Dear loved one,
I’m writing this letter because of how much I care about you. You are my childhood friend, my sibling, one of my favorite co-workers, my dad, mi prima.
A little over three years ago, I called you and told you I was going to start quarantining myself because I have an underlying condition that puts me at high risk for COVID-19. A journalist and an avid follower of public health updates, I knew I’d be in that place for a long time.
It was March 11, 2020: My birthday and the ninth anniversary of my diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes.
I told you I thought much of the country would be shutting down soon. “We’re going to be in quarantine for at least a year,” I said.
Three years later, much of the world has moved on. You’ve moved on. And I’m still here.
How COVID changed my life
I’m not hunkered down in my studio apartment, never to step foot outside for months on end, thoroughly sanitizing my grocery deliveries and refusing to stand within 6 feet of anyone anymore. Today I see friends now and then, unmasked, but only outdoors and with a negative COVID-19 test.
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Amid all this, my life kept moving forward. I moved into a house. I became a parent and now am the primary caregiver to a whole other human being. My mom moved from across the country to help out, and I’m now responsible for her health – she’s in the category of older adults at higher risk, too.
I’m still staying home a lot. I’m still wearing an N95 mask when I do go in public to pick up medication or groceries, or for the occasional Starbucks run or fun outing for my family. I’m carrying a portable air purifier everywhere I go and monitoring the air quality. I’m testing my family weekly because of our continuous exposure through public school.
We know what COVID is
We know more about the pandemic now. We know that COVID-19 is airborne, that it moves through the air like cigarette smoke, so “social distancing” as we knew it in 2020 is pretty meaningless today when sharing indoor air.
We know that infection with COVID-19, while it might seem mild at the time, can have devastating effects on the body. It can cause long-lasting symptoms ranging from ongoing loss of smell to cardiovascular damage and cognitive dysfunction. Even for a previously healthy person. Even for a child. We know each additional infection puts us at increased risk.
We know that more than 1 in 4 adults who had a COVID-19 infection have experienced some kind of long-lasting symptom. It’s called long COVID, and it’s no joke.
And we know that thousands of people are still dying from COVID-19 every week in the United States.
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I’m afraid for myself. I’m less afraid of acute infection; I’ve kept up with vaccines and boosters – though even vaccinated people are reporting COVID-19 to be the worst illness they’ve ever had. And my underlying condition might make it much harder to manage.
What I’m more afraid of is what could happen to my body in the long term. I’m worried about health impacts that might crop up weeks or months later, and last for months, or even years.
I’m worried about having the energy to do the things I love to do, because chronic fatigue is commonly reported. I’m worried about the impact to my short-term memory, vital for a parent. I’m worried about being around long enough to see my kid grow up and to spend valuable time with my loved ones, including you.
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Why I’m afraid for all of us
I’m afraid for you, loved one. I don’t want any of these things to happen to you, either. I notice from your social media posts you’re not wearing masks in public anymore, or when you’re with large groups of people.
I know you don’t want to sacrifice your quality of life three years into the pandemic. I know you don’t want to live as I do forever. The good news is, every step you take to mitigate your risk of COVID-19 will help, and there are things you can do while still living your busy and full life.
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We know that high-quality, well-fitting masks – think N95s, KN95s, KF94s or even higher-filtration elastomeric respirators – are effective at reducing transmission of the virus. Loose-fitting blue surgical masks and cloth masks don’t cut it. And they work best when more people wear them.
We know that indoor air quality is of the utmost importance to mitigate the risk of COVID-19. It’s why clean air scientists are advocating for better ventilation and air filtration in schools, workplaces and businesses serving the public.
And there’s hope: We know that next-generation vaccines are being studied to address all coronaviruses. Nasal vaccines to combat the virus at its source look very promising for better protection.
The failures of our leaders
I know what you’re thinking: Jeanine, if all this is true, why is the Biden administration ending the public health emergency, and not encouraging mask-wearing? Why haven’t I heard about all the dangers of long COVID?
The sad truth is that our country’s politicians decided to prioritize their elections and popularity over our health. I choose to listen to science, epidemiology and immunology experts over politicians refusing to acknowledge that COVID-19 is airborne and that masking and clean air are the most effective tools we have.
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The other main reason I am still taking this seriously, and I hope you will, is that our country’s most vulnerable people deserve to be part of society. With the removal of mask mandates in health care settings and essential places such as pharmacies, public transit and grocery stores, immunocompromised people are made outcasts. Telling disabled and chronically ill people to “stay home forever” is cruel.
But simply putting on an N95 when you go out makes us safer. It shows us you care that we’re alive.
When President Joe Biden said at the State of the Union last month, “Today, COVID no longer controls our lives,” it felt like a slap in the face to me and all the other highly vulnerable people still taking precautions. When Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said last year it was “really encouraging news” that most vaccinated people dying of COVID were already “unwell to begin with,” it was a gut punch. The lives of the unwell are valuable.
For now, we’re living in a new normal. It requires some adjustments to make society equitable.
Everyone makes a risk calculation for themselves when deciding whether to mask and whether to do certain activities. I hope you’ll take into consideration just how much is at stake for you, and the fact that you’re also making a risk calculation for vulnerable people like me when you do.
All my love,
Jeanine Santucci, a national news reporter at USA TODAY