Many vaccinated individuals are still feeling uneasy in public. Experts say that feeling may last a bit longer.
Is the pandemic — and all the ills that come with it — finally coming to a close?
It depends on who you ask.
While some Americans are returning to large-scale events, either masked or unmasked, a large group of people is hesitant to fully live life like normal they did in pre-pandemic times just yet.
Katie Zupan, 30, still feels uneasy around strangers even though she’s fully inoculated, having received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. She and her boyfriend of 15 years, Alan Newman, live in Gulf Gate with their two dogs, a Shar-Pei named Boba and a pug mix named Nori. Zupan, a freelance graphic designer, and Newman don’t go many places. Sometimes they’ll pick up food from Thailand Gulf Gate or get groceries from Costco or Target. Otherwise, they stay home.
“It’s been weird,” Zupan said. “I have social anxiety generally, but the pandemic made it way worse. It has kept me in a small bubble.”
Zupan is a self-proclaimed introvert, but prior to the pandemic, she would often venture to Bayfront Park to play Pokemon Go or head to a movie theater to see a new release. Zupan, who moved to Sarasota four years ago from Denver, used her hobbies to get to know her new city — at least until March 2020.
In the throes of the pandemic, everything changed. Zupan rebuilt her backyard, including a creek, to have a nice place to hang out. She carved out space to work from home in her guest room and is in the process of redoing her lanai.
Zupan said she is not sure when she’ll begin regularly venturing into public spaces again. Zupan said she worries about contracting the virus and spreading it to someone unvaccinated or someone high-risk, something possible even though she herself is protected. She’s also become used to the way things have become and does not feel a rush to change them.
Zupan is not alone in her worry. The American Psychological Association’s 2021 Stress in America survey, published in March, found that 48% of U.S. adults “do not feel comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic,” while 49% said they feel uneasy about transition back to in-person interactions post-pandemic. That second percentage is consistent between both vaccinated (48%) and nonvaccinated (49%) respondents. A representative of WebMD told USA Today that the site saw a 251% increase in searches for anxiety medication in April, back when the vaccine rollout began to widen.
Tariq Halim, a psychiatrist in Lakewood Ranch, believes it might be awhile before those numbers start to fall. Halim said he has seen an uptick in patients suffering from anxiety in group settings in recent weeks, coinciding with rules about masks and other things becoming more lax. Halim said one patient, a teacher, is getting panic attacks every time she ventures to the grocery store, even though she waited a month after getting her second vaccine to return to society, double the necessary two weeks.
To combat these feelings of anxiety, Halim suggests creating a list of 10 activities people completed outside of their houses before the pandemic, starting with the least stressful activity. Then, complete them in order, taking it slowly if necessary. This gradual return to normalcy is the key to becoming comfortable again, Halim said. In the case of the teacher, Halim instructed her to start with getting her nails done in a salon, then shopping at Publix at night when there are less customers. For some, this gradual wading back into things may be enough. For others, more help may be necessary.
"If your feelings are directly interfering with your ability to complete instrumental part of daily living, like shopping, cooking or driving, then you should see someone," Halim said.
Halim said he is hopeful that this uptick in anxiety in social settings will dissipate in a few months, as more people receive the vaccine and more is learned about their efficiency.
Zupan said it is the current unknowns that gives her the most pause. When in a crowd of people, Zupan said, she doesn’t know who has been vaccinated and who has not. Zupan said she will likely wait until the vaccination rate in Florida gets close to the 70% mark to start thinking about returning to her pre-pandemic lifestyle. As of June 1, the vaccination rate was 39%.
Until then, Zupan said, she will continue to enjoy her stream of Thai takeout and Netflix movies.
“We have everything we want or need here,” Zupan said.
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