It was challenging and frustrating, but, Rice initially assumed, temporary. It seemed like a plausible plan to help the nation get the pandemic under control within a couple of months.
But Arizona’s economic reopening in May, urged by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, was soon followed by a spike in coronavirus infections in June, which became a terrible surge in hospitalizations and deaths by July.
Then came August, and the devastating realization for many Americans that the pandemic, which has killed at least 159,000 people across the country and sickened more than five million, is far from over.
“It’s difficult when you think you have a light at the other end of the tunnel to look forward to, and then all of a sudden you realize it’s a train,” said Rice, 44, a program coordinator at Arizona State University.
An exhausted, exasperated nation is suffering from the effects of a pandemic that has upended society on a scale and duration without parallel in living memory.
The Rice family and millions of other Americans are wrestling with difficult questions about how to juggle school, pay their bills and look after their mental and physical health.
Parents lie awake, their minds racing with thoughts of how to balance work with their newfound role as home-schoolers. Frontline health workers are bone tired, their nerves frayed by endless shifts and constant encounters with the virus and its victims. Senior citizens have grown weary of isolation. Unemployed workers fret over jobs lost, benefits that are running out, rent payments that are overdue. Minority communities continue to shoulder the disproportionate burden of the contagion’s impact, which in recent weeks has killed an average of about 1,000 people a day.
The metaphor of a marathon doesn’t capture the wearisome, confounding, terrifying and yet somehow dull and drab nature of this ordeal for many Americans, who have watched leaders fumble the pandemic responsefrom the start. Marathons have a defined conclusion, but 2020 feels like an endless slog – uphill, in mud.
Recent opinion polls hint at the deepening despair. A Gallup survey in mid-July showed 73% of adults viewed the pandemic as growing worse – the highest level of pessimism recorded since Gallup began tracking that assessment in early April. Another Gallup Poll, published Aug. 4, found only 13% of adults are satisfied with the way things are going overall in the country, the lowest in nine years.
A July Kaiser Family Foundation poll echoed that, finding that a majority of adults think the worst is yet to come. Fifty-three percent said the crisis has harmed their mental health.
In a podcast released Thursday, former first lady Michelle Obama directly addressed the mental toll, saying she has struggled with the quarantines, the government’s response to the pandemic and the persistent reminders of systemic racism that have led to nationwide protests.
“I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression,” she said.
Historians say that not even the 1918 flu pandemic, which killedan estimated 675,000 people in the United States, had the same kind of all-encompassing economic, social and cultural impact.
“One of the biggest differences between this virus and [the 1918] influenza is the duration,” said John Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.”
With coronavirus, he said, the incubation period is longer, patients with symptoms tend to be sick longer, and many take longer to recover. Barry said leaders did not make sufficiently clear early onthe simple epidemiological truththat this would be a painfully drawn-out event.
“Part of the frustration and disappointment and depression, frankly, is because of the expectation that we’d be through this by now,” he said.
President Donald Trump repeatedly promised a quick resolution. He conjured the image of church pews packed by Easter. The White House recommended 15 days of restrictions. That was then extended by 30 days, to the end of April. On Thursday, Trump said a vaccine could be ready by Election Day, Nov. 3 – a date well in advance of what his administration’s own experts think is likely.
But the virus has repeatedly shown that it has its own timetable. The first wave of shutdowns helped reverse the frightening trend lines of March and early April but came nowhere close to crushing the opportunistic pathogen. And now the season of the pandemic is indisputably the year of the pandemic.
“This will be a long, long haul unless virtually everybody – or a very, very high percentage of the population, including the young people – take very seriously the kind of prevention principles that we’ve been talking about,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview.
“It is within our power and within our will to really get it down to a level that’s low enough that we can do many of the things that would get our economy going again,” he added. “There will be a long slog if everybody doesn’t pitch in.”
Not everyone is experiencing the same level of stress, and everyone’s pandemic struggles differ. Any “essential” worker exposed to high-risk conditions day after day has more urgent concerns than someone merely stuck at home and missing out on summer barbecues.
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In Cadiz, Ky., Stephanie Grant has endured one of the most trying years of her life. The 42-year-old lost her job at the end of April. For more than two months, as she waited for unemployment benefits to kick in, she fell behind on her car payment, utilities, insurance and rent for the apartment she shares with her two teenage daughters.
She drained most of her savings trying to remain afloat. She applied for jobs at gas stations and dollar stores. She pursued becoming a coronavirus contract tracer, but that also didn’t come through.
“I could not get a job anywhere,” she said. “I want to get back out there and work.”
As her stress and her bills mounted, Grant turned to a Kentucky nonprofit focused on housing and homelessness. The group helped her catch up on her rent, and the arrival of her unemployment payments in late July have allowed her to catch her breath. For now.
“Right now, I’m wary. It seems like we are falling apart. The stress, the tensions, everything that’s going on. . . . People are scared,” she said.
And many people are bored, eager to socialize. In Harvey, La., Marlon “Buck” Horton operates a popular bar, Wo-de’s Chill Spot. But Horton’s bar permit was suspended in late July after complaints about what the state fire marshal described as “a large, non-socially distanced crowd.”
Horton, 39, denied the fire marshal’s report that he served alcohol indoors. He said people simply eager to grab a beer crowded outside, and a passerby posted a video of the gathering on Facebook, leading to the crackdown.
“We’re stuck. We don’t have assistance, and we still have landlords,” Horton said last week. At a hearing soon after, the suspension was lifted when he agreed to pay a fine and abide by the state’s coronavirus rules.
Although somestates battered by the virushave made progress against it in recent weeks, it has infiltrated small towns with little previous exposure.
In Mississippi, George County is among eight counties that have been told to delay school reopenings for grades seven to 12 until Aug. 17 because of high rates of virus transmission. Superintendent of Education Wade Whitney realized how serious the pandemic had become locally when a co-worker in an adjacent office became severely ill and was hospitalized for five days.
“When that person catches it, it kind of hits you right between the eyes,” Whitney said. “Small-town George County is not immune.”
That co-worker was Matt Caldwell, the director of operations for the school district and the former head football coach at the high school. Caldwell, a big man who played offensive line for the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the early 1990s, had assumed it would be no big deal if he was infected.
“Boy, was I wrong,” he said. “I definitely underestimated it. I tell everybody I talk to it’s a real thing. Those people who think its just a hoax and all that – I know this, I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anybody.”
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, has become an oft-quoted expert during the coronavirus pandemic. But she’s also a mother who is dismayed that her son Miles, 7, who should be entering second grade in a Maryland public school, will start the year with online-only instruction.
“I’m absolutely devastated. It’s not learning,” Nuzzo said.
This is not just back-to-school season, it’s also the time when many counties and states hold their annual fairs. Those are being canceled right and left. Professional sports is now back on air, but in most cases without fans in the stadiums and arenas. Major League Baseball is trying to keep its revived season intact after several outbreaks of infection.
And there are the ordinary cancellations so many people have endured – birthdays not celebrated, weddings and funerals carried out over Zoom, trips not taken, loved ones not visited.
Joseph and Kelli Crawford of Gilbert, Ariz., had planned to travel to London in April for their 10th anniversary and for her sister’s 30th birthday. Everything was booked: Flights, lodging, tickets to concerts and plays.
They rescheduled for March 2021. But now they worry that even that might be optimistic.
“I’m crossing my fingers. But I’m also not going to be packing my bags,” said Kelli, 33.
A flight attendant, she also agreed to an 18-month voluntary separation from her work. She’ll keep her health insurance and part of her salary.
But she won’t be bored. All four of the Crawfords’ children, ages 4, 5, 10 and 13, are home. The three oldest have begun remote classes. Their 4-year-old daughter has been aching to start preschool since she saw her older brother do so last year. But there is no virtual preschool, so that plan is on hold.
“It’s one thing for the adults to be lonely,” Kelli said. “But these poor kids, I get so heartbroken about the loneliness they’re experiencing.”
There are glimmers of hope for those staggered by this dire moment: The vaccine development for the novel coronavirus appears to be moving at unprecedented speed. There are promising therapeutics that may lower the mortality rate of those who become severely ill.
The pandemic will someday come to an end, experts promise, because all pandemics have. And though SARS-CoV-2 is a slippery and unpredictable virus, it has not proved as deadly as the 1918 influenza virus that swept across much of the planet.
“In 1918, practically every city in the country ran out of coffins,” Barry said. Victims commonly died at home. “All these things led to much greater fear, which meant that people were also more willing to put up with anything that might help.”
Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, said that though similarities exist between today’s outbreak and the influenza pandemic a century ago, American society was different at that time.
Americans had experienced epidemics of cholera, diphtheria and other diseases in the not-so-distant past. They were accustomed to children dying of smallpox, whooping cough and other diseases.
Unlike today, most Americans also had little confidence that a magic bullet would end the suffering and exasperation. “Another expectation of our era is the expectation that science will come up with a fix quickly,” Markel said. “None of us have the patience for lengthy processes. We live in an instant society.”
Still, Markel said, despite the seemingly endless nature of the current situation, history offers reasons for optimism. When the pandemic of 1918-1919 was over, for instance, people rebounded quickly.
“They went out and started dancing the Charleston, buying raccoon coats and buying stocks and bonds,” he said. “It went from zero to 60 in no time flat.”
This crisis, too, will pass.
“No question, epidemic fatigue or pandemic fatigue is real. We are experiencing it,” Markel said. “But throughout human history, there have been terrible pandemics and contagious threats. Every civilization, every nation, has come through to the other side. And we will, too.”
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The Washington Post’s Scott Clement contributed to this report.
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