In the 2011 movie “Contagion,” a surprisingly accurate bio-thriller that became a must-see when our real-life outbreak hit, everybody’s holed up in their houses with guns by the end.
That’s because the movie virus, which spread from bats to people just like ours, was an equal opportunity killer, felling young and old alike at a murderous rate of 20%.
In that environment, “nothing spreads like fear,” the movie said.
I thought of this the other day when I was talking to my dad, who is 91 and lives by himself. He’s holed up in his house like in the movie, but he’s not a gun guy so he’s armed himself mostly with facts.
The coronavirus case fatality rate for his age group, 85 years or older, is more than 20%, he noted (22%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC). Plus about 40% of known positive cases in his age bracket end up in the hospital.
He was citing the bleak odds to explain why he had refused to let any of his three sons visit him, even in a socially distanced manner. We had pressed him to let us come last summer — he lives in Ohio — and stay in a hotel, not the house, just so we could come by and chat outside, or go for a walk with him around the neighborhood.
No, he had insisted, using his supreme authority dad tone. Not a good idea.
“I’m a goner if I get this thing. Don’t come.”
The result is my dad basically hasn’t had any human contact since the coronavirus hit. We Zoom and we got him his first cellphone, so at age 91 he’s learned to text like a teenager. Friends sometimes stop by to talk at him through the front door. But I bet he hasn’t touched — or, more to his liking, really sat down and had an in-depth conversation with — another human being in nine months.
This is a part of the pandemic of 2020 that I don’t think we’ve really grappled with yet, as a society. For many, this has seemed like “pandemic lite.” Sure we work from home if we can, we wear masks, but deep down we’re not really that worried about it. Because unlike in the movie, the case fatality rate for this real bug is a fraction, at 1.7%. If you’re under, say, age 50, the death rate is more than 100 times lower than it was in the movie.
But for old folks like my dad, there’s a Hollywood disaster-level contagion going on. According to the CDC, my dad is 630 times more likely to die from coronavirus, were he to catch it, than a 29-year-old.
What this means is a small segment of society, such as the elderly and the immunocompromised, has ended up bearing most of the pandemic’s emotional weight — the gut-level fear of the disease, for one thing, but also the extreme isolation and breakdown of social ties. A team of researchers at the UW published a study on this phenomenon, calling the effect for seniors a “double pandemic.”
“Sometimes I’m the first person they’ve talked to in days,” one social worker for the elderly told the UW team, “and there’s 15 minutes where we’re just practicing talking.”
It’s why in Italy they’ve created “hug rooms” at nursing homes, where you can embrace a relative across a protective screen. Any human contact, even through plastic, is desperately needed.
I think this is also why I unexpectedly teared up when I was watching on TV as one of the first vaccine shots was given to a 90-year-old woman in England. It hit me: Maybe my dad’s isolation could come to an end.
Apparently this is a thing — that when feelings are repressed for months, they can come surging out at the first crack in resolve. The Washington Post wrote a story about it titled “Videos of vaccine deliveries are making people burst into tears.” The pandemic, especially among the high-risk groups, has been like trying to hold a beach ball underwater. With a firm grip you can do it, but once you can possibly start to ease up, the beach ball shoots out of the water.
“I think we have bottled up almost, like, a PTSD from this,” an ER doctor told the paper.
My dad is in “Phase 1B” for the vaccine, meaning he’s technically up next, after nursing home patients and health workers. He’s thinking maybe late January. This has made him hopeful, but paradoxically, even more on edge.
“You don’t want to go all this way and then slip up right at the end,” he said.
So his holiday season is, if anything, even more cut off. Zero people, he said. He gets his groceries delivered and he reads newspapers for like half the day — we joke that he’s single-handedly propping up my industry because he subscribes to three print papers.
But as he waits his turn in the vaccine line, as I imagine it is for the 19 million others over age 75 in phase 1B, everything else is canceled. They’re holed up, mostly alone and unseen.
In the movie, the shots cured everything. Credits roll. The end of the real-life pandemic won’t be so simple. We need to go easy on each other, as there’s going to be a lot of people losing a grip on their beach balls.