The done-with-all-that urge to dismiss the pandemic and live like it’s 2019 is impossible to ignore this spring. But its jarring dissonance with the hard fact of yet another infection wave is hard to reconcile.
While risk tolerance has become most people’s day-to-day way of coping, the calculation gets swamped when a serious underlying health condition turns up. I’m in that unsteady boat, trying to elude the pandemic while awaiting an unexpected surgery and watching the odds of infection outpace the collective spirit of resistance.
Case counts and hospitalizations are escalating nationally, yet community testing centers right here in King County are closing. Federal officials warned this week that a third of the country, particularly East Coasters, live in high-risk areas. Yet Seattle-Tacoma International Airport keeps filling up with travelers, many of whom are enjoying the freedom to jam into airplanes sans masks.
Even federal COVID-19 czar Anthony Fauci seems torn about whether we’re coming or going. Within a few days in April, he declared the country “out of the pandemic phase” — then declined an invitation to the prestigious White House Correspondents’ Dinner “due to my individual assessment of my personal risk.” Within days, news stories revealed he’d dodged an outbreak by ducking out.
In a column two years ago, I warned these whiplash-inducing waves of safe-then-unsafe would be highly aggravating. I couldn’t envision then that my seat on this bumpy voyage back to normalcy would grow too precarious to sit on. Enjoy the world of indoor restaurants, maskless meetings, cocktail parties and crowded concerts. I’ll be in an N95 and taking an outdoor table, thanks.
Over the winter, I learned I have a heart condition too severe to ignore. It’s an aortic valve issue that runs deep in my father’s family. My living uncle is on his third valve. My father died last July after his second valve-replacement surgery.
I couldn’t outrun those genetics, though I tried. I’ve worn out a succession of Asics Gel-Nimbus shoes plodding along for miles on the streets of Tacoma, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Never took up smoking, either. No matter. At age 45 and feeling reasonably fit, I got to hear a cardiologist say, “We don’t usually see this in somebody your age.” I don’t recommend the experience.
Several invasive tests and consultations later, I learned I need open-heart surgery within six months to repair or replace the valve. The doctor visits played out against a backdrop of unfolding news about downtown offices reopening and commutes resuming. I scheduled an early-summer surgery and learned one caveat: if I test positive for COVID pre-surgery, the hospital will cancel and reschedule. No pressure, right?
The number of people who postponed medical treatment during the pandemic, by choice or not, is staggering. Back in December 2020, a Harvard study found 20% of American households included at least one person who’d put off a medical visit, and 57% of those delays produced negative consequences. Delayed cancer detection and treatments reportedly have led to particularly grim outcomes the world over. Heart surgeries likewise work against a ticking clock. Even relatively simple valve replacements more frequently had complications after early pandemic-mandated postponements, a New York study indicated.
Add to that the virus’s propensity to increase the risk of heart complications, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed in April — even for vaccinated people like me.
I don’t know that I’d be booking a plane-travel vacation or clamoring to get back onto the Sounder train to The Times’ South Lake Union office if none of the above was in play. The risk calculation would certainly be different, in the name of doing the work of journalism to the standard it should be done. Interviewing over Zoom is no way to get the best insight into a source’s account of events. Showing up to school events as one of the few mask-wearing parents is not fun, either.
But acceptance of medical realities is a long-term investment. As an editorial board, we’ve consistently encouraged confronting the pandemic on straightforward, science-accepting terms. That’s where I am on my own unsteady footing, too.
We all know what the precautions are by now. It’s time again to be more thoughtful and understanding about why many people need them. As I filed this column, my second-grader daughter tested positive on an at-home test.
As if I needed another reminder: It isn’t 2019 yet.