A history lesson and life hack to be read in 2030 or 2040. Hopefully, you will be learning about the beginning — and end — of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Five Rules We Have Followed to Try and Stay Healthy and Sane During the Pandemic
1. Put on your own oxygen mask first.
Have you heard the flight attendant say, “In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will appear. Put your own mask on first before helping others.”? That’s good advice. To me, she is silently saying: Act fast. Don’t hesitate. Take care of yourself, so you can then take care of others.
On March 13, 2020, I was in Florida and realized that I was going to need to act fast. The world was starting to shut down because of COVID-19. The WHO (World Health Organization) had already declared COVID-19 a pandemic, President Trump had declared COVID-19 a national emergency, and on March 13 a travel ban commenced on non-US citizens flying to the US from Europe. I worried that maybe domestic flights would also be shut down. I went to the Publix grocery store and filled up our car with enough water and snacks (yogurt, tuna, and apples in a big cooler) to avoid restaurants, and enough bleach and wipes to sanitize every possible surface. My husband Bob flew to Florida the next day from Michigan. I picked up him at the West Palm Beach airport and we started driving north together. A drive that usually requires two nights in a hotel for us became one night. Bob drove a 10-hour day. We were running scared, back to our Michigan home.
2. Be smart and avoid panicking
My heart was pounding on March 13, 2020, as we left Florida. But Bob is a surgeon, and, like a jet pilot, was trained to make good decisions when other people might be terrified and paralyzed. He estimated we could make it to Georgia before driving exhaustion kicked in. He ran his finger down a website with COVID-19 statistics to find the county in Georgia with the least amount of COVID-19 — Bibb County — and then booked us a room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Macon.
On the other hand, not everyone was dealing with the pandemic intelligently. One “helpful” email I received on March 12, 2020, from an intelligent friend was “from a member of the Stanford Hospital Board” who recommended: “You should also gargle as a prevention. A simple solution of salt in warm water will suffice. Can’t emphasize this enough — drink plenty of water.” If drinking water could prevent COVID-19, I was about to stick my mouth under the faucet and stay there for a week or three. But wait a minute. A hospital board does not usually make public health announcements, I thought. The Stanford website didn’t mention this sage advice, but Google did: “That Widely Circulated List of COVID-19 Tips Is a Hoax.” proclaimed LA Magazine on March 11, 2020.
Thirteen years earlier as a health reporter for the Ann Arbor Business Review, I had written a story about how our community was preparing for the next pandemic. In 2007, I quoted a physician who said, “Most experts believe that a pandemic of influence is highly likely within the next ten years. In the last few centuries, we’ve had three each century.” So, I knew slightly more than the average Joe or Josephine. But back in 2007 I didn’t believe a pandemic could happen, even as I wrote that the University of Michigan had stockpiled huge amounts of Purell hand sanitizer along with 50,000 surgical masks.
Unfortunately, when we arrived back in Michigan in March 2020, we realized that people were starting to stockpile other essentials. Not only was it going to be hard to get more Clorox wipes; toilet paper had also disappeared from store shelves. Fear of COVID-19 had caused a run on toilet paper and people were hoarding it. We agreed to ration usage at home to a three-square maximum except for, well, you know.
For a while, we all had to stay at home. Wow, the neighborhood was quiet. With car roars and hums silenced, I felt like I could hear trees growing.We were isolated, but for the news. COVID-19 wasn’t only killing our lifestyle, it was a voracious killer of young and old alike.
Three months later, in June 2020 when the stay-at-home order had lifted, we were once again considering travel. Our excellent charge for babysitting services (free) and availability (24/7) was increasingly attractive with day care closed for our granddaughter Jordyn because of COVID-19. Our daughter Al and son-in-law Adam wanted us to come to visit them in California.
But fly from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Lake Forest, California? Breathe someone else’s air, someone who might be infected with COVID-19 and not know it? We spent weeks deciding whether to fly (so much faster, less time being exposed) or take the train (more ventilation, more relaxing). Click, click, click I went on my laptop, reading stories by epidemiologists and experts on the airflow in airplanes and trains.
3. Get professional help
They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But my journey of 2200 miles from Michigan to California began with therapy. Like most people experiencing the pandemic during the summer of 2020, I had a touch of agoraphobia. I was OK to leave my home, but not if I was leaving home to enter a public indoor place. But in June 2020, I found myself entering Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train for 48 hours. We brought a bottle of prosecco on ice, plastic cups, books and magazines to read, and our phones to take pictures. The therapist who talked me through the fear and challenge of getting onto the train was like the train conductor who helped passengers step up into the train railroad car with his little stepstool and an outstretched steadying palm. Sometimes you just need some help to move ahead.
We’ve always loved trains, especially the part about chatting with strangers. On our honeymoon, as we backpacked and took a train through Italy, a dark-haired young man we met told us about a great hotel he stayed at in the U.S. called the Yimicah Hotel that was very reasonably priced. “Really? I never heard of that!” He said, “I thought they were very popular in the U.S. I saw the sign everywhere, you know, Y-M-C-A?”
But no chatting with strangers on this trip. Three meals a day were delivered to our roomette because the dining car was closed. We could leave, but we had no need to. One part isolation chamber, one part vacation. We had our own tiny roomette with a combination shower/toilet so small that when I washed my belly my elbows touched the walls on both sides. Still, this trip felt magical. Lush green farms and herds of black cattle passed by our big train picture window.
I didn’t only need help from a therapist. We all needed help from “essential workers” — heroes in many forms. Not just doctors and nurses and train employees, but healthy young people who were taking jobs with businesses like Instacart, which does shopping for you. We used the help of Instacart and those brave, masked, healthy young shoppers.
4. Help others
When COVID-19 first started, a friend who lived in Germany posted a video about wearing a mask, and how it helps prevent the spread of the disease. The video said, “You protect me, and I protect you.” That surprised me. I thought about why. I was thinking about the mask as a way to keep me healthy, but I was wrong. The mask is like a fence. It prevents heathy people from breathing in the coronavirus particles, but even more likely, it prevents people sick with COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others who are healthy.
I learned the wisdom of wearing a surgical mask from my husband Bob. He would often come home with marks on his face from wearing a mask for eight hours at a time while performing a kidney or liver transplant. But surgeons don’t usually wear face masks to protect themselves. They wear masks to protect their patients — to avoid having their breath infect a patient with organs exposed.
It’s not only doctors that wore masks regularly before COVID-19 hit. I’d seen ordinary folks wearing masks when traveling on public transport in Asia. Many likely started wearing masks when severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), also caused by a coronavirus, hit Asia in 2002.
So I’ve never questioned wearing my mask, or tried to wear it “half-mask” like people who pull it down off of their nose, rendering the mask useless. Why do people hate wearing masks? They are a little uncomfortable. They fog up your glasses. You need to pull them down to eat or drink, your voice is a bit muffled, and of course no one can see your apricot-colored lipstick. But they may be necessary for a long time to come if we are going to stay healthy and keep others healthy.
I see children like my granddaughter Jordyn wearing masks without questioning why they are necessary. I wish everyone would wear them. But we are a country built on a individualism, admiring the rugged Marlboro Man cowboy riding alone in the plains. Some believe it is their right not to wear masks. During the summer of 2020, President Trump campaigned in stadium rallies that discouraged masks for attendees. One report said his self-serving campaign rallies led to 30,000 cases of COVID-19.
Our family believes in masks. I know of at least six people in my extended family who had COVID-19. When one spouse got it, he or she isolated themself in the house, and the other had to don a mask and bring them meals.
One popular joke in March of 2020:
Congregant: Rabbi, what’s the best food for Coronavirus?
Rabbi: That’s an easy one! Matzoh!
Congregant: Matzoh? Does it do anything to cure or prevent the disease?
Rabbi: No, but it slides right under the door!
Thank goodness our relatives who had COVID-19 survived. But my heart goes out to people who have lost loved ones. I asked an Uber driver how his life has changed since COVID-19 started. I thought he’d say that he wipes down his car after every passenger or that he has a lot less passengers than he did before. But he surprised me. He said he’s already lost thirty people he knows. I was shocked and saddened.
A friend who is a nurse took on COVID-19-related volunteer work in January 2021. That was the month when something wonderful happened. The world had been waiting for this moment for eleven scary months. Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines were approved. These vaccines would protect us. Hallelujah! My friend Judy was one of thousands around the country who volunteered to give people “the jab.”
On an amazing day I lined up with others in an outdoor parking structure six feet apart, then entered a gymnasium filled with dozens of white cloth-covered tables, each with a health professional ready to give me a shot that would hopefully protect me from a disease sweeping the world. Thank you, health care workers. I turned 65 in January, 2021, an important fact because the U.S. offered the vaccine to health care workers first, then people over 65. So, I was lucky enough to get my first Pfizer vaccine on January 24, 2021 at Soka University in Aliso Viejo, California.
Unfortunately, a significant minority of our country is not getting the vaccine. In Michigan, nearly a year after the vaccine was first offered for free to everyone who needs it, only 54 percent of the population is vaccinated. People who are vaccinated don’t only protect themselves; they help eradicate COVID-19 by not giving the influenza a home in their body to grow and spread.
Remember my Uber driver who had lost thirty people? Nine months later he drove us again. By then he had lost 100 people he knew. But he shocked me when he told me he didn’t think he was going to get vaccinated because he had recovered from a bad case of COVID-19 so didn’t think he needed to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, that’s not true.
Doctors have no idea yet about how long COVID-19 immunity lasts and what strains of COVID-19 you are susceptible to after having had it once. I know I’m preaching the vaccine sermon, maybe to the choir here. Since we are talking spirituality now, here’s my final recommendation:
5 Use social and religious/spiritual support
Whether it’s going out to Brio Italian Grill for a glass of chardonnay on Friday after work or munching on a bag of popcorn at the movies with a couple of your best friends, we know socializing feels good and has been shown to keep us healthy. But we’ve had two years when going indoors to a restaurant or the movies has been impossible or risky.
The Internet has saved our social souls during COVID-19, our talking heads in squares on the screen. Usually we held online gatherings using a website platform named Zoom. Coffee and wine dates, work, and classes that I taught or attended. Twenty-five cousins around the country at a Passover seder, hundreds joining Jewish high holiday services. A magician in France taught us magic tricks on my birthday, and Bob and I sang and played accordion and harmonica for Jordyn each week during “The Zayde and Bubbe Dinner Theater.”
I was also doing a special Rebecca Rosen meditation, where I cleaned my chakras to stay healthy. Call me a nut, I don’t care. We all did what we could to stay safe and sane.
As I write this, it’s November 21, 2021 and we’ve been living with COVID-19 for almost two years. People are starting to go back to their office, out to eat in restaurants, and to movie theaters again. Two people I know recently attended weddings with 100 people, where you had to be vaccinated or take a COVID-19 test right before the wedding. In my heart, I am less afraid, but not feeling completely safe. We have taken two vacations with friends and a family vacation in the last year, after we all took COVID-19 tests, quarantined, or got vaccinated.
Will COVID-19 be eradicated like polio and smallpox? I hope so. But as I learned in 2007, we know that there will always be a next pandemic. The Spanish flu of 1918, the year my father was born, caused 100 million deaths. So far, the COVID-19 pandemic flu has killed 20 million worldwide. We need to prepare for pandemics and handle them intelligently, so their deadly power can fade as quickly as possible. Stay healthy!
“No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history or music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence…” — Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude”