mind. Be safe. Stay healthy.
Dr. Lauro Amezcua-Patino is the clinical voice of The Only You (Solo Tú), a podcast dedicated to simplifying the complex issues of the mind and mental illness. Originally from Mexico, Dr. Amezcua-Patino has been practicing in the metropolitan Phoenix area for over 30 years. Twitter: @SuSaludMental.