Holly Richardson: Don’t fall prey to pandemic fatigue

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign encouraging masks at City Creek in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. With office workers, visitors and shoppers in downtown Salt Lake City still way down, businesses in the core are getting inventive on ways to draw customers for the holidays.

Remember life before COVID-19? Back when we thought it might be a couple of weeks? Maybe a couple of months? Yeah. About that….

COVID fatigue is a real thing. I’m not talking about the COVID symptom of fatigue, which is real and can be long term, but the fatigue of a disease that seems to not be going away anytime soon.

People are tired. Tired of the ongoing stressors of a disease that might feel like a cold to you but will kill your neighbor, tired of the economic impact, tired of the social impact, tired of the schooling impact and tired of trying to do their part when so many are not.

I talked with someone today who told me they kept their Thanksgiving dinner guest list to just those people who live in their home. And, after seeing how many friends and neighbors did not, they are ready to say “Forget it.”

History has some things to teach us — if we are willing to learn.

By the fall of 1918, people were tired of the influenza pandemic and tired of war.

People wrote letters to the editor dismissing the whole thing as “influenza propaganda” and if the “so-called influenza germ” was more dangerous for the “ignorant and poor,” then so be it. “There is an entirely different class of people, people who are educated, people who have sufficient earning capacity ... who are ... inclined to do their own thinking and are consequently less susceptible to the influenza propaganda.”

Bless his heart.

In San Francisco, a mask mandate was put in place by mid-October 1918, as influenza cases started to surge. Around Thanksgiving, the mask order was lifted. But by Christmas, cases had skyrocketed, overwhelming hospitals. The director of public health at the time, Dr. William Hassler, grieved that “the dollar sign is exalted above the health sign.” The mask order was reinstated Jan. 10, 1919, when the city of 500,000 was seeing 600 new cases per day.

What was the result? Protests by the San Francisco “Anti-Mask League” in mid-January, a refusal to wear masks — and a surge in cases that led to one of the highest mortality rates in the country.

Utah also became one of the hardest hit. The surge in cases in late 1918 was linked to the end of World War I and the large welcoming parties that greeted returning soldiers. There were also conspiracy theories at the time that pointed to Germany and believed that they had created the disease in a lab and released it on the United States.

We are now seeing the results worldwide of “COVID fatigue” — a surge in cases around the globe. I get it. It seems like we “should” be able to just go back to the way things were before March. And one day we will. But today is not that day.

Utah has had a rolling seven-day average of close to or over 3,000 new cases per day for weeks now. (Remember the good old days this summer of trying to get that number under 500 per day day? Feels like an eternity ago.) The positive rate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 23%, or in other words, somewhere between one in every four or five people tested is testing positive.

This disease is spreading rapidly and combined with COVID fatigue and the holiday season, well, the numbers are not likely to get better unless we all do our part. Wearing a mask is not about you. It’s about your neighbor and their grandma. It’s about overworked nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and other health care workers. It’s about the businesses that need you to mask up so they can remain open.

It’s about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Remember Jacob Marley’s lament to Ebenezer Scrooge: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business.”

This Christmas season, let’s be about the common welfare and do our part to get this wretched pandemic behind us.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.