Episode 2: Sally is still cautious


[Music begins]

Voice 1: There’s a lot of anxiety, and I wish that we could go back to normal tomorrow and everything could be like it was. But I think that’s a little bit too optimistic for where the U.S. is at this moment. 

Voice 2: Anything that keeps me safe is going to have to be because of what I choose to do for myself. 

Voice 3: I’m not worried about getting COVID. I’m not really worried about getting sick or going to the hospital. But I do think that we should still err on the side of caution. 

Voice 4: There’s going to be a lot of differences in how some people are going to embrace the new openness. 

Voice 5: We spent more than a year getting into habits because the stakes were extraordinarily high.

Marissa Garcia: I’m Marissa Garcia, a digital media intern with the Dow Jones News Fund. My 

team and I have interviewed people about their feelings about returning to normal as more Americans are getting their COVID-19 vaccines.

In this episode, I interview Sally. Sally requested her last name not be used in exchange for speaking openly and honestly.

[Music fades out]

Sally moved to Chico, California in June 2020, about three months after the COVID-19 spread was declared a pandemic. Before, Camp Fire burned down her home in 2018.

[Crackling fire sounds]

It was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s recorded history.

She eventually relocated to Humboldt County, California. When Humboldt County saw its first COVID-19 case, Sally started thinking about what would happen if she got the virus.

Sally: Where I lived was very rural. There was no nearby medical. There was like an emergency room hospital thing that had visiting doctors come in. So my point is that I felt very disjunct from my entire support network. And not knowing anybody, not knowing a lot of people, I didn’t have many resources for help in case anything happened. I didn’t even have resources. If I got sick, I had nobody who knew enough about parrots who could come in and help me out with that. So I felt very isolated and took extreme precautions because I didn’t want I was not in any position to deal with getting ill on any level, let alone getting COVID. 

Marissa: In Chico, she wouldn’t feel isolated. Her daughter also lived there. But when she arrived, COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing. By late June, the local hospital was overwhelmed with COVID patients. It limited her ability to shop at her local grocery and hardware stores. 

Sally: That was good, strong motivation for me to be as safe as possible. So that was probably where I was at the point when I said, “Well, I went to Raley’s, and it didn’t feel safe.” And I went to the hardware store because I just moved here, you know—I hardly had what it took to make a home. And it didn’t feel safe in the hardware store even though they had mask mandates. There was a lot of people who would wear it around their chin, or they’d wear one and they’d pull it down to talk to you. 

Marissa: She’s 73, so her older age puts her at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. So, Sally says she adjusted her actions accordingly to feel safe.

Sally: Oh, I just pretty much stayed close to home. I did curbside, and I went to Trader Joe’s. The only person I really got together with in person was my daughter because she had pretty good safety measures, too.

Marissa: She would see her daughter outside with masks on during times like Thanksgiving when COVID-19 rates spiked again. But now, both of them are fully vaccinated. During this period of reopening, Sally has started to resume some normal activities.

Sally: I went back into Raley’s Monday of this week for the first time in months, you know, for the first time since June, or July, and I went at 6 a.m. because that’s the time when you’re gonna run into the fewest people. And it was still pretty good. There was very few people in the stores, and all of the customers and the store staff had on masks, except for one outside vendor who was restocking his products on the shelf, and he had his mask pulled down around his chin.

Marissa: Sally says the vendor was friendly but didn’t pull his mask up to talk to her. 

Sally: I didn’t recoil in absolute horror and run away but—and I didn’t say anything because it was 6 a.m. and my brain wasn’t too functioning—but still, it irritated me that if he was just going to be working there putting the coffee on the shelf with his mask off… Yeah, that’s not what he’s supposed to be doing. But, you know, no harm. There’s nobody around. But why did he hang on to the one person who came nearby?

Marissa: He was one of the first strangers she interacted with since vaccinations have become more widely available.

[Music begins]

As COVID-19 safety measures are relaxing, Sally says she needs more data and studies to feel more comfortable going back to normal. Sally’s dealt with some health issues in the past that derailed her life, and she doesn’t need any more life-changing health problems.

[Music fades out]

Sally: In 1999, I got bit by a tick that I pulled off of me. I was driving home. I pulled—I felt it walking, I stopped, I pulled it off for me. I thought Lyme disease and babesia, and it totally changed me from an active, energetic person who worked and did field work and hiked all over the place, hundreds of miles a week, to someone who could barely walk and was in so much pain and had so much neurological damage at that point that I couldn’t complete a sentence. So, it doesn’t seem to me to be far-fetched to think that I could be infected with COVID. 

Marissa: Sally still has many questions about the coronavirus. She wonders if the vaccine safeguards one from becoming a COVID-19 longhauler, which is someone who has symptoms 28 days after their first infection.

Sally: Even though I’m fully vaccinated, I haven’t seen strong evidence—scientific evidence, and it’s too early for it—that if you get a mild infection with a vaccine, even though you’re vaccinated, are you going to get long COVID? Are you going to have chronic problems resulting from the mild infection? I’m very cognizant that statistics can apply to me, you know, that even though it’s a very rare outcome, that I could be rare, I could be one of the rare people. So, I’m going to be pretty careful still. I’m not sure what level that means. I’m not going to be getting together with friends who aren’t vaccinated unless I wear a mask. I think the biggest change for me going forward now that the mask mandate’s going to be dropped and things are opening back up is that I’m expecting that everything I do to keep myself safe is going to have to come from me. 

Marissa: And Sally is okay with that. Her mental health is actually doing well in this waiting time between the US reopening and her feeling comfortable entering it. She stays engaged with a lot of people online, and she sees her friends who live in the area in person. 

Sally: I mean, I’m a botanist. [Nature sounds] I go out, and I poke around and look at plants. And I’m happy being alone out in nature. So it hasn’t been especially a hardship on me that I know it has been for so many other people.

Marissa: Early on in the pandemic, many were worried about the mental health of older people. I spoke to Dr. Karestan Koenen, a Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She explained how these worries early on may have been misdirected in some cases.

Dr. Karestan Koenen: I thought a year ago that I would have predicted more distress in older people because they were most at risk of dying from COVID and often, no matter where they were in the country, the most impacted in terms of not being able to leave their houses and really being at risk. But it seems from the data coming out that actually it’s younger people who are having more psychological distress than older people.

[Music begins] 

Marissa: Ever since her run-in with a tick in 1999, Sally has overcome challenges brought on by Lyme disease. She says the pandemic has unintentionally normalized some disability-friendly practices that she hopes continue in a post-pandemic world. 

[Music fades out] 

Sally: Sometimes, because of Lyme disease, I have—I’m very easily exhausted. I get tired really easily, so I have to choose how I’m going to spend my daily energy budget. And sometimes, parking in that parking lot and walking across the parking lot—especially if it’s 108 degrees outside—and then going into some big store where I have to wander through the aisles, like Raley’s, looking for the three things I want to buy there… That is a good portion of my daily energy budget. And being able to shop online and pick it up curbside, that has given me so much freedom to do things that are fun in my daily life, instead of putting it all into what has to be done in order to survive, the maintenance things. And I’m hoping that stays around. 

Marissa: Along with curbside pickup, Sally says work-from-home policies have helped disabled people. She already worked from home before the pandemic, but she says that, if these policies continue after reopening, this could be a big win for the disability rights movement. 

Sally: A lot of the benefits from the pandemic show that accommodations that disabled people have been asking for for a long time really are viable and functional.

[Music plays, then fades out]

This three-part series was produced by Olivia Marble, Marissa Garcia, Paige Barnes and Jing Feng; edited by Paige Barnes and Olivia Marble; recorded by Marissa Garcia and Olivia Marble; sound by Paige Barnes; managed by Mel Fronczek.

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