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There is such a thing as COVID fatigue.

We are seeing its effects both in the eagerness of young people to get together after months of being cooped up to risk getting kicked out of college to be social, or people traveling and shopping, and eating out more. This summer has been a test.

An exhausted, exasperated nation is suffering from the effects of a pandemic that has upended society on a scale and duration without parallel in living memory.

No question, we're tired of being cooped up, tired of being careful, tired of being scared. But our collective fatigue is making some people careless, and that feels dangerous.

There is much to think about: Parents lie awake, their minds racing with thoughts of how to balance work with what their school districts have decided for the fall start. Frontline health workers are bone tired, their nerves frayed by endless shifts and constant encounters with the virus and its victims. Senior citizens have grown weary of isolation. Unemployed workers fret over jobs lost, benefits that are running out, rent payments that are overdue. And the death toll continues to rise around the nation.

According to one commentary in the Washington Post last month, "The metaphor of a marathon doesn't capture the wearisome, confounding, terrifying and yet somehow dull and drab nature of this ordeal for many Americans, who have watched leaders fumble the pandemic response from the start. Marathons have a defined conclusion, but 2020 feels like an endless slog — uphill, in mud."

Recent opinion polls hint at the deepening despair. A Gallup survey in mid-July showed 73 percent of adults viewed the pandemic as growing worse — the highest level of pessimism recorded since Gallup began tracking that assessment in early April. Another Gallup Poll, published Aug. 4, found only 13 percent of adults are satisfied with the way things are going overall in the country, the lowest in nine years.

A July Kaiser Family Foundation poll echoed that, finding that a majority of adults think the worst is yet to come. Fifty-three percent said the crisis has harmed their mental health.

But the Democratic and Republican conventions are putting the pandemic up against a political ruler that does not ease our concerns or fears.

In turn, many Vermonters (and Americans) are dealing with some form of low-grade depression.

Historians say that not even the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 people in the United States, had the same kind of all-encompassing economic, social and cultural impact.

"One of the biggest differences between this virus and influenza is the duration," said John Barry, author of "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History."

With coronavirus, he said, the incubation period is longer, patients with symptoms tend to be sick longer, and many take longer to recover. Barry said leaders did not make sufficiently clear early on the simple epidemiological truth that this would be a painfully drawn-out event.

"Part of the frustration and disappointment and depression, frankly, is because of the expectation that we'd be through this by now," he said.

Here in Vermont, we have continued to see low numbers of positive cases. The number of deaths has stayed constant for weeks.

But that fragile bubble of content in which we exist — hopefully for the long-term — is very much on the minds of many, especially across the Scott administration which is closely monitoring the start of colleges and public schools.

Because there is a tremendous risk of things going sideways, and incidents at Castleton University, and community-wide concerns about thousands of students returning to the University of Vermont in Burlington, do not assuage those concerns.

Many hopes are being pinned on a medical answer. (At least politicians are praying that will come to fruition before Nov. 3, but it seems unlikely.)

Yes, there are glimmers of hope for those staggered by this dire moment: The vaccine development for the novel coronavirus appears to be moving at unprecedented speed. There are promising therapeutics that may lower the mortality rate of those who become severely ill.

But none of that does not diminish three hard facts: There is no vaccine. Winter is coming. And political rhetoric does not pay bills.

Facing this fatigue is important for our personal health and for beating the coronavirus that has shaken American life so completely. Many people understand this, which adds to their exhaustion and stress.

The fatigue is real. But we cannot let it contribute to bad behavior and recklessness. This is a real threat. All of us remain at risk.

— The Rutland Herald, Aug. 25


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