What if COVID doesn’t go away? How Georgians are trying to get on with their lives

Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Program says, “omicron has not stopped me from anything I like to do.” Bennett goes to the gym, the theatre, restaurants, but to be clear, he takes precautions, wearing the extra-protective N95 or KN95 masks in public. (Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Program says, “omicron has not stopped me from anything I like to do.” Bennett goes to the gym, the theatre, restaurants, but to be clear, he takes precautions, wearing the extra-protective N95 or KN95 masks in public. (Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Susan Nefzger knows the pandemic is far from over. But she’s no longer willing to put her life, plans — and dream vacations — on hold.

Over Christmas break, when many were hiding from the surge of the highly contagious omicron variant, Nefzger, 60, was traveling to Paris to spend time with friends. She was eager to take it all in: the magnificent cityscape, the good wine, freshly baked pastries, spectacular sunsets.

Someone who has worked in health care marketing for years, Nefzger, who lives in the Ansley Park neighborhood of Atlanta, was aware of the risks. But she had also taken every precaution, getting both vaccine shots and a booster shot, masking in public and avoiding crowds. Before her flight, she drove all over Atlanta to find a testing facility to satisfy France’s testing requirement for entry. Once there, she adhered to strict controls in Paris, where citizens and visitors must prove their vaccination status almost everywhere they go, and their movements are tracked to enable contact tracing of new cases.

“I don’t mind it at all,” she said. “If you want to lead your life, travel, have freedom to do these things, then these are measures you have to take.”

Like Nefzger, many are weary of a pandemic that has entered its third year, and are trying to re-enter a life they left behind in 2020.

Life in the plague years is different. As the pandemic grinds on, those frustrated by shifting health guidelines are increasingly deciding their own comfort level of where they can go and what they can do as the coronavirus continues to swirl around them.

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Susan Nefzger, right, visited her friend Olivia Le Horovitz in Paris over the Christmas holiday. Despite concerns about COVID she was determined to enjoy her holiday. (Contributed by Susan Nefzger)

Credit: Susan Nefzger

Susan Nefzger, right, visited her friend Olivia Le Horovitz in Paris over the Christmas holiday. Despite concerns about COVID she was determined to enjoy her holiday. (Contributed by Susan Nefzger)

Credit: Susan Nefzger

caption arrowCaption
Susan Nefzger, right, visited her friend Olivia Le Horovitz in Paris over the Christmas holiday. Despite concerns about COVID she was determined to enjoy her holiday. (Contributed by Susan Nefzger)

Credit: Susan Nefzger

Credit: Susan Nefzger

Even professionals have begun to concede that the public health goal is no longer preventing infections or achieving a “zero COVID” goal as some countries have tried. Public health officials and regular people have begun to rethink how to live with COVID.

Catching omicron or some other variant seems almost unavoidable. The nation’s leading epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci said omicron, “will ultimately find just about everybody.”

Vaccines have been less effective in preventing people from catching the latest variant — but as Fauci has pointed out, they remain highly effective in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Omicron cases in Georgia surged with staggering infection rates. But behind those numbers, a different story is emerging.

Living alongside COVID

Over time, public health experts believe while we are not going to totally eradicate COVID-19, we could soon see the coronavirus move out of the pandemic phase and into a more manageable endemic phase where the virus still circulates but won’t be as disruptive, so it ends up more like the seasonal flu.

Considering the 260 million who have had at least one shot, along with the 60 million who’ve been infected, Dr. Michael Paul Eriksen, of Georgia State University, estimates that close to 80 percent of the U.S. population has some level of immunity to the coronavirus.

In other words, the omicron variant, rather than accelerating the pandemic, could be helping to bring it to an end. “There are signs we have reached the peak (of the pandemic)” said Dr. Colleen Kelley, associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious disease at Emory University. “I think things are going to get better.”

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Consequently, Kelley, who has been running clinical trials both for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, sees a transition to a more relaxed attitude about the coronavirus just around the corner.

“For me and my family, certainly there are risks we’re going to take. We have three school-age kids who are active in sports, and they continue to participate in sports,” she said.

Her reasoning is that her family may get exposed to the omicron variant, but, as Fauci said, so will the rest of the country.

“That is absolutely true,” said Kelley. But, in most cases, “for people who are vaccinated and boosted, it will be a nuisance more than anything.”

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Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Program, says that for people who are fully vaccinated and wear masks in public, “there’s no reason you can’t live fully,” (Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Branden Camp

Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Program, says that for people who are fully vaccinated and wear masks in public, “there’s no reason you can’t live fully,” (Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Branden Camp

caption arrowCaption
Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Program, says that for people who are fully vaccinated and wear masks in public, “there’s no reason you can’t live fully,” (Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Program said, “omicron has not stopped me from anything I like to do.”

For people who are fully vaccinated and wear masks in public, “there’s no reason you can’t live fully,” said Bennett.

Bennett goes to the gym, the theatre, restaurants. To be clear, he takes precautions, wearing the extra-protective N95 or KN95 masks in public. He recently enjoyed a musical at the Alliance Theatre, adding he felt comfortable going to the performance because everyone was masked up. He still avoids going to crowded places such as sporting events where masks are not required.

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He said the risks of exposure will vary depending on an individual’s risk level and vaccination status. The omicron variant can be particularly dangerous to the unvaccinated, people over 65, and those with underlying health conditions such as a person undergoing cancer treatment or suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

But healthy, vaccinated people can ease up a bit more, Bennett said.

“This is a psychological thing,” he said. “We can decide to be the victim or the victor. We can decide I am going to live my life. I am going to be safe but I am going to live my life.”

Calculating risk

But people are often driven by a perception of risk and what they consider an acceptable level of risk. That can vary within families, neighbors and circles of friends. Throughout the pandemic and now, risk perception is highly personal.

As time goes on, people are realizing staying at home to avoid the virus comes with risks too.

For example, Dr. J. Kip Matthews, an Athens psychologist, said early in the pandemic, people were very worried about the risk of death from COVID-19 and that led them to embrace the idea of virtual schooling. Over time, some parents have decided they are no longer willing to have their children miss out on in-person classes, or risk the emotional impact isolation can bring.

Vaccines, boosters, and the expansion of vaccines to younger children also played major roles in people’s decision to engage in activities that they would not have even considered during earlier points in the pandemic. There are now more treatment options and soon potentially game-changing antivirals could be widely available.

ExploreWhy is this COVID surge so different from the others? Here's what doctors say

Matthews said during the early days of the pandemic he didn’t even consider visiting his parents or other family members. Now that he and his family are vaccinated, “we are now much more comfortable making those choices, even though there is still some risk involved.”

“Every choice we make, there is also a price,” said Matthews. “Over time, some people are saying that they are not willing to pay the price for maintaining a certain level of safety.”

Matthews believes one of the biggest challenges, as we have moved through the two years of pandemic, is the ever-changing message coming from public health scientists and government officials. As new data comes in, guidelines keep changing. The result: the public is exhausted by constantly weighing every decision, from visiting with friends or going out to eat to keeping a medical appointment.

And Fauci’s statement of resignation about catching the virus was also perhaps misguided, said Eriksen.

“Every choice we make, there is also a price. Over time, some people are saying that they are not willing to pay the price for maintaining a certain level of safety."

- Dr. J. Kip Matthews, an Athens psychologist

Not everyone is likely to be infected, said Eriksen, and we shouldn’t abandon our precautions and “pretend it doesn’t exist. That would be a mistake.”

Eriksen is a Regents professor and the founding dean of the School of Public Health at Georgia State University, and he is not accepting new risk in his life.

He skipped a planned New Year’s Eve get-together, and has doubts about attending his 50th college reunion at Johns Hopkins this spring. “I’m committed to doing everything I can not to get infected. I still wear masks, I still socially distance, I still avoid congregant settings, but I’m not neurotic about it.”

One indicator of his vigilance: A stocking-stuffer he gave his 25-year-old son Christopher was an at-home test for COVID-19. Christopher was exposed after the New Year, tested positive, and, even though he had no symptoms, quarantined from his 71-year-old father.

“He’s doing the right thing as a 20-something,” said Eriksen.

Meanwhile, 73-year-old Jane Goodman of east Cobb is planning a trip to Europe in May.

“I am going to plan for it, and I am going to watch it,” said Goodman who is vaccinated and boosted and takes precautions to avoid catching the coronavirus. She is also a part-time travel agent. “I am in this window of time when I am strong enough to go and I am not willing to give that up. I won’t be able to do this in 10, 20 years.”

“I know I am not alone in wishing this whole thing would go away,” said Goodman. “But I have learned to live with it the best I can.”


MORE DETAILS

The COVID-19 death toll: more than 32,000 confirmed and probable deaths in Georgia, more than 850,000 in the U.S., and close to 5.6 million around the globe.