Cardella: What Happened To An Abundance of Caution?

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The number of COVID cases in this town is rising. The risk level has risen to medium. Philadelphia schools have returned to masking. No time to panic, but the warning signs are up. But if you ask me, more of us are worried about the high price of gas than the resurgence of COVID.

If you sense a feeling of anger mixed with disgust, I plead guilty. Every member of my immediate family has had COVID in the last couple of weeks. As I write this, I’m waiting for the results of my own COVID test. I already had the damn virus last Easter. Maybe I’m taking this thing too personally, but I get the feeling too many of you are not taking COVID seriously enough. The air of normalcy in this city seems forced to me. Like no one is going to interfere with our summer.

I don’t sense any feeling of urgency among the public. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) predicted a surge of COVID cases come September. It’s already happening. But we seem more worried about monkeypox, which poses a much lower threat to most of us than COVID and its various strains. We have let our guard down.

One of the reasons for our complacency is we’re plain worn out by a pandemic that won’t go away. We’ve shut down. Another reason is the false sense of security we’ve gotten because we’re in better shape than we were when we first got hit by the pandemic. The availability of vaccines has significantly reduced the danger of dying or even being hospitalized for the illness. Medication such as Paxlovid can greatly reduce the severity of COVID symptoms. And all of that is good, but not good enough to get careless in our personal behavior.

We are also dealing with a new reality that wasn’t present when we first experienced the pandemic. A lousy economy. It was easier for government to take action the first time around, no matter the effect on the business cycle. Health concerns were paramount. But today we’re dealing with inflation, high gas prices, plus a downturn in the stock market that adversely affects our savings. States and municipalities compete with one another to attract business. No mayor or governor wants to restore old restrictions that may cut short any hope of the local economy improving. Inevitably, considerations of business and politics seem more important than our health. We’re at a point where public health is in danger of taking a back seat. The evidence is all around us.

A local swim club requires proof of vaccination, but goes ahead and holds an outdoor party. Folks who once were cautious hug and kiss one another. Few if any of the attendees wear masks, though they mingle at close quarters. At an apartment house with many senior residents, the configuration of the outdoor pool is divided to provide three lap lanes. Only one person swims in the lap lanes while the other half of the pool is jammed with folks nose to nose trying to cool off on a 90-degree day. Masks are no longer required inside the building. The elevator’s no longer limited to four persons at a time.

The City unfairly becomes a national joke for trying to restore a requirement that students wear masks inside its schools. Even Dr. Fauci has to explain his bewildering statement that we are in a “post-pandemic” phase.

The media who once obsessively hyped the pandemic are now distracted by other threats, real and imagined. Monkeypox and bird flu seem to get almost as much coverage as COVID. Theaters are again offering a full season of shows. Concerts have resumed. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band are readying for their first nationwide tour in years. Politicians once criticized for holding large rallies are now greeted by throngs seemingly unconcerned about spreading the virus. Big-time college football will assuredly be ready to accommodate crowds of over 100,000 maskless fans come September.

Life goes on. And to a certain extent, it must. We’ve sadly learned that COVID is not leaving us anytime soon. The vaccines have made it easier for us to live with COVID. But these vaccines don’t prevent us from getting the virus and possible long-term effects. My wife was fully vaccinated (including two booster shots) and still was stricken. And I can attest to the fact that COVID isn’t the same as the flu. The effects of my bout with the virus were much longer term than the one week that I was hospitalized last April with symptoms. For months after the disease was supposedly gone, I suffered through an intermittent brain fog that brought me to the point where I couldn’t write a clear sentence. I was seriously thinking of quitting writing this column after 55-plus years. Exasperated — I took a couple of weeks off and fought through it. But in the meantime, I forgot all my passwords and could no longer balance my checkbook. Sank into depression. And that’s not mentioning the physical problems COVID left me with until very recently. There’s no guarantee that any or all of these symptoms won’t return. There is also no guarantee to the public that the virus won’t mutate into a more dangerous strain for which the current vaccines may not be effective.

We have to shake off our indifference and weariness about COVID. Keep our shots up to date. Mask when appropriate. Keep our bodies healthy and our resistance strong. As difficult as it might be, we have to return to those days where we acted with an abundance of caution.