Pandemic fatigue is a thing, but with the vaccine so close to being available to all, here is how to get through the next few months as safely as possible.

By Rebekah Diamond, M.D.
December 18, 2020
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Pandemic parenting is as challenging as ever. But even in these uncertain times, there are plenty of ways to take stock and take charge. As a mom of a toddler and a doctor for so many other children and families, I'm here to arm you with the knowledge you need to get through the next few months as safely and sanely as possible.

Credit: Illustration by Emma Darvick

COVID is still a threat.

COVID surges seem to be no match for our collective pandemic fatigue. I understand feeling exhausted, but the truth remains that COVID is a devastating disease. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the United States, and we're seeing a rise in death rates from our summer plateau. The "low" 1 percent mortality rate you see quoted isn't reassuring—this is actually high in medicine and means that hundreds of thousands more people will die from COVID unless we respond appropriately.

In addition to mortality, COVID can cause suffering and disability, such as long-term breathing problems, serious clotting disorders, persistent fatigue and weakness, and prolonged difficulties with concentration, attention, and memory, not reflected in these statistics. And while older people tend to do worse, even young, healthy people get extremely sick. Every family can be directly affected by COVID and it's important for everyone to continue to take this threat seriously.

Masks and social distancing are safe and effective.

I know that the messaging around masks evolves frequently. But this is because we keep getting more information showing how effective they are. That's how science works! We need to be flexible, understanding that recommendations change as more data becomes available.

Masks are also safe. They don't cause breathing problems, carbon dioxide poisoning, or low oxygen levels. They also won't cause long-term psychological harm. Wearing masks is far from ideal, but if we explain our decision to wear masks to our kids and model our adaptability, they will emerge as bright as ever. The same goes for physical distancing. If we focus on creating a safe environment for kids to process pandemic stresses, they will absolutely thrive.

Doubling down on precautions now will get us back to normal faster.

The hallmark of a successful public health response is that looking back, it should seem like we overreacted. Restrictions may seem unnecessary in hindsight, but when we compare our responses from state to state, month to month, country to country, we can see clearly that short-term, cohesive community efforts save lives and get us back to normal more quickly. It doesn't mean that the dangers of COVID were exaggerated, it just means we did a good job of preventing them.

In the United States, we've been caught in a cycle of tightening and loosening restrictions. Without a unified set of stricter short-term precautions, we've experienced the downsides of pandemic sacrifices without maximizing their life-saving benefits.

It's frustrating that short-term sacrifices haven't stopped this cycle. But with a vaccine just approved in the country, now is absolutely the time to double down on masks and distancing. Letting your guard down now means exposing your family to unnecessary risk when there is finally a true end in sight. Don't waste the months of hard work and sacrifice you've put into protecting your family.

The fastest way to get back to normal is by working together.

On that note, all of our community decisions are connected. For example, the only way to keep schools open safely is to keep local COVID rates low. And the only way to do that is for everyone to take mask-wearing and physical distancing seriously everywhere they go, not just in school.

No one cares about your family as much as you do.

Too many sources minimize real suffering with claims that denying reality will help you "live without fear." But this doesn't actually create a healthy emotional environment for children. Kids are smart, and always understand more about what's going on than we give credit for. Taking precautions seriously as a family and working through the emotions that come up along the way will give kids what they really need: An end to the pandemic, with as many loved ones safely there on the other side as possible.

Any argument that pressures you to ditch safety measures by preying on parental guilt isn't from someone who is looking out for you. You're the best parent for your family and need to do what makes scientific sense to keep them healthy and safe.

The only present I want this holiday is my COVID vaccine.

Science is real. And it turns out COVID science is amazing. The coronavirus vaccines all have a huge amount of data showing that they are safe and effective. They were produced more quickly than usual, but they weren't "rushed." Much more money and resources went to their development and all of the usual red tape was removed.

I am so incredibly hopeful at what these vaccines, which are literally around the corner for everyone, can bring. I'll be first in line to get it. And I know that getting it for myself, then my family when available, will move us forward and protect us. It's something you can look forward to doing soon in the upcoming months.

COVID hasn't canceled other diseases.

Your pediatricians are still here for you! COVID didn't cancel other medical problems or routine health care. I know it's scary out there, but there are safe ways to make sure your kids stay up to date on vaccines and see their doctor for any urgent issues or checkups. Your child’s checkups are how pediatricians find problems early on, keep them protected from vaccine-preventable disease, and make sure they stay as healthy as possible.

If you’re feeling anxious (I get it!), call your doctor’s office to see what precautions they have in place—like having check-ups and sick visits at different times, making sure everyone wears masks, and frequent sanitation. And if your child is sick enough to need a doctor right away, either in the office or in the emergency room, delaying care can be riskier than any possible exposure. What’s more, the COVID cases we’re seeing come from the community (especially where precautions aren’t being followed consistently). It’s why I actually feel safer at work, where everyone follows effective safety measures, than I do on my walk there!

The kids really are all right.

It's natural to grieve how things were. Like all parents, I yearn for a return to unrestricted socializing, daily life without masks, a world where "normal" actually feels normal. But the kids really are all right. We need to give them credit for their resilience. And again, while we can't change the scary things that our children see in their world, we can create the safe home environment they need to process them.

Yes, all children are different, with behavioral, medical, and developmental needs that make the pandemic changes more difficult. I see the serious effects on my patients with special needs daily, and know that these concerns are real. It’s why we need to end this pandemic as quickly as possible. But even most parents who have children with disabilities are surprised by how well they can adjust, especially when in a supportive environment. I don’t minimize how this pandemic is harming some children more than others or causing unequal suffering across our country. Yet even children who struggle more are adaptable and resilient. With the right support—and with as quick an end to the pandemic as possible—they too will also be all right.

In the end, children can thrive in whatever situation comes their way. Accepting our short-term reality without sacrificing the joy of the present moment is the only path forward. And with a vaccine almost available to the general population, the best thing we can do is hold tight. Patience isn't just a virtue; it can actually end a pandemic.

Rebekah Diamond, M.D., is a hospital pediatrician in New York City and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University. She also gives safe, realistic parenting guidance on Instagram @parentlikeapediatrician.

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