How omicron changed the way we view pandemic life

In the first year, COVID hadn’t touched a single person he knew, but Ranjan Wadhwa was still terrified. When he ventured to the grocery store, he wore gloves and double-masked — and sometimes added a scarf on top of that.

Now, as the pandemic enters its third year and the hyper-contagious omicron variant surges to new heights, the virus has touched almost everyone he knows. It has infected friends and family and took the life of his father-in-law last year.

But something is different now.

“Now,” he said, searching for the right words, “everybody has … given up? Yes, given up,” he said, picking up two boxes of at-home COVID tests at a school giveaway for his third-grade daughters before they return to class in Fremont on Monday. “We’re all resigned to the fact that this is something we all have to live with so why be afraid of it?”

The number of new COVID cases is setting records every day now, but our level of sheer terror of the virus, it appears, has plummeted.

Slammed by the more contagious but milder version of COVID, Californians are encountering this latest wave of the pandemic in ways that suggest we’ve learned to live with the virus. More of our friends and family and co-workers are getting sick, but as long as they’re vaccinated and boosted, we’re confident they will feel better soon. Some of our book clubs and colleges are going virtual, but others are turning to tests and KN95 masks to keep meeting in person. The Grammys are off, but the Super Bowl is on. Disruptions, inconveniences and endless disappointments, it seems, are baked in.

Like the five stages of grief, is omicron finally forcing us to accept a new way of life? The pandemic has taken so much of our lives already.

“I don’t want to be in a bubble,” said Becca Roanhaus of San Jose, who suffers with cystic fibrosis that affects her lungs — a prime target for coronavirus — and kept herself isolated much longer than the 2020 lockdowns required.

Now, she said, “I don’t want to get back to paranoia, but I want to stay safe.”

The rapid spread of omicron meant she canceled her trip to Disneyland next weekend, but she accepted a date with a friend at Hapa’s Brewing Company in San Jose and sat next to a garage-style door that let in fresh air.

“You can’t stay home all day. That’s unhealthy. You need that sanity,” Roanhaus said. “You need that break — some type of normalcy that you can’t get by locking yourself up at home.”

There’s a growing sense now that despite the astonishing rates of infection — the U.S. eclipsed 300,000 daily average new cases on Dec. 29, then 400,000 on Jan. 2, 500,000 two days later, and 600,000 in two days more — people are no longer willing to let COVID stop them, to let time pass them by.

“I was 27 when this started and I’m going to be 30 in March. Life has to keep going,” said Tayler Davis, who went from law school student to deputy public defender in Santa Clara County during the course of the pandemic. “I gotta do stuff. I’m not going to be this pretty forever.”

Humor helps.

It’s not easy to find in hospitals, however, where staff members have been donning and doffing COVID suits and shields for nearly two years, enduring a nursing shortage and mandatory overtimes and trying to remain compassionate with unvaccinated patients who can remain “profoundly adamant” until the very end.

“There’s no help and no cavalry coming to the rescue,” said Liz Thurstone, a nurse at Regional Medical Hospital in East San Jose. “We’ve been asked to run this marathon for two years and we ran it diligently. You turn that corner, you see that finish line tape, you’re like, oh my God, you can barely breathe. Then someone moves that finish line 10 miles down the road. It’s defeating. There’s a feeling like, is this ever going to end?”

So she has accepted her new COVID normal: coming home exhausted, feeding her cat and going to bed.

“I had a couple of terrible days where I could have punched out the time clock and left and never come back. That’s how bad I felt,” she said. “I was thinking to myself the other day, how can I reconcile this in my brain? How can I have a more positive attitude and realize this is just the way it is? I don’t have that answer yet.”

In the early months of the virus, when Santa Clara County had one of the first known cases of COVID and cruise ships with sickened passengers idled off the coast of San Francisco, the virus was a terrifying enigma, something from the other side of the globe that required heroes to don hazmat suits and inspired balcony orchestras of pot-and-pan-playing neighbors to salute those on the front lines.

We were lucky not to get it. Now we’re lucky not to get it a second time.

Taryne and Jeff Kraus of Los Gatos have been spared from the early variants and the more-contagious delta and omicron. But their daughter got sick once and her boyfriend tested positive — twice.

They have taken the lessons of the lockdown — living a simpler life with more meaningful connections — and plan to continue this way, come what may. Their nightly cocktail hour with one of their children — in the living room with no cell phones – sometimes extends to a bar now, though. And Taryne’s walking group that meets at 7:45 each morning has created deep, lasting friendships.

“We’ve come together in a way we didn’t expect,” she said.

Some scientists look to February as the next turning point, when infection rates should drop. But an enduring pessimism is also settling in.

“I don’t feel there’s any end in sight,” said Willow Glen Sweet Shop owner Matthew Rodriguez, whose bins of Gummy Sharks are still empty after months of lingering supply chain issues. “Kids are getting it at middle school, and it’s scary. I have twins. What if they get it? You hear symptoms are mild for the kids. Hopefully, it stays that way.”

Down the street at The Universal Connection, a metaphysical shop that specializes in crystals, the new normal hasn’t changed much since the pandemic began. Like in 2020, customers are still reminded to clean their hands at the sanitizing station outside the front door, and no more than 12 people are allowed in the store at a time — adhering to county rules no longer in place. Only one employee is allowed in the breakroom at a time to eat lunch without a mask.

Remaining vigilant as the virus ebbs and flows, said owner Tracee Rothschilds, makes good business sense, avoiding sick staff, quarantines and shop closures.

“There’s no stimulus anymore, no EDD again,” she said, referring to the government benefits office that doled out COVID relief.

With parents still scrambling as schools announce they are open then closed, and workers whipsawed by bosses’ orders to show up at the office then work remotely, flexibility might be the key to surviving what’s next.

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