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Another winter for our discontent


Here we are. Again. It’s cold and it’s gray. The sun rises late and sets early, so that it feels like midnight by 8 p.m. Indoor venues are risky with the highly contagious Omicron variant, and I feel like we are all pushing the replay button on 2021’s miserable winter.

In some ways, it’s worse: In 2021 we had the hope that vaccines would pull us out of the pandemic and we had guidance on all that we should not be doing. In January, we were gaming the various Internet sites to get a coveted vaccine for ourselves or our family and friends, then lining up to get jabbed. We did not yet know that it wouldn’t be enough – that we’d need boosters, that Delta and Omicron would defy the vaccines. Yes, the vaccines work miracles to prevent severe disease and death, but the worry of passing the virus to someone who is vulnerable or unvaccinated(!), or both, remains – and now we can wonder how we’ll ever get out of this mess with hopeful talk of an endemic, while we wait on the next variant. I like certainty, and this pandemic is one big screaming reminder that certainty about anything is just a pleasant notion, death and taxes excluded, of course.

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Kris Lukish, vice president of human resources at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, started an update to the hospital employees with: “As we begin 2022, it feels like we are experiencing dejà vu, or ‘Groundhog Day,’ or ‘50 First Dates.’ In ‘50 First Dates,’ Drew Barrymore wakes up each day reliving one specific day. It never changes. I realize our world may seem a little like that right now. We thought we’d turned a corner with COVID, and instead we saw a rapid rise in cases and hospitalizations due to the Omicron variant, higher than in previous surges.”

In 2021, many of us skipped holiday travel and ate outdoors. My morning coffee group moved to Zoom and it wasn’t until late spring, when community rates of COVID nose-dived, that I began seeing patients in my office for the first time in over a year. Since many of my patients are over 60, I tested myself with a home antigen test before going into the office. I changed my schedule so sessions began on the half-hour to be sure the suite’s waiting room would be empty, and I purchased an air purifier, cracked the window open, and figured everyone was as safe as we could reasonably be.

By the first Monday in January 2022, the positivity rate in Maryland was just shy of 30%. Twitter circulated anecdotes about false negatives with the home antigen test kits, and I decided it was safest to return to all-virtual appointments.

Mona Masood, DO, is cofounder of the Physician Support Line, a call-in service for doctors that started in March 2020. She has noted a change in the problems physicians face.

“We’re seeing a lot of empathy fatigue,” Dr. Masood said. “It’s not unexpected with a prolonged situation like this – the trauma has doctors in survival mode and they need to be present for themselves, their families, and their patients. People are emotionally drained, and we’re stretching them to the limit. Now at the front lines, doctors are getting a lot of backlash. There are the conspiracy theories, and people who challenge their knowledge and training and it leads them to ask if they should be doing this work. Some callers are thinking about leaving medicine and asking: ‘Is this what I signed up for?’ and these are large decisions that are being made in a specific context.

“The other thing we’re hearing is from trainees – residents and fellows – who are expected to carry a lot of work on the COVID units. Some are being told that they can’t graduate because they haven’t finished their other training requirements. This type of systemic issue produces moral injury.”

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

Dr. Masood talked about what running the support line has been like for her. “I know people want to give more in a catastrophe, and I was realistic that the enthusiasm might die off. I would go as long as psychiatrists volunteer, and the most incredible thing is that it hasn’t stopped. Some of the original people are no longer with us, but others have come aboard, and it’s been incredible to be a part of this.”

In her Jan. 26, 2022, newsletter, epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, PhD, MPH, tried to be reassuring about the future. “In order to know how this will end, we need to look at how other pandemics ended,” Dr. Jetelina wrote. “First, recognize the last part of that sentence ... pandemics end. Every epi curve comes down. This pandemic will end, too. Hold that fact close to you.”

She wrote about the three ways that pandemics end. The SARS pandemic of 2002 lasted 1.5 years as public health measures were effective, in large part because the disease was spread only by symptomatic patients. Vaccines offer a second way to end pandemics, as they have for polio and smallpox. “If the globe works together, we could possibly eradicate SARS-CoV-2 with vaccines. [Now that we have numerous animal reservoirs, though, this is close to impossible.]”

Finally, Dr. Jetelina noted that the 1918 flu changed from a pandemic situation to being endemic. “Over time, the virus attenuated, it became less severe.” Society acclimates to a virus with a low mortality rate. “The vast majority of scientists think an endemic state is the future of SARS-CoV-2. I agree.” And she goes on to define endemic as a steady state, but not the absence of suffering. She likens it to malaria and tuberculosis, illnesses with high global mortality.

“An endemic will come without an announcement or headlines, we won’t know we’re there until well after we’ve arrived.” She wrote of the uncertainty that faces us moving forward: We don’t know how much, or how long, immunity from Omicron infections will last, or if future variants will cause more or less severe disease. She casted her vote for global vaccinations, boosters, masks, better ventilation, communication, empathy, and tolerance to end the pandemic.

In Maryland, hospitalizations and positivity are starting to decline from the postholiday surge. I have figured out that I am not good at predicting what will happen next, and the experts don’t seem to be much better. I’d like a headline ending, the kind we looked to be heading toward last June.

I’ve told my patients who want to come in person that I will reassess in March. We have written our own rules, and mine are somewhere in the middle – I don’t go to public indoor spaces unmasked, but I do see vaccinated family and friends in our homes without masks. I don’t want to be responsible for transmitting a potentially fatal illness to a vulnerable patient. Honestly, this makes no sense, but since there is a video option, I feel I should not risk passing a potentially lethal virus to my patients. I just hope I’m not writing this same article again in January 2023.

Dr. Miller is a coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Miller has no conflicts of interest.

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