Over the past few months, pharmacies in my local area have stopped offering free at-home COVID-19 tests with insurance. Masking is no longer required in any of the spaces I go outside of the house, including doctor’s offices. When I log onto Instagram, my friends’ stories are full of smiling selfies in restaurants and videos in packed bars and clubs without a mask in sight. Traveling means sitting on a crowded plane next to coughing strangers, and often being the only person still masking. I can see why, for a lot of people observing these changes, it might feel like the pandemic is over.
The availability of vaccines and boosters has been game-changing. Even though they don’t necessarily protect against infection, they’re effective at preventing serious illness. Because of this, public health recommendations no longer include masking or social distancing, which became very familiar to most of us during the early pandemic, and now look more like prevention strategies for the flu:
- Stay up to date on your vaccines and boosters
- Avoid exposure to people confirmed to have COVID-19
- Get tested if you’re feeling sick.
But for many of us, the pandemic isn’t over. Even though these recommendations have changed, I’ve continued to use the preventative strategies from early in the pandemic, like wearing a KN-95 in public indoor spaces and avoiding high-risk environments like restaurants, bars, or crowded concerts.
I do this for a couple of reasons. I’ve struggled with chronic health issues for the past few years, which make me cautious about risking exposure to COVID-19 or other illnesses. While this can feel isolating, it’s also pretty common in trans communities: compared with the general population, trans and nonbinary people are more likely to experience chronic health conditions, disabilities, and other risk factors like mental health challenges, substance use, and interpersonal violence.
According to the CDC, nearly one in five people who have had COVID-19 develop “long COVID,” a term for a wide range of sometimes disabling symptoms people may continue to experience after the typical timeframe for a COVID-19 infection has passed. Data on long COVID is unclear. Feeling ignored and dismissed by healthcare providers and public health institutions, and having their experiences minimized, many people with long COVID have taken to social media to share their experiences, asking: “Long COVID is debilitating to me and 65 million other people. Where is the urgency to treat it?”
At the height of the pandemic, many people embraced the idea of community care—wearing a mask, not just because you yourself are at risk, but because you may be coming into contact with others who are. This is still true today; there are people in our communities who are unable to mask or get vaccinated, who are also immunocompromised or at high risk, who may be asking us to take precautions so that they can be safer. Protecting ourselves is also caring for others, and helping others be better able to do the things they need to do safely.
Two years ago, a FORGE staff member wrote a blog post about continuing to use COVID-19 prevention strategies when it already felt like others were moving on. They shared how witnessing people’s responses to the pandemic reinforced earlier traumas:
“First, the pandemic was itself a form of trauma, one that continually re-enforced the need for me to vigilantly guard my physical and mental safety. As the culture wars became about our very survival, and so many people refused to engage in public health interventions like mask wearing and social distancing, my understanding of humanity was reshaped, reinforcing my earlier traumas.”
The pandemic itself is an (ongoing) source of trauma for many of us, and like other experiences of trauma, it impacts people in different ways. For myself, I noticed my distrust of other people to look out for one another, the feeling of being unsafe in crowded public spaces, and feeling isolated from my communities heightened during the pandemic.
Earlier on in the pandemic, it was difficult to see such a visible reminder of people choosing to value their own ease and comfort over the safety of others. I still struggle with feeling isolated in the precautions I continue to take, that seem reasonable and comfortable with the threat of long covid and my existing health issues. But now, I feel more confident now that my KN-95 will protect me and others, even if I’m the only one masked. I look for and appreciate the ways that people show care, like offering to wear a mask, or having open conversations about harm reduction. I’ve also been able to build new, trusting relationships with people who understand disability and chronic illness, and are continuing to be similarly cautious.
Continuing to be “COVID-cautious” while the world has moved on is isolating, which takes a toll on my mental health. I have lost a lot of social connections as COVID has progressed, and more and more people have returned to “life as usual.”
At the same time, I’m learning to focus on what I can control, and let go of what I can’t. It feels frustrating to see almost no one else masking at the grocery store, when before, masks felt like an outward sign of our community taking care of one another. I feel deeply sad about losing relationships with people who I no longer feel safe to be around. I also know that I’m doing what’s in my control to take care of myself and others.
People’s changing responses to COVID have also opened up new supportive connections. I met my current roommate while looking for another person who shared my concerns about COVID, and through each other, we’ve been able to make more social connections with people who understand chronic health issues and disabilities and continue to take precautions around COVID-19.
Continuing to experience the pandemic while others have moved on means navigating discomfort and change, having difficult conversations with my loved ones, and practicing harm reduction to make imperfect situations less risky. This has sometimes looked like:
- Seeing friends who do not take the same precautions outside, masked, after testing, or after a certain amount of time since they have been in a higher-risk situation.
- Choosing outdoor seating at a restaurant, distanced from other people who are not in my circle/bubble.
- Wearing a mask around others, and taking an at-home test, several days after a risky event (like a concert, traveling, or a large gathering).
- Having open conversations with the people in my life about their COVID precautions, so I can make informed choices when I see them.
- Taking an at-home COVID test if I think I might have been exposed.
- Building social connections with other people who have similar COVID precautions.
While these are sometimes difficult conversations to have, especially when our sense of safety is not aligned with the people around us, it’s also an opportunity to practice boundary-setting at putting your wellbeing at the forefront. We can work with the people in our lives to find compromises that reduce risks, while also meeting our needs for connection and fun. We can continue to be cautious even if others in our lives are not.
Although the post was written in 2021, this message remains true for all of us navigating this confusing, frustrating, isolating, changing, and sometimes connecting time:
“…we have a right to hold onto the things, however imperfect, that allow us to feel safe. We have a right to do only what our bodies feel comfortable doing. We have a right to move slow, to expand at our own pace. And too, we have a right to challenge ourselves to go faster.”