Seattle is back, though it’s not back to normal.
How does one define pre-pandemic normal? Heavy traffic? Loud, crowded restaurants? The day-to-day minutiae of a workplace?
And yet, daily new coronavirus case counts in Washington remain in the thousands, according to the state Department of Health. About a fifth of the state’s hospital beds are occupied by patients who were admitted with COVID. People are still dying from virus complications.
The dichotomy of feeling hopeful as restrictions ease, while also grieving from the past 24 months, can be dizzying. More than 11,000 Washington residents have died, countless others are hurting from the loss of loved ones, of connections, of important milestones.
Long gone are the goals of “flattening the curve.” There will be no COVID victory march. Instead, experts say, Seattle is approaching a reopened life, with COVID.
“The end of the pandemic will not be televised,” said Kira Mauseth, co-lead of the state Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Strike Team and a Seattle University senior instructor of psychology. “Things are more tempered. People are tired. There will be relief and joy for some people, but it’s not the same sense of euphoric excitement it might have been before. It’s going to be a collective, long-term recovery process.”
Pandemic restrictions — hallmarks of the change and turmoil of the past two years — are easing. The Biden administration on Friday said it will relax federal mask guidelines. Beginning Tuesday, King County restaurants, bars and other indoor establishments will no longer have to check someone’s vaccination status. Three weeks later, Washington’s mask requirements will lift for those spots, among others. Masks will no longer be required in schools, affecting more than 1 million students who have existed in a pandemic for at least 10% of their lives.
“Where is the end? I’m not sure,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Feb. 17, as he announced the easing of mask mandates. “No human being can tell you where the end of COVID is. It appears it will be with us for some period of time, and we will have to figure out how to live with this existing virus.”
For Washingtonians, today’s pandemic looks different from a year ago, different from two years ago. At Harborview Medical Center, Dr. Chloe Bryson-Cahn is exhausted. Entering year three, the elation of pride over the pandemic response is gone. The daily pots-and-pans banging for health care workers ended long ago.
“I think last year we were still riding the high of ‘look what we have done, our hospitals have responded so well, our community has responded,’” said Bryson-Cahn, the Seattle hospital’s associate medical director for infection control. “That exhilaration is gone. I think it’s all too much. All of it has been so, so much. Asking people to respond for a year is one thing. Asking for two years, especially as it continues to outsmart us, is really difficult.”
She’s optimistic about case counts dropping in King County, and at Harborview, the number of COVID patients has decreased tenfold from last month to now. But she and her co-workers still feel the burden of COVID.
“There’s lots of relief, the sun is out, cases are down and we can see family and extended family now in ways we couldn’t before,” she said. “But there’s this sense of doom over me that this is probably not our last variant. It’s just sort of waiting for that shoe to drop, but also wanting to take advantage of the levity of the moment.”
She feels mixed about mandates easing. She knows at some point restrictions have to drop, but she works in a hospital where she’s seen the “absolute devastation” of the virus. She has a toddler who is too young to get vaccinated. It seems like it’s happening fast, she said.
Vince Nguyen says he hasn’t thought about his pre-pandemic world in a while.
“I don’t really remember normal anymore,” he said at the SouthEast Seattle Senior Center, which houses the city’s Rainier Beach vaccine clinic. “It’s not just getting back to normal, it’s getting back to normal with everyone on board.”
Nguyen is the Seattle Fire Department’s site supervisor for the clinic, which provides first and second doses, and boosters, to about 80 to 100 people per day. On a recent Thursday, the clinic had 74 appointments scheduled: 17 child doses, 34 adult Pfizer doses and 23 Moderna.
At the vaccination clinic of the same name, though it has since relocated from the Atlantic City Boat Ramp, more than 100 people used to gather outside the entrance in hopes of scoring a leftover vaccine dose. Interest, or desperation, was so high and supply so low that the last doses came down to who was oldest — sometimes just a few days separated who got a shot and who didn’t.
Eleven months and two variant surges later, Donisha Webster, 29, was surrounded by a dozen empty chairs as she waited after getting her shot. Her job as an aviation mechanic required her to get vaccinated. She feels like the end of the pandemic is near, and some day, we won’t all have to wear masks. When will that be?
“Another two years,” Webster said. “People don’t follow rules.”
But her children, ages 3 and 7, are in school, and she noted there were real fans at the recent Super Bowl in California — not cardboard cutouts like in 2021.
Seattle scenes show how close we are: The line outside Starbucks at Pike Place Market stretches down the block. Two young people who met on Tinder do the awkward introduction outside a bar, then head inside for a drink. Kids run around playgrounds, zooming down slides that were once covered in caution tape.
But it’s not quite the same: The Starbucks workers, and some of the tourists, wear masks. The Tinder couple has to — for now — show their vaccination card before weaving through the crowd of bargoers. Parents discuss the playground divisions among the vaccinated big kids and the unvaccinated little ones.
Will it ever be the same as before?
“Nobody is going back to 2019,” said Mauseth, with the Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Strike Team. “So the idea is not so much returning to normalcy, but being willing to accept the adaptations of life and reengage it in a way that’s meaningful. And that will be different for everyone.”
Right now, we’re reeling from the third large-scale impact in the past 24 months. The original impact was the start of the pandemic, the second was the surge attributed to the delta variant and the third began in December as the omicron variant caused surges higher than any previous point. When communities experience more than one impact in a short term, Mauseth said, recovery can be more difficult.
That recovery will look different in environments where the virus had disparate effects. Long-term care facilities, for example, have borne the deadliest brunt; facility residents and staff account for 31% of all the state’s COVID deaths, according to DOH data.
At the nursing home where Linda Long works, masks are still required, and she’s not sure if she’ll ever work without a mask again. Washington facilities restrict visitors whenever there is a COVID case; there were more facilities with active cases in February than any previous month, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services.
Long wants to feel good about relaxing restrictions, but she’s skeptical.
“It only takes one thing to upset the apple cart, so to speak,” she said. “I would very much like to be in the norm, but only after we can get the epidemic taken care of and controlled. And I don’t think it’s controlled. There are so many variants that keep coming. How can we control it?”
Harborview’s Bryson-Cahn, too, feels far from a semblance of a pre-pandemic world.
“Come visit us in the hospital,” she said. “We will show you this is not normal yet.”
We’re not at the end. But there’s hope.
“To be a part of this two-year process, you can’t do it unless you have hope,” Nguyen, the vaccine site supervisor, said. “We know there will be an end.”
There are still moments of joy. Bryson-Cahn finds it in her child, born in 2020, a tiny person who has no idea what’s going on.
From his eyes, everything is normal.