Many consider the pandemic over, but some Georgians remain vigilant

Sima Hill was more than ready for a beach vacation. After more than two years of dodging the coronavirus by masking up, avoiding crowds and socializing almost exclusively with family members at home, she looked forward to sunny skies and the soothing sounds of ocean waves.

But, on the eve of her trip to Tybee Island, she tested positive for COVID-19. She stared at the two red lines on the home test in disbelief.

“I was devastated,” said Hill, the manager of a Decatur preschool. “I remember saying, ‘I am so tired. I am so sick of COVID. I need this vacation. Why is this happening to me?’ I was talking to COVID like it’s a person.”

Hill was expressing a frustration that many are feeling. The virus is still nixing vacation plans, scoffing at special occasions, derailing work meetings and mocking many attempts to return to normal life.

Yet, two weeks ago, President Joe Biden told “60 Minutes” that the pandemic is over. And, not long before that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its COVID guidelines on quarantines, screening tests and social distancing.

It’s clear the message the Biden administration is trying to send: Americans don’t need to be in crisis mode anymore. But, public health experts warn, that doesn’t mean disruptions, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 won’t continue. And they worry that the president’s declaration, though followed with a clarification that there’s still a COVID problem and still work to do, will do little to encourage people to take the latest round of COVID booster shots.

ExploreRead AJC's latest reports on COVID-19

“The whole COVID situation is becoming more nuanced and less clear,” said Dr. Michael Eriksen, founding dean of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. “Before, it was, wear a mask, socially distance and get vaccinated. Now, it’s more complicated, based on your personal viral experience, your risk tolerance and vaccine status.”

‘An experiment in progress’

COVID is very much still a part of our lives. According to the latest figures, at least 400 Americans a day are dying from the disease. It remains one of the country’s leading causes of death.

In Georgia, about 15 people are succumbing to COVID every day.

But, increasingly, governments are handing off to individuals the responsibility of slowing the virus’s spread. And that’s exactly what should be happening, some argue. The time for mandates, they say, is over.

Many people no longer view the virus as a serious threat. Experts say that’s not surprising.

Widespread vaccinations and new treatments have reduced the chances that people will develop severe disease compared to earlier in the pandemic. The CDC estimates that 95% of Americans 16 and older have acquired some level of immunity, either from being vaccinated or infected or both.

Though the latest omicron variant has spread like wildfire, the situation is improving. The seven-day rolling average of new confirmed cases in Georgia was 577, down from 2,454 a month ago, and down from 16,372 on Jan. 11, the peak of the first omicron surge. And, even though case counts in recent months don’t show the full picture of infections, because so many more people taking home tests, the trend line is still encouraging.

COVID hospitalizations in Georgia have fallen and stood at 717 Wednesday, down from 1,300 a month ago. The fatality rate from COVID-19 has declined, as well.

But the risks are still too high for some.

Hill, who had to postpone her beach vacation, continues to avoid crowds and wears a mask in indoor public places. She’s being cautious not only to protect herself, but her 79-year-old father, who lives with her.

Millions of Americans, among them some of Hill’s friends and family, have returned to their pre-pandemic activities, with concerts, indoor dining, travels to far-flung places.

In that way, the latest CDC guidance updates merely reflect what Americans are already doing, some public health experts say.

“The public is acting as if the worst is over, and we can live relatively normal lives,” said Dr. Richard Rothenberg, Regents’ Professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University. “I think that may be correct, but it’s an experiment in progress.”

Most people think it’s inevitable that they’ll get infected, he said.

“Here’s my seat of the pants prognostication: Every human being on the planet will eventually be infected or immunized,” said Rothenberg. And sometimes both.

He joined the club in late August, contracting COVID after being fully vaccinated and twice boosted. He recovered within a couple of weeks.

Vaccinations haven’t prevented the spread of the virus, but they have greatly reduced a person’s chances of getting severely ill. And, while the jury is out, a growing number of studies suggest getting vaccinated can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of long COVID.

‘Tired of talking about COVID′

Eriksen said it’s understandable, in our third year of the pandemic, that everyone is anxious to return to a semblance of normal. And, he said, it’s important that people do.

But Eriksen said that means using the tools that are out there to protect against COVID. No one can predict when a new strain might surface.

“If you want to return to normal, you really need to get vaccinated,” he said.

About 68% of the U.S. population is considered fully vaccinated with two COVID shots. In Georgia, it’s only 58%.

An updated COVID-19 booster, which targets the omicron subvariants circulating now, is available. But the big question is whether people will roll up their sleeves again.

ExploreWhere to get updated COVID-19 boosters in Georgia

Public health officials believe the updated boosters will provide better protection and reduce hospitalizations this fall and winter, a time when people tend to crowd together inside and COVID cases rise.

Andrew Lewis, who is 53 and lives in Decatur, said he’s vaccinated and boosted, as are his wife and two children, a high school senior and college freshman. “That is our way of navigating anything and everything moving forward,” Lewis said.

For now, they have reclaimed their pre-pandemic life. But, he said, if infection rates change, or a new, nastier variant emerges, they will reassess.

Lewis added he still takes a mask everywhere he goes and is happy to put it on, if asked, to make others feel more comfortable. But he’s not obsessed with COVID.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

“My worries about COVID pale in comparison to my worries about our nation’s democracy, a continuous economic recovery from the impact of two years of COVID, how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might evolve to further impact the U.S. and the world, and so many other issues that are currently more impactful than what might happen with COVID,” he said.

Alyza Berman, an Atlanta psychotherapist, said her clients rarely bring up COVID-19 these days. The few exceptions are those who may be at high risk of complications, such as pregnant women.

“To be honest, I think everyone is tired of talking about COVID,” she said.

‘Anything is possible’ with virus

Meanwhile, Justine Dawson, a 63-year-old retired schoolteacher who lives in Stone Mountain, said she has not yet let her guard down.

She continues to wear a mask in public and avoid crowds and dining indoors at restaurants.

Dawson, who regularly visits her father in a nursing home, said her family and friends are taking those same precautions, so she feels comfortable spending time together indoors with them without a mask.

She still visits museums and enjoys attending fall festivals. Over the past two-plus years, Dawson said she and others have found their own comfort zone that enables them to live a life that they are happy with.

Tamara Nicolai, 52, was a touring musician and contracted COVID early in the pandemic, back in 2020. She suffered debilitating fatigue and other symptoms for six months.

She decided to quit touring. “That was so hard for me. I loved it. It was a lifetime dream gig,” said the Avondale Estates resident, who played upright bass for the swing jazz band Squirrel Nut Zippers. “I got to travel as far as Seoul, Korea.”

Still, she said, “I just never felt comfortable with the idea of getting on a tour bus and traveling again with COVID out there.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

So, for several months, she stayed home. She worked on house projects, devoted more time to gardening and spent more time with friends and family. She and her husband started growing peppermint and basil in their yard for their craft cocktails.

Recently, she took the updated booster shot and went to indoor music — with lots of people, and without a mask. She felt at ease. She’s been watching the pandemic evolve, and, for her, it doesn’t hold the same level of threat it once did.

Nicolai doesn’t plan to return to touring, but it’s not the virus that’s stopping her. She had an epiphany while spending time at home: Too much of her time was spent on the road.

“I love gardening and perennials. It would get out of hand (when touring) and I’d come home and kill myself for a couple of weeks and leave town again and then come home, and weeds everywhere again,” she said. “I was racing every minute and had no time to enjoy it.

“I actually caught myself watching a bumblebee the other day. I was like, when was the last time I stopped to watch a bumblebee go from flower to flower?”

Hill, too, said she’s discovered many silver linings during the pandemic. She’s closer to nature. She’s closer to her family, and she and her dad have bonded gardening together.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

While she takes precautions, she’s venturing out more. She’s planning a camping trip with friends in the rolling hills of northwest Georgia. She doesn’t know if it’s even possible for her to avoid getting COVID again.

“All I can do is the best I can,” she said. “I’ve accepted COVID as being one of those things where anything is possible.”