Phew! Finally, as the holiday dawns, clarity!
You can gather with your family over Thanksgiving if you’re fully vaccinated! But also: COVID cases are skyrocketing and the unvaxxed grandkids might kill you. So maybe stay home. You can eat in a packed restaurant now! The germs can’t get you as long as you’re at your table. But strap that mask on when you dart into a deserted boutique. And mask up when you’re sitting nearly alone in a cavernous office! But hey, be part of the team and come out for drinks to say goodbye to Nicole. As long as you’re fully vaxxed — whatever that means — you won’t end up in the hospital, or probably not.
What? You’re fearful of long COVID? Come back later for more information. In the meantime, stop being so paranoid!
Welcome to the season of COVID confusion. We’re bombarded with statistics. Infections, breakthrough cases, death tolls, vaccine effectiveness rates. The infographics and Q & A’s never stop. Dr. Anthony Fauci is blanketing the airwaves — the Meghan and Harry of the infectious disease world. And yet, as our second COVIDS-giving dawns, clarity feels ever further away.
“We’re at a place in the game where it’s becoming impossible to pretend there’s any definitive advice,” said Bethany Van Delft, a Boston storyteller and comedian.
“It’s like the emperor’s new clothes,” she said. “People are very afraid to say what’s obvious: We don’t know what’s going on.”
In Stoneham, Joe Smith, a retired systems manager, described COVID confusion as a “large basket” filled with:
- The complexities of modern life.
- The unknown unknowns about COVID.
- Scientific findings about COVID being correctly expressed as a range of probabilities (when we demand absolutes).
- Public agencies’ sometimes competing directives.
- Active campaigns of misinformation and disinformation.
- Media misinterpretation, either intentional or not, of all of the above.
“This ‘basket’ is what the average person has to negotiate and resolve in moment-to-moment decisions,” he said. “It’s no small wonder we’re not crazier than we are.”
Part of the problem is that honest COVID risk analysis doesn’t allow us to live in denial, a place many people like to dwell — my own mother included. “I thought I was an ‘active’ 86-year-old,” she said. “But now I find out that my age puts me in a high-risk category.”
Assessing risk not only requires you to figure out the status of everyone you’ll be in contact with, she said, “but you have to accept who you are. It’s like coming face-to-face with your real self.”
As scholarly studies multiply, people without advanced degrees, or even a grade school understanding of science, have turned into medical experts, wielding nuanced and technical papers to bolster their arguments either for or against doing or not doing whatever it is they either want to do or do not want to do. And social awkwardness is mounting.
“How can I tell someone I don’t feel safe going to their dinner party when I just came back from a wedding with 250 people?” said one woman.
Early in the pandemic, she and her husband grabbed “the moral high ground” by staying 100 percent isolated, she said, asking for anonymity. “But now what’s our excuse when we don’t want to do something?”
Some people have grown so tired of the whole thing that they are using what might be called “dieter’s logic.” It goes like this: I’ve already blown today with those brownies so I might as well wolf down some fries.
In COVID terms, this translates into: the more risk you take, the more risk you might as well take. If your son is in day care, and you work with the public, what the heck, why not party at a packed bar.
Then there are people like husband and wife David Kay and Katy Weeks, retired engineers in Harvard, who think in terms of a “risk budget” and consult an online risk-assessment calculator before starting any new activity.
The calculator comes from a nonprofit effort called the MicroCOVID project, and when the couple plugged in their favorite activities they were disappointed to learn that the ukulele group they love gobbled about 50 percent of their weekly risk budget. Fun, but not worth it.
But the full-body workout at the local gym — while it also constituted half of the weekly risk budget — was deemed worthy. “The downside of not attending warranted the risk of getting COVID there,” Kay said.
At the Globe’s request, a member of the MicroCOVID team calculated the risk of eating in a downtown Boston restaurant, going to a Celtics game, and riding the MBTA.
With the caveat that the Boston-based estimates are rough estimates, here’s the deal:
Eating inside a Boston restaurant for 90 minutes is “high risk,” and going to an indoor stadium for three hours is “very high risk” (and could get even worse if there’s lots of cheering).
But, there is some good news for a group that needs some! MBTA riders. Riding a crowded train for 90 minutes is low risk, Michael Cohn, the MicroCOVID team member, explained, because “most people are wearing masks, most aren’t speaking, and the train constantly cycles in fresh air.”
Meanwhile, with traditional sources of information insufficient, some people are turning to the supernatural.
In Charlestown, on Tarot card readings done over Zoom, psychic MaryLee Trettenero warned two separate clients concerned about COVID not to fly home for the holiday, and they didn’t. “I had a bad feeling about it,” she said.
Finally, some clarity!
Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.