Year 2, Week 43: Winter Confusion

Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022

We might have expected this winter to be more normal. Last winter, the first winter of the Pandemic, we saw schools closed and a statewide regional stay-at-home order which closed hotels, theaters, indoor dining, and personal care services in most of California from Dec. 5, 2020 to Jan. 25, 2021. Now, after a year of vaccines and reopening, we have a different kind of winter. A winter of confusion brought on by human responses to the hyper-contagious Omicron variant.

For example:

People are calling in sick in record numbers. Healthcare workers, teachers, police, airlines, retail stores, construction–almost any business you can name is impacted by a record number of absences due to illness. In addition, people are quitting their jobs. 4.5 million quit jobs in November alone.

The high rates of absenteeism and resignations are more than headlines. You can see the effects all around you. Last Thursday, the grocery store did not appear to be busy. But at least 6 people were lined up for one open check-out register and the 6 self-check stations were all taken (after I took the last one). The common dog treats I wanted were on the highest shelf and when I found someone to help me, she commented that the night shift was putting things in odd places and then sighed, “We are so short-staffed.”

Thousands of flights have been cancelled over the holidays due to a combination of sickness and bad weather. Some colleges are starting online again in the new year, including Stanford, Harvard, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and seven campuses of the University of California. Emergency rooms are pleading with people who think they might have COVID-19 not to go to hospital emergency departments for testing.

Our family celebrated the holidays in three separate household groups. When we compared experiences on the phone, I found out that every group had people get sick. One household had gastrointestinal symptoms, one developed sore throats and coughing, and some people at my house had upper respiratory symptoms like a cold. I’ve seen all of these symptoms and more ascribed to Omicron. At my house, we got test kits to test the first two people, who tested negative. Then, as the cold spread, and knowing that the tests only test a point in time, we tried six different pharmacies but all were out of rapid antigen test kits. Then we gave up.

Because test kits are in short supply everywhere. Not only is testing at home impossible, but the state’s effort to screen students before they return to school is at a standstill. I’ve been trying to find a test before returning to my choral group practice. No luck at stores. The nearby urgent care center charges between $180 and $225 depending on the kind of test. I finally got a two-test kit for $19.37 from Amazon, which arrived in only four days.

This is especially hard to understand, because I was in Europe for two weeks in December and there were free test centers all over the place. I got tested at the Zurich airport for about 75 Euros before flying home, because of the new requirement (effective Dec. 6, 2021) that travelers get tested the day before entering the U.S.

Which brings me to yet another winter complication: the rules are constantly changing. Yes, they have been changing all along, but now the changes come thick and fast every level. In California, masks were optional indoors (except in Los Angeles County) only a few weeks ago. Now (as of Wed. Dec. 16) indoor masks are required statewide (until Jan. 15, 2022). Ten days later (Dec. 27, 2021), the CDC shortened the length of time that infected people (tested positive, without symptoms) need to isolate from 10 days to 5 days without follow-up testing. After this was questioned, the CDC added (Jan. 4, 2022) that people can test, if they have access to tests and if they want to.

My neighbor mentioned that people seem to be getting “edgy” these days.

Can you blame them?

Today’s Notable Headlines

“More than 500 Oakland teachers call out sick to protest COVID safety,” KRON4, Jan. 7, 2022.

“A record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November,” CNN, Jan. 4, 2022.

“Some colleges and universities will start the new year online as omicron spreads,” NPR. Dec. 22, 2021.

“Airlines cancel another 1,600 flights, citing worker coronavirus cases,” CNN, Jan. 6, 2022.

“San Diegans Urged to Not Go to Emergency Departments for COVID-19 Testing,” County New Center, Jan. 5, 2022.

“California’s indoor mask mandate is now in effect; here’s what you need to know,” KTLA5, Dec. 15, 2021.

“What the CDC’s latest guidance says about how long you need to isolate or quarantine,” The Washington Post, Jan. 5, 2022.

Other Sources

“As Newsom lifts stay-at-home order, new COVID-19 reopening questions emerge,” Cal Matters, Jan. 21, 2021, updated Sept. 28, 2021.

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be written on our memories just as the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the Great Depression, or the Cold War left their mark on past generations. Since March 11, 2020, this blog has examined the modern pandemic experience both in the media and in everyday life, drawing on my background  as a medical technologist, a historian, and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary world crisis.

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