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BEACON PHOTO/ELI WITEK COVID IS STILL DISRUPTING EVENTS — DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger, left, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day organizer Mario Davis lead a crowd down Woodland Boulevard in DeLand Jan. 17 for the traditional march honoring the slain civil-rights leader. Another long-standing tradition, a breakfast at Stetson University preceding the march, had to be scuttled because of the university’s anti-COVID-19 policy limiting the size of indoor gatherings on campus.

Two years in, a few things have changed

We’ve all been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic, whether we lost a loved one, caught the virus and lived to tell the tale, or simply struggled with the changes the pandemic has brought to daily life.

And, two years in, like it or not, it’s not over. In some ways, 2022 is looking a lot like 2021 and 2020. But there are some glimmers of hope, too — especially hope that the virus will soon be a routine part of life, and not a disrupter.

What’s different?

We’ve got weapons: The weapons to combat COVID-19 are much more than mitigation measures like masking and isolating. There are treatments that can reduce the damage COVID-19 does to a person’s body and highly effective vaccines that some 65 percent of Volusians have taken.

As of Jan. 14, 343,242 Volusia County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

We’ve got omicron: It may seem, at times, like everyone you know has COVID-19. You, dear reader, may even have COVID-19 as you read this (and I hope you get well soon if you do). This can be blamed on the latest variant, omicron, Stetson University associate professor of public health Dr. Asal Johnson said.

Omicron is not to be confused with the also-more-transmissible delta variant that caused the COVID-19 surge in August and September 2021.

At the beginning of December 2021, Volusia County was regularly reporting some 300 new COVID-19 cases weekly. That number climbed to 7,465 new COVID-19 cases during the week of Jan. 7 to Jan. 14.

While omicron is causing record spikes in the number of people testing positive for the virus locally and nationally, Johnson said the vaccine is reason to stay optimistic.

When vaccinated people catch a case of COVID-19, omicron variant, that does not mean the vaccines aren’t working.

“It’s a very contagious version of the virus,” Johnson said. “What we know is people who are vaccinated are getting it milder, and they are way less likely to go to the hospital.”

That’s why even vaccinated people are taking the kinds of precautions they were roughly two years ago.

What’s the same?

We’re still missing work, waiting in long lines, and waiting days for test results: Get 10 people together (wearing masks, mind you) and it seems like at least one of them will have some story about narrowly avoiding COVID or coming down with the virus recently.

Take DeLandite Kitty Allen. Allen started feeling awful fatigue the night of Jan. 1 and was so exhausted she couldn’t go to work the next day. She took an at-home COVID test, but a faintly colored line left her unsure whether she had tested positive. After traveling to get a test in Deltona, and waiting in line for three hours for the test, Allen finally got results more than a week after her fatigue first developed.

Her test was negative, but Allen still missed a week of work to quarantine.

To Allen, so much of what people struggle with — long lines to get tested, long waits to get test results, quarantining in the meantime — are the same problems we’ve had since 2020.

“We haven’t moved forward yet,” Allen said. “The biggest thing is, we don’t have enough testing. Now all of a sudden we’re getting it, but we had to get to such a disastrous situation before they give us enough testing to check.”

Deltona resident Karly Kremer, an occupational therapist at DeLand’s Alliance Community for Retirement Living, had a similar experience, except she actually had COVID-19.

“I thought after having the vaccine for a while and being around so many others, that maybe I was going to avoid catching it because of immunity and/or because I took precautions such as wearing a mask, hand hygiene, and social distancing,” Kremer said.

But after testing positive, she had to miss 10 days of work, from Jan. 4 to Jan. 14.

She was fatigued and achy, she was coughing and lost her sense of smell, but most of all, Kremer was frustrated and exhausted.

“It almost feels like we’re in a twilight zone,” she said, when asked about how it all feels going into the new year.

“It makes me sad because of the constant worry about my family’s health. My dad has COPD, my youngest daughter has vitamin-D deficiency, so we’ve decided to hold off on her getting the vaccine,” Kremer said. “The whole thing has negatively affected our children’s social skills and, now, dealing with financial hardship, because I haven’t been able to return to work.”

Kremer summed up with a feeling many share.

“I just don’t know anymore,” she said.

BEACON PHOTO/MARSHA MCLAUGHLIN
MASKED AND SPACED — Panelists at the Stetson University MLK Life & Legacy Luncheon Jan. 14 are masked and distanced from one another as moderator Akeem Todman — the university’s director of diversity and inclusion — leads them in a discussion of how we can all be part of building a better community. From left are Tiffany Toussaint, Dan’Nyija Huey, Joseph Parr and Sven Smith.

What’s different?

Enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions: At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, local officials began scrambling to pass restrictions. They closed restaurants and bars, and required face coverings everywhere from inside local municipal buildings to all indoor public spaces.

But it’s no longer possible to mandate face coverings in a meaningful way at the local level. In May 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis used his executive power to mandate that face coverings could not be required. This was followed up with legislation preventing mask mandates, vaccine mandates and the use of “vaccine passports.” This ensured that a person’s vaccination status couldn’t be used to police hiring or entry into a private business or public space.

The fight over masks migrated in August and September to schools. As the delta strain ripped through local communities, the Volusia County School Board briefly dissented from the governor’s orders that masks couldn’t be mandated in schools. School boards in several other counties across the state did the same.

Two weeks later, the courageous, governor-defying mandate disintegrated. Parents could opt out.

People who’ve avoided COVID-19 for two years are finally getting it: As of Jan. 12, 2022, when Volusia County Schools began reporting COVID-19 cases and quarantines in the new year, 840 students and 193 faculty members had tested positive for the virus. In total 1,083 students and 487 faculty members were quarantined.

One Volusia County Schools employee who recently caught the virus expressed their frustration. The employee didn’t want to be identified, because COVID-19 policies and restrictions in schools have been incredibly contentious.

“It really made me angry, because I have followed all the rules and been extremely careful in every possible way,” the employee said. “It’s infuriating when you play by the rules and still catch it. It’s scary to go back in the classrooms knowing that I could be exposed over and over again and possibly catch it again.”

The employee painted a stark image of COVID-19’s lasting effects on the schools.

“I also see us losing teachers weekly all across the district,” the employee said. “Some teachers are veterans who are fed up and retire early, or simply go to another district or go virtual. Newbies aren’t sticking around very long because they realize it’s dangerous and they can make more money and be safer in other careers, or in other districts.”

What’s different?

We know more about the virus: We know much more about the virus than we did in 2020. We’re no longer cleaning our groceries with Lysol wipes, because we know the virus is airborne.

“Back then, we did not know anything about it,” Stetson University professor Johnson said. “We didn’t know who was more at risk, who was less at risk; we didn’t know how the virus operated and how our immune system responded.”

That knowledge means people experiencing symptoms, like Kitty Allen, can get tested rather than potentially spread the virus. We know a case of COVID that manifests as a cold in one person could land another person in the hospital.

According to the latest research as presented in the article “How Long Does Omicron Take to Make You Sick?” in The Atlantic, the omicron COVID-19 strain may present as less severe in many people, but it incubates faster, meaning you develop symptoms — and become contagious — sooner after an exposure.

Whether the omicron strain is milder or not, hospitalizations are ticking up.

But we know less about what’s going on in our communities: Beyond hospital information, it can be hard to tell where the virus is spreading locally. In the summer of 2021, the Florida Department of Health dramatically reduced the data it releases.

New case numbers by county, at least directly from the State of Florida, are released only weekly, not daily, and breakdowns to the city level are no longer available.

Locally, test results compiled by the Department of Health don’t paint an accurate picture. Many at-home rapid tests do not have a mechanism for reporting cases. Test positive with a rapid test and ride out your case of COVID at home? The Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have no clue.

This far into the pandemic, Dr. Johnson argued, our testing infrastructure is severely lacking.

“This is bad,” she said. “After two years being into this, our policymakers are not ready to circulate more tests among people.”

She specifically took issue with recent comments from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo. At a Jan. 4 press conference, the two instructed asymptomatic people to not get tested for COVID-19, even if they had been exposed to someone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

“If you have no symptoms, please don’t get tested. You’re so unlikely to benefit from that, and you could be harmed,” Florida Surgeon General Ladapo said.

Johnson said that goes against everything she knows in public health, especially if someone knows they were exposed to the virus.

“If you’re not vaccinated, it does not matter if you are asymptomatic or not, you should get tested,” she said. “The only people who may forgo testing and have some peace of mind are people who got their boosters, maybe, two months ago.”

GRAPHIC COURTESY FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
BY THE NUMBERS — This chart shows new COVID-19 cases in the state of Florida, as reported by the Florida Department of Health weekly from November 2021 to January 2022. The omicron surge settled in at the beginning of December, driving cases up rapidly — and these numbers don’t include positive results from at-home tests that often aren’t reported to health officials. Volusia County has followed the statewide trend.

Its different and the same

We have to work to keep ourselves sane: A lot of people are feeling exhausted, or burnt out, after two years of dealing with the pandemic.

Michelle Patterson is a counselor at Heart Peace Counseling in DeLand. She works directly with people experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and other problems.

The pandemic has elevated anxieties in many people, Patterson said.

“Our bodies are designed to be able to handle stress, and to handle things that come up in danger,” she said. “But what happens is, with prolonged situations like this, where there’s a continued threat, it wears down the body even more so.”

But finding ways to de-stress and find peace amid a continued barrage of grief and bad news isn’t always easy, and it’s not one-size-fits-all, Patterson said.

“There are so many things that can help. You can look back and say, ‘When have I overcome something in the past?’ ‘What are my strengths?’” Patterson said. “Everyone has strengths to help them get through this.”

Maybe it’s spending more time outside and away from your phone or computer, or maybe it’s picking up a new hobby, Patterson said, but spending time focusing on yourself can help with stress.

Most important, she said, is to not wait to ask for help when you need it.

“Counseling has never been more accessible to people,” Patterson said. “Most counseling centers offer teletherapy by phone or video in addition to in-person. Many people have counseling benefits in their insurance plans and don’t even realize it.”

What’s the same?

Wishing this was all over: So when are we going to be done with this? When can we leave behind the new cases and new variants and superspreaders and masks?

All viruses run their course, Dr. Johnson said. It’s just a matter of sticking it out and bolstering our bodies’ defenses.

“All I know is that every single outbreak and every single pandemic ended,” Johnson said. “The pandemics that happened 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago — 100 years ago, the influenza pandemic, which we didn’t have a vaccine or effective treatment for, even that ended.”

A possible scenario, Johnson said, is that the virus becomes like the flu.

“I think, at some point, it becomes more seasonal,” she said. “We will have a higher number of cases, but, just how influenza isn’t disruptive, I don’t think it will be disruptive to our normal and social activities.”

To get to that point, she said, we have to protect each other and work toward the common good of a healthy community.

“We are relying now on people doing the right thing,” Johnson said. “Whether this is good or bad, this is what it is right now.”

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