Why it’s important to respect each other’s COVID-19 choices

Stay up-to-date with state and local health department recommendations so that you can make informed decisions.

The pandemic has been a merry-go-round of fear, relief, worry and, now, uncertainty.

Before the vaccine, communities employed a wide range of steps to stem the tide of infection — social distancing, masks, lockdown, and as the infection rate decreased, a slow return to more ordinary contact. It’s been a roller coaster ride as infection rates rose and fell, scientific knowledge changed and warmer seasons came and went. Local and state rules have frequently pivoted.

No wonder we’re all feeling pandemic fatigue!

Now that the colder, rainy season is upon us, it has become more difficult to enjoy outside dining and outdoor activities with others. Many of us are uncertain — how safe are we when fully vaccinated? What risks seem reasonable? What activities feel risky? How do we keep ourselves and our family safe? How do we navigate out lives with unvaccinated children in tow?

What we see, which doesn’t surprise me, is a wide range of choices. Human beings construct our own individual risk analysis. We decide what seems “safe” and what appears “dangerous,” and make our choices accordingly. One adult can’t wait to go hanggliding, while another thinks that riding a bike is too risky.

I was raised in a family that seemed to think everything was OK, and my wife was raised in a family that was much more conservative about taking risks. It was tough when our kids were little — I thought that most activities were just fine and frequently Diane had a different idea. It took us a long time to settle on something in the middle.

With the pandemic, adults face the same dilemmas. My wife is more risk averse — she has asthma, albeit well-controlled, and the thought of having the severe respiratory symptoms of COVID-19 are frightening to her. I have the constitution of an ox, but like her, I am over 65. While we are both vaccinated, we still feel cautious. Neither of us want any case of COVID-19. And yet we have frequent contact with our unvaccinated grandchildren who are in pre-school and day care.

So how can adults make these important decisions?

Stay up-to-date with state and local health department recommendations. Our scientists, epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors review recent research on a regular basis. They base their recommendations on their analysis of this scientific literature. While they don’t have a crystal ball either, they do approach public health issues as scientists. It isn’t really reasonable for a lay person to understand all of the nuances of scientific literature.

Get vaccinated. There is abundant data that vaccination reduces the risk of serious disease. This may be the most important risk-reduction action an adult can take.

Respect each other’s point of view. Risk analysis is very individual. What may be an acceptable risk for one person may not be for another. Joe may feel quite comfortable attending a concert, while his wife doesn’t want to. Mary doesn’t want her 2-year-old to be in day care, while her sister has both of her kids in pre-school. Let’s not judge each other’s choices.

Be thoughtful about the relative risk for family members. Sarah is a 21-year-old who is vaccinated and healthy. But her elderly grandmother, whom she spends a lot of time with, is immunocompromised. While Sarah may be relatively safe, it’s important for her to consider what risks she decides to take can impact her aged relative. Sigh. It makes everything more complicated.

Recognize that change is the constant. This a novel virus resulting in a worldwide pandemic. We are learning new facts about the virus, how it works and how to stem the tide of infection. Realize that today’s understanding may change tomorrow.

Be flexible. Be understanding. Be generous with each other.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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