I’m not doing very well right now.
It’s month 20 of covering the pandemic, living through the pandemic, living with everyone else who is living through the pandemic too. Even as things are so much better—the vaccines are highly effective in the important ways—they are still very bad. You only have to glance at the hospitalizations, or turn on the news briefly, to know that. And of course, it is my job as Slate’s science editor to stay up to date on the news.
Each wave of the virus brings all the old hits: The systems designed to deal with this are overwhelmed. Because of this, you—you personally—need to be more careful. Care about other people, more. Also, mind your own business as to what other people are doing. Sometimes there are remixes, like the hope a new presidency brings. But mostly, it is the same. And this time, the fresh hell of delta, for me, is: There is no longer the fantasy that we will get out.
The science journalist in me has to point you to some reading about how we will eventually learn to live with the virus like it is the common cold, or the flu. I need to make sure you know that your risk as a vaccinated person taking precautions is still quite low. But this is not a blog post about how or when the pandemic ends—or when America will return to some semblance of normal despite the reality that some aspects of the pandemic will kind of never end, and we will just get better at living with this disease (and some countries will not). It is a blog post about the feelings I have about learning to live with this disease, while covering the disease is also my job.
The window of June–July OK-ness—the normal, familiar, wonderful OK-ness—was so hard-earned. Not just from months of lockdown, drinks at outdoor bars in the dead of winter, general anxiety that a loved one could get very, very ill and possibly die from the virus. I had also couched the very possibility of normal ordinary OK-ness in so many caveats. I spent such a long time trying to accept that a new version of OK could be OK, trying hard not to scare it off.
I didn’t even buy the idea that the vaccine would dramatically adjust things in our personal lives for a while; I edited a story about a doctor who got the shot at the end of 2020 and didn’t change anything about her behavior, then another, months later, in which she had changed some things but was still being fairly careful. It was a relief just to be out of the worst of the worst—New York in 2020 spring, when the sirens were regular and there was a truck of frozen bodies within walking distance of my bedroom and all that was standing between several roommates and severe illness was a pack of cold and flu medicine purchased after going to so many pharmacies.
But why else did I spend three hours standing in line at a Walgreens in March, acting on a tip from a guy at a bagel shop that the location down the street had extra doses? Even though I barely trusted it as one, I still wanted my ticket out.
It took a while to slide back into normal. I waited until the yoga studio required vaccination. I waited for more data. I had fraught conversations with my boyfriend about what we—as a bubbled unit shepherding one working immune system and one immune system that had, years ago, become so zealous about fighting things that it needed to be reined in significantly—were and were not comfortable with.
And then, suddenly, we were comfortable with everything, even enclosed spaces, with shared air: yoga. A Nets game. Dinner. Game night with extended family. The movies. I listened to the new Lorde song in all its lovely corniness. It felt so good.
Then a colleague who was vaccinated got sick. I could be OK with getting sick, I thought.
We went on a vacation to a state far, far from our home in July. During our stay at Dinosaur National Monument, they changed the signs on the doors on the gift shops, from advising the unvaccinated to wear masks to advising everyone to wear masks. You know the rest—canceled plans, pushed-back opening dates, alternating declarations that we are still in a raging pandemic and this is no big deal. I understood that masking again made sense. I understood that as much as I felt OK, the pandemic still continued for much of the country, and the world. Hot vax summer was never a scientifically defined season.
But also, I feel like I quickly slid from understanding this, and handling it like a 31-year-old adult—July birthday dinner outdoors, just in case—to fully losing my shit. I never got chest pains before April 2020, and have had long stretches without them since; I am getting them again now. I refer to my articles, in my head and sometimes aloud, as “my stupid little posts.” I decided to get a COVID-19 test the other week for a cough, and before the results came back negative, I looked up New York’s program for infected people and found that they can stay locked in a hotel room for up to 14 days for free. Wow, that would be really nice, I thought. We’ve just been doing this for so long; even as life gets measurably easier in some ways, I feel like whatever energy I had to cope with the hard parts was long ago used up.
Sometimes I feel like a little blinking SOS light, among so many. Journalists covering COVID are not OK. Parents are not OK. Health care workers are not OK. (And these are just the people we hear about—there are plenty of other people who are also absolutely not OK who don’t get this kind of coverage.) It feels sort of wrong to say that there is no help coming, but I am not entirely sure what help is coming for all these groups of people, and for all the rest, either.
I think a big part of the problem for me is that the tools to ease this crisis are right there—namely vaccines, but also masks and rapid tests—and so many people are just not using them, and also our system is not set up to deploy them, and so we are all stuck. I hit some kind of breaking point editing a piece about the utility of booster shots and how they won’t make too much of a difference, public health–wise. Once again, America is simply failing at collective action, which is causing an enormous amount of suffering.
I should say I am doing a little better, maybe a lot better, than when I drafted this piece a couple weeks ago. While I have eyed the job quitters with envy at times—while wondering how they will pay their rent—I am lucky to have flexibility and resources, the ability to adjust my own oxygen mask as the world melts down. I arranged a break from covering COVID at work. My doctor tweaked my medication. Writing about my despair helps. So does just realizing, yet again, that it simply makes sense to feel like totally crap during an extended crisis. A crisis that is maybe just how things are, now.
I know all the pandemic ways to keep my body and mind above water: coloring books, Nintendo Switch games, virtual yoga, running (though I quit training for a marathon). Waiting for new Taylor Swift music. Planning to stay with a friend in the South for the most hellish little slice of New York winter. Hangouts indoors purloined from my risk budget, which is—yes, of course—now so much larger than it was last year.
I am not doing very well right now. I am getting pretty good at it.