“It’s been almost a year now that we’ve been isolated and I think it’s worn people down,” said Han Kim, professor of public health at Westminster College. “We are social creatures and without social contact, it has an effect on our mental health. So pandemic fatigue is the desire to socialize and to have a sense of normalcy.”
The Utah Department of Health reported a record number of daily COVID-19 cases Saturday with 4,052 confirmed cases, plus nine new deaths. Due to the recent surge, Utah health officials have warned hospitals are becoming overwhelmed and considering options to ration care.
In response, Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency Nov. 8, calling for a statewide mask mandate among other increased regulations.
The move has been met with considerable backlash — with several protesting outside the homes of the governor and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn — as many Utahns express frustration with continued restrictions. Several say they just want to get back to normal life.
A large reason cases are on the rise is because of a new phenomenon called “pandemic fatigue,” according to Kim. Those dealing with it note they are tired of distancing themselves from others and have opted to let their guards down despite the risk of transmission.
“We just haven’t been able to socialize like we usually do,” Kim said. “There’s something to be said about getting together and having dinner parties and hanging out together, and we just haven’t been able to do any of that.”
He said despite Zoom being a great resource to connect across distance, it doesn’t make up for those typical interactions. Personally, Kim said he misses having his students in class and interacting with them.
“We want that contact […] and a lot of it is the everyday interactions that we take for granted,” Kim said. “Saying hi to somebody or giving somebody a hug. It’s the little things that we miss, we don’t realize that the small little interactions are important.”
Holidays and Winter Approaching
As winter and the holiday season approach, Kim said the pandemic is entering an alarming and dangerous stage.
“We have some serious numbers, I mean the worst numbers we have seen so far are in Europe and North America,” Kim said. “Hospitalizations are increasing, so community spread is really widespread.”
These numbers and statistics are concerning as Thanksgiving is only a week and a half away.
Thanksgiving will be sort of a reflection point as students head back home for the holidays, Kim said. He noted the holiday is probably the most important time of the year for people in terms of socializing with family and friends.
Combating Mental Health Struggles & Pandemic Fatigue
Kim said he and others in public health are deeply concerned about what the next few months hold for individuals and their mental health. As the pandemic rages on, health experts warn that mental health struggles may become more common.
The American Psychiatric Association reports 5% of adults in the U.S experience seasonal depression, medically known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
“We’re kind of in between a rock and a hard place because we do recognize that mental health is important,” Kim said. “But at the same time the pandemic is raging and the only way to really control it for sure is with an effective vaccine which we won’t have for a while.”
Erin Gibson, director of counseling at Westminster said the first step to dealing with all of the stress and anxiety induced by the pandemic is to recognize that “It’s ok not to be ok.”
“It’s completely appropriate to feel anxious and scared and hopelessness around what is happening,” Gibson said.
She said once you stop resisting from feeling that way, you remove the secondary pressure of guilt for feeling bad.
During this period of burnout and exhaustion, individuals need to take time for themselves and find something they love, Gibson said.
Kim acknowledged that despite the cold weather coming, people should continue getting outside as much as possible.
“I know a lot of folks don’t like the winter but I think it’s really important to get outside even just a little bit,” Kim said. “I think it’s incredibly good for your mental health to be outside.”
He said students should consider taking up a winter sport, even if it’s not skiing or snowboarding.
“It could just be snowshoeing or just taking hikes in the snow,” Kim said. “I think, overall, physical activity and being outdoors is incredibly effective in combating depression.”
What does the future hold?
Despite the pandemic fatigue, Kim said the future looks bright.
“I’m an optimist — I think vaccine development has been extraordinary in how fast we’ve got to stage three clinical trials for a disease that a year ago we had no idea it existed,” Kim said.
Kim said he is hopeful that vaccines will begin to be distributed as soon as early spring, possibly late winter.
Pharmaceutical company Pfizer and their partner BioNTech, announced Nov. 8 its vaccine is reportedly 90% effective in preventing COVID-19.
“Based on current projections we expect to produce globally up to 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021,” Pfizer stated.