“It was the best of times… It was the worst of times…” is a famous Charles Dickens quote from A Tale of Two Cities. Some might say comparing 2020 to late 18th century London and Paris is absurd, but medical experts say unless we collectively get our shit together, this winter won’t be too far off from that description.
Dickens novels are known for their darkness and dreariness, and as a northerner, I can identify with “dreary.” As someone who lives in a place where it truly is winter for half the year—like snow really starts before Thanksgiving and doesn’t stop until April and where it really gets dark at 4:30 every day, I know dreary. Where I live, we try to embrace the snow and don our snow shoes and hit the sledding hills, but it’s also too damn cold to go outside many days, so we rely on indoor entertainment to pass the time. Our kids play sports like baseball inside an indoor facility in the cold months, and get togethers with family and friends are in living rooms or at local pubs with a roaring fire. And on the coldest of days, if you stand outside for more than five minutes, you’re pretty sure your nose will freeze straight off your face.
So no, I don’t know what it’s like to live through the French revolution, but I do know what it’s like to fight winter despair during a time that can be very isolating. And I fear that the ways to fight that despair—connecting to the world but staying indoors—will not be safe this winter due to COVID-19.
Because the truth is, our country is wasting its opportunity to get COVID under control. The window of opportunity to beat this pandemic, or at least get it contained, was and is during the warmer months when most of the nation can be outside. Not when half of us are indoors for months on end while blizzards rage outside our windows. By then, it will be far too late.
Winter is coming. That’s the truth, folks, and not just for Jon Snow fighting the White Walkers. It’s coming in real life, here, to all of us, and soon.
Because when we say “winter is coming,” we don’t just mean snow and shorter days. We also mean flu season, which already causes widespread illnesses and sometimes death for Americans across the country. Flu season, which already tends to fill hospital beds, cause wide-spread shortages of employees calling in sick, and lead to long waits at the pharmacy and health clinics.
And, since COVID hit the U.S. after our flu season had waned, we don’t know how the viruses will mix. But medical professionals and scientists are worried. What happens if someone gets COVID-19 and the flu at the same time? Or a baby is exposed to COVID-19 and RSV? No one is looking forward to finding out the answers to these questions, but find them out we will.
Also, experts fear a new phase of testing shortages will arise as more sick people come in to the doctor, possibly with the flu. Ruling out COVID-19 will be the top priority, so everyone will need to be tested. “Now more than ever, flu vaccinations will be important to not only reduce the risk for disease, but also avoid hospitalizations and potential exposures,” Saskia v. Popescu, PhD, MPH, MA, CIC says. “More emphasis on isolation precaution, proper donning and doffing of PPE, hand hygiene, and staying home when sick, will be imperative,” Dr. Popescu adds.
Because if we don’t, it’s going to be a hell of a lot worse than it is now. “Unless Americans use the dwindling weeks between now and the onset of ‘indoor weather’ to tamp down transmission in the country, this winter could be Dickensianly bleak, public health experts warn,” warns boston.com.
I mean, have you read anything by Charles Dickens? “Bleak” is putting it mildly. Yet here we go, speeding at full force toward one of the darkest times in our nation’s history, all because we spent the summer crammed in a pool with 50 friends.
The article explains that Americans are growing increasingly pandemic-weary and are more concerned with resuming their pre-COVID lives than stamping this thing about before winter hits. And for that, we will pay dearly.
The Charles Dickens quote continues: “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Maybe 2020 isn’t so far off from the age of Dickens after all. A spring of hope? Maybe. But then, lots of foolishness. A shit-ton of incredulity. And as a result, a season of darkness. A winter of despair.
“People have been throwing Covid cautions to the wind, flouting public health orders in the process,” says Kristen Ehresmann, director of infectious disease epidemiology, prevention, and control for the Minnesota Department of Health.
For example, a three-day rodeo in Minnesota that was supposed to be limited to 250 people, but to which thousands attended, is one example. Sturgis, an annual 10-day motorcyclist rally held in South Dakota that had a quarter of a million people join, is another.
These massive groups of people with the mentality that “we should all be allowed to do whatever we want because screw thinking of others and making choices for the greater good!” all returned to their home cities and home states, carrying Lord knows what germs back to their communities—COVID-19 included.
And, on a smaller, but still dangerous scale, families and friends all over the country are still gathering in groups, thinking it’s no big deal to have 10-20 people over. But experts say these gatherings are continuing the transmission of COVID at greater rate than many realize and are not, actually, a safe option right now.
The boston.com article also says that Ehresmann and others in public health are “flummoxed by the phenomenon of people refusing to acknowledge the risk the virus poses” and that this idea of “I just don’t want to believe it so therefore it’s not going to be true” is baffling.
Michael Mina, also an epidemiologist, agrees. “We just continue to squander every bit of opportunity we get with this epidemic to get it under control,’’ said Mina, who is also an assistant professor in Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and associate medical director of clinical microbiology at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“The best time to squash a pandemic is when the environmental characteristics slow transmission. It’s your one opportunity in the year, really, to leverage that extra assistance and get transmission under control,” he adds.
But we’re not. And, again, winter is coming. The season of sickness and flu and sneezing and runny noses. Combine that with COVID and picture the nightmarish scenario we are heading into as we all piss away the opportunities given us by the summer months.
Here’s what that scenario, experts warn, is going to include: shutdowns nationwide. Schools closed. Bars and restaurants and entertainment facilities closed. Gyms closed. Spikes in cases in all age groups—the elderly, young adults, older adults, and yes, children.
Laura Rosella, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says summer is easy compared to what winter will bring. In summer, we can visit outside, on our patio, six feet apart. Or meet up at a park and catch up in the fresh air while maintaining a safe distance.
“It’s actually really nice that people are able to socialize and see family and see their friends outside in a safe way,” Rosella said. However, she adds, “I think it’s going to be very hard when people are going to have to make the decision about maybe not entering those social situations, because it is much higher risk in an indoor environment.”
And we know that many of us rely on these social situations for our mental health, especially in the dreary winter months. But due to our lack of preparation or overall regard for the severity of this pandemic, we may not have such opportunities come winter.
“If the country doesn’t alter the trajectory it is on, more shutdowns are inevitable,” warns communicable disease expert Caroline Buckee, who adds, “I can’t see a way that we’re going to have restaurants and bars open in the winter, frankly. We’ll have resurgence. Everything will get shut down again.”
And, when everything shuts down, and we are forced to return to isolation, we as a nation will be at the height of seasonal depression, flu season, and a pandemic. And it really might be the worst of times.