In the beginning of the pandemic we rallied, sending loved ones rolls of toilet paper and handing out fruit to delivery drivers. Now, living under a blanket of restrictions has become a way of life, a daily routine of risk calculation and caution. But cases are once again spiking around the world and many people have what some call “pandemic fatigue.” As my colleagues wrote, “The rituals of hope and unity that helped people endure the first surge of the virus have given way to exhaustion and frustration.” Everywhere you turn there’s a feeling of burnout, which is even more pronounced for essential and frontline workers.
The stakes are high, especially with the holiday season approaching. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently laid out a new set of guidelines around mass gatherings, limiting them to no more than three households at a time.
I spoke to Elissa Epel, professor at the University of California, San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, about how to prevent pandemic fatigue from slipping into unsafe behavior. Dr. Epel also curates a website on coping resources during the pandemic.
Here are some of the main points from our conversation.
Stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression are on the rise.
A recent study showed that depression rates spiked three times higher during the pandemic, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of American adults reported problems with anxiety, depression or substance abuse in late June.
However, Dr. Epel said that psychological distress conditions that look like depression and anxiety are not necessarily psychiatric disorders in the classic sense.
“It’s a normal response to what’s happening,” she said.
Adverse mental health effects are linked to being in a chronically stressful situation, especially for people whose lives have been severely disrupted by illness, financial stress or essential work.
Pandemic burnout, in which essential and service workers are stressed to the point that they can no longer do their jobs, can also happen as a result of caring for others. Dr. Epel said that for these individuals, they cannot continue to work in a system that creates burnout and cure themselves at the same time.
“The system has to find ways to really help people restore and have more time for self care,” she said.
The kind of fatigue that the general population has experienced can be linked to physical health conditions or it can be related to shared psychological stressors. Dr. Epel suggests limiting exposure to upsetting news and being kind to yourself and others who are experiencing emotional distress.
There are things you can do to cope.
Everyone should think about what personal care means for themselves, Dr. Epel said. She said this definition was different for everyone. For some, it may mean getting lots of good quality sleep. For others, personal care means long walks in nature or exercise.
Preventing long periods of sedentary behavior can also help most people.
“Creating body stress that we then recover from actually in the end creates more energy, not less,” she said. “Walking with a partner with a mask on is like solving two essential pandemic needs at once, social and physical.”
Flouting the rules will only make lockdowns more likely.
People may grow weary of social distancing and decide to go back to living the way they did before the pandemic.
Dr. Epel cautions against this. “It’s an understandable response, but it is far from a solution. If anything, it’s going to stretch out our period of social stress and fatigue,” she said.
Instead, she encourages people to be physically and materially prepared, which is actually a healthy way of coping. Being prepared helps people gain a little sense of control over a wholly unpredictable situation.
Dr. Epel wrote in an op-ed that moderate anxiety is actually good, because it propels us to take self-protective measures like washing hands and mask wearing.
“Social distancing is anxiety reduction,” she said. “Anxiety right now is normal. And it’s good because it’s serving a function. It’s driving us to be safe, driving us to adapt, coping, keeping socially distanced.”
Prepare yourself for a new way of life.
According to Harvard University’s School of Public Health, the same forces that are worsening climate change are also increasing the risk of future pandemics. The pandemic has challenged our way of life in a way that no other event has. But Dr. Epel said she thought there was great potential for positive change that can happen as a result.
“If the glass is half empty and half full, it’s both,” she said. “We have had tremendous loss and irreversible changes, but that is only half of the picture.”
An update on California’s coronavirus numbers
In something of a reversal of a dynamic that defined the summer, California’s new coronavirus case rates have fallen and stayed relatively low, even as the virus has surged in other states.
As of Wednesday, the nation’s most populous state was averaging 3,294 new cases each day over the past week, down from a peak of more than 10,000 in late July, when Governor Newsom ordered most indoor businesses to close once again in order to stem the tide.
“Nothing is constant,” he said at the time. “Nothing is linear as it relates to infectious disease.”
Today, California’s per capita rate of new cases over the past week is lower than that of all but six states.
The numbers this month have been encouraging validation for the state’s second major plan to allow businesses to reopen, after the first was criticized as too permissive, confusing and unevenly enforced by local officials across California’s varied geography.
Many counties that grappled with alarming caseloads over the summer have seen significant declines.
Alameda County’s seven-day average through Wednesday for new daily cases was below 100 after reaching 300 in August. San Diego County’s average over that same time was below 300 new cases per day, from a July peak of more than 500.
California has also significantly ramped up testing — it’s averaging more than 120,000 tests per day — and the governor previously announced a partnership with the diagnostics company PerkinElmer aimed at doubling the state’s testing capacity, which he has said will be up and running in coming days.
Still, Mr. Newsom and other California officials have implored residents not to get complacent. And this week he cautioned Californians against getting “overly exuberant” about the prospect of a vaccine, which he said the state would independently review before making available.
About two-thirds of Californians surveyed in a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California said they were concerned about the development of a vaccine moving too quickly.
Here’s what else to know today
Uber and Lyft must treat their California drivers as employees, providing them with the benefits and wages they are entitled to under state labor law, a California appeals court ruled Thursday. [The New York Times]
The ruling adds urgency to the results of Proposition 22. Read about the ballot measure here. [The New York Times]
State Senator Scott Wiener wrote about what he learned after being targeted by QAnon for doing his job. [New York Times Opinion]
California’s greenhouse gas emissions rose slightly in 2018, the most recent tally. [The San Francisco Chronicle]
Despite the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, California home prices are soaring into record highs. [The Sacramento Bee]
Quibi, the beleaguered short-form content company started by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, announced on Wednesday that it was shutting down just six months after the app became available. [The New York Times]
Sonoma County is the only Bay Area county stuck in the most restrictive tier, to the frustration of public health officials, community organizers and businesses. [The San Francisco Chronicle]
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.