September 13, 2022

by eric

For some time now I have been struggling with how to end this “COVID series” of blog posts. I have other topics I’d like to write about, but I kept waiting for some moment of closure, some demarcation point to end of this strange and uncomfortable chapter in our lives. Eventually I realized that this post series is over in the same sense that people say “COVID is over”: the underlying phenomenon persists, and yet we are no longer interested in it.

It’s been the year of Omicron and friends. December and January saw a truly staggering spike in cases, one that saturated the nation’s testing capacity. A deep lull in March and April gave us hope that prior immunity might give us what vaccination had not: a path out of surges and back towards normalcy. Unfortunately the subvariants followed, and through the late spring and summer an alphabet soup of new Omicrons washed over us, seemingly with little regard to prior infection. Rapid tests proliferated, giving quick and easy (if only provisional) estimates of infectiousness; but their private nature meant that true case counts became uncertain once again. By the end of the summer we found ourselves once again trying to estimate spread by eyeing wastewater charts for major cities.

For the first time in the pandemic, it became common for friends, family, and coworkers to catch COVID. Increasingly relaxed (maybe just lax) quarantine guidelines from the CDC meant that the perceived impact of the illness was lower–although the actual experience of the illness seemed bimodal, with some folks reporting quite challenging symptoms and others barely noticing it at all.

Public life returned more or less to normal: concerts, sporting events, and public gatherings resumed, with few or any concessions to what had come before. Only vestigial “social distancing” stickers on the floor remained to mark what had been our shared experience. Restaurants, bars, theater, airports all saw returns to pre-pandemic levels; the surge in demand help fuel an inflationary spiral for prices. Only office buildings remained quiet, as workers now accustomed to the flexibility of remote work resisted a resumption of the status quo ante.

We, too, began a return to a more normal life, if more slowly than most. I finally started working on campus again, though typically just two or three days a week. I flew to science conferences, where fellow PhDs and I created a tiny redoubt of masks amid the crush of American life. We traveled to see family in the summer for the first time in three years, though COVID cases complicated those joyful homecomings.

We waited with extreme impatience for the long-delayed vaccination of our youngest, one of the “under 5s.” The initial Pfizer 2-dose regimen proved underpowered, and the resulting back-and-forth with the FDA is too exhausting to recount. We fretted through months of uncertainty before we could finally get a Moderna shot for him in late June, and a second in July. Fully vaccinated. Somehow, despite all the odds, we had made it.

Still, while we and our loved ones were fortunate and avoided the outcomes we most feared, we still find ourselves marked—scarred, even—by the events of the last two and a half years. Our trust that institutions will do the right thing, and that people will make sacrifices for the common good, will never be quite the same. Walking a route familiar from days gone past, a temporary school closure: small moments can summon again the deep darkness of those interminable 2020 months, when we sequestered ourselves from external contagion and fought internal, psychic battles instead. Today in particular I am especially grateful to my spouse, who persevered alongside me through those difficult days. May the years ahead bring again an expansion of life and of possibility.