When the plane landed in Chicago, I breathed a sigh of relief. After meticulous planning, we were returning from a two week trip to Lima, Peru. We had not seen my partner’s sister – soon to be 91 – in five years and believed that with careful precautions we could keep ourselves and our loved ones safe in Peru during the pandemic.
That sigh of relief quickly turned to alarm when we disembarked and saw hardly anyone in masks or practicing social distancing in the terminal. It was as if the pandemic was over and all precautions were long forgotten. I felt that I had entered the twilight zone.
I have a rare autoimmune disease that affects my lungs. I don’t live my life in a bubble, but I try to do what I can to avoid health issues. Strong immunosuppressants that treat autoimmune disease dampened my immune response, and I did not develop an immune response to COVID-19 vaccines. To prepare for the trip to Peru, after a lot of bureaucratic wrangling, I received the Evusheld pre-exposure treatment.
I reflected on the sense of danger I felt when the plane landed in the United States. Why did I feel safer in Peru than returning to the United States? After all, Peru was one of the worst affected countries initially by COVID-19, which drew attention to one of the highest death rates from COVID-19. And Peru has plenty of critical issues – a polarized political landscape, economic hardship, education and health sectors reeling from collapse, violence and stark social inequality. But evidence of serious public health measures against the lingering pandemic was visible everywhere, and perhaps because of that, I felt safer.
When we were in Lima, KN95 masks were mandatory. If a KN95 mask was not used, two “regular” masks were required in public. And people wore them correctly – not as unwanted fashion accessories, brushing their nostrils and hanging from one ear, but fixed over their noses and mouths. To enter all public places, proof of vaccination was required. Most people I met had received at least three vaccines. People stared at me when I asked if they were bothered by the masks, and they stared at me like I was just this crazy side when I asked about the vaccine denial. “Why would anyone do that?” asked a friend.
As we prepared to return home, we navigated bureaucracy to get our paperwork in order. We had to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test no more than a day before our flight. It was a problem, but a series of home testing services had become a cottage industry in Lima. A young woman, dressed in full lab tech gear, assessed us onsite for a reasonable fee with official verification of the negative test result.
Twelve days after we returned, my partner started feeling sick, achy and tired, with a dry cough. We used a government-provided COVID-19 home test to assess it. Much to our dismay, the test result was an immediate and strong positive. The next day I woke up with the feeling that an unwelcome invader was inside my body. I also tested positive for COVID-19. After alerting my primary care provider, I started taking the antiviral drug Paxlovid. I can’t say it speeded up the healing, but I know I feel better and I’m grateful to be able to access this treatment.
We received all kinds of offers of support after contracting COVID-19. A friend from the East Coast mail-ordered us chicken soup. People called to see if we needed anything and to make sure we were both breathing. It is comforting. We need each other in times like these.
But what we need even more is a commitment as a society to avoid further unnecessary acute and chronic illnesses and mortality related to COVID-19. On Monday, the Peruvian Ministry of Health issued an epidemiological alert due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, and a return to stricter regulations is sure to follow. I doubt the same will happen in the United States, where the numbers have risen again.
It was wonderful to see our family. We took a calculated risk going to Peru, and the irony of being infected with COVID-19 after returning to the United States is not lost on me.
So back in Chicago, I will continue to mask myself and others. By wearing the mask, I will resist the gaze of those who seem to think the pandemic is over. are you going
Barbara Shaw is an Assistant Professor of Community, Systems and Mental Health Nursing in the College of Nursing at Rush University.
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