As Americans push into a third winter of viral discontent, this season has delivered something different: Amid the deep polarization about masks and vaccines, amid the discord over whether and how to return to pre-pandemic life, a strange unity of confusion is emerging, a common inability to decipher conflicting advice and clashing guidelines coming from government, science, health, media and other institutions.
On seemingly every front in the battle against the coronavirus, the messages are muddled: Test or don’t test? Which test? When? Isolate or not? For five days? Ten? Go to school or not? See friends and resume normal life, or hunker down again — and if so, for how long, to what end?
The swift and supremely efficient spread of the omicron variant — 7 million cases in the past month, though deaths have declined compared with previous surges — has unleashed waves of new rules and decisions governing every aspect of life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance shifts from week to week, with changing recommendations on how long people infected with the virus should isolate and who needs to be tested after symptoms resolve. A half-dozen of President Biden’s former health advisers recently called on him to pivot to a “new normal” strategy of living with the coronavirus indefinitely.
Meanwhile, schools and colleges open, close, go online, reverse themselves. In liberal and conservative media alike, countervailing voices alternately raise and dash hopes that the pandemic endgame is nigh. The National Football League scrambled to put third-tier players on the field to keep huge crowds coming into stadiums, while the National Hockey League canceled a slew of games and the Grammys were indefinitely postponed.
“I feel like I’m swimming in the ocean at night, and I could be 100 yards from the shore or 100 miles, and all I can do is keep swimming,” said Chip Franklin, who runs an Internet talk show with a liberal bent. “I’m 65 and I don’t think I’m going to get this and die, but we don’t go to restaurants, and I don’t see anybody except the same eight people we saw at the beginning, in 2020. Anybody that says they know what to do now is a liar.”
Franklin heaped blame on Donald Trump’s handling of the first year of the pandemic, but now, he said, “I look at the lack of tests and the confusing messages, and people on my side — for mandates and vaccination — are hesitant to criticize Biden for fear of empowering Trump, but it’s a mess.”
The muddle comes six months after Biden declared a “summer of freedom” in which Americans could gather for cookouts as the coronavirus seemed to recede enough to allow a resumption of normal life. But then the delta variant of the virus hit hard, hospitalizations and deaths shot up, and the bracingly contagious omicron variant followed, with apparently a much milder impact on vaccinated people — but 500 percent higher case numbers. The result has been a severe case of emotional whiplash accompanied by sharp pivots in policy.
When Li, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire, summarized her confusion in a tweet last week — “Stay indoors. But also return in person. Wear a mask. Not that one. The expensive one, that you can’t find. Take rapid tests. Which you also can’t find. But if you find them, don’t buy them. Rapid tests don’t work” — she racked up nearly 300,000 likes.
“I would love to be able to say, ‘Here are five sources you can rely on,’ but the information is constantly shifting,” she said in an interview. “The CDC and FDA and public health departments are still worthy of trust, but they have to continually change their guidance based on the science. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, and we’re all just tired of it.”
The lack of clear guidance also feeds tensions at her school, as at many others, Li said, as faculty members, students and administrators weigh their discomfort with being around other people against the need to return to in-person education.
Last February, when Thiessen, a trial lawyer in Houston, and his wife, Taly, fell ill with covid-19, they quarantined for 10 days after their tests came back positive. But last month, after Thiessen’s stepmother and father, who are in their 70s, came down with covid, Thiessen, his wife and their children, ages 7 and 9, forwent testing.
“We knew we probably had it, but we didn’t even think about getting tested,” the lawyer said. “It’s just such a hassle to get tested and find a test. We’re fed up with it all. At this point, we just need to start living with covid. Everybody should get it and move on.”
He said he had simply hit overload. “I was getting PTSD from not only covid news but all the politics too,” Thiessen said.
Before the delta and omicron variants arrived, Americans’ optimism about the course of the pandemic was on the rise, but in recent months, it has plummeted, according to a Gallup tracking poll, which found that the proportion of the country that believes the situation is getting better dropped from 89 percent in June to 51 percent in October and then to 31 percent in December.
Along with pessimism, mistrust is also spreading, said Amy Cirbus, a therapist who treats patients from around the country by video. Whether the chaotic messaging about how to behave in the face of omicron leads people to rein in their behavior or to push ahead with life as it once was, she sees patients in both red and blue America turning away from voices of authority.
“There is some unity now: We’re all in this confusion together,” said Cirbus, who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley and is the director of clinical content for Talkspace, an online therapy platform. “It really seems now that everyone is saying some form of ‘I need to live my life.’ ”
Patients tell Cirbus that they feel blown in every which direction: “I want to go see a movie — here’s that protocol; my kids have to go to school — here’s that protocol; I have to go to work — yet another set of rules,” she said. “It’s a lot of information, and it doesn’t all agree. It all adds to a deep feeling of mistrust. It adds to the overwhelm: ‘What do I do?’ Relationships are thinned, people are quick to anger. Patients say they are just holding on.”
That fraying of the public temper was on the mind of CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recently when she said on CNN that although the agency’s decision to slice the recommended quarantine period from 10 days to five days was based on scientific findings, it also “really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate. . . . Less than a third of people are isolating when they need to. And so we really want to make sure that we had guidance . . . that people were willing to adhere to.”
Christine Parizo, a marketing writer in League City, Tex., southeast of Houston, lost patience with pandemic messaging from politicians, health officials and the news media long ago. In March 2020, she stayed home and limited her contact with people outside her household. But the mother of 10- and 15-year-olds never got vaccinated and joined with other parents opposed to mask mandates at her kids’ schools.
Now, with hundreds of thousands of Americans being infected every day, she’s decided that “with omicron, we’re seeing the end of the pandemic. We’re all going to be fine. That’s the bottom line.”
Parizo, 43, said she has no faith in local health officials or Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser. For information on the pandemic, she turns to the Daily Mail and looks at medical research papers.
Just before Christmas, she attended Trump’s appearance at Houston’s Toyota Center with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and felt no concern about catching the virus in a crowded arena.
“It’s no way to live to miss out on things,” she said. “It’s no way to live, to live in fear.”
But she did not join audience members who booed Trump and O’Reilly when they talked about both being vaccinated and boosted.
“That was silly,” she said. “Both Trump and O’Reilly, they’re not young. They have every reason to be vaxxed and boosted.”
Still, she sees no reason to join them. “The circle I hang out with, we don’t wear masks and the majority of us haven’t gotten the vaccine,” Parizo said. “We just want it to be over.”
Andrea Dvorachek, 46, a former nurse in west Houston, also wants it to be over, but the messaging about omicron has nudged her in the opposite direction. She and her husband eat out only outdoors now. Her teenagers’ Catholic school reinstituted its mask mandate last month after having done away with it earlier in the fall.
Dvorachek is a Democrat who voted for Biden; she her family are vaccinated and appreciated being required to show a vaccination card or negative test result before attending a Houston Rockets National Basketball Association game last week.
But she wonders: “Is that good [enough] anymore, though? I don’t know.” She trusts the epidemiologists she follows on social media, but the overall message she gets seems murky.
“I try to look at the science of it since it’s become so heavily politicized, which really makes me sad,” she said.
When her husband tested positive for the coronavirus last month, the family rescheduled a trip to Universal Studios in Orlando and instead spent the holidays at home. “We’re not going to stay home and be scared, but we’re going to be smart,” she said. “With omicron, I think it’s going to be a real confusing month ahead.”
Families often have to make important decisions quickly, without time to study all the guidelines. Alisa Glassman’s coronavirus test turned up positive just before Christmas, but her husband and 9-year-old son’s results were negative. They needed to decide: Should Mom isolate herself, or should the family risk infection to stay together?
The guidance from government and health officials pointed toward isolation, and at first, they did “what nearly two years of paranoia and preparedness taught us,” said Glassman, who lives in Takoma Park, Md., and is the lead organizer for Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, a nonprofit community group. They separated and continued to be in contact by phone. But by the next day, they had flipped: They would stay home but be together.
Glassman said the pandemic has taught her that “I am a social being who needs to be around people, preferably closer than six feet away. Our mental health was fraying, and the risks of asymptomatic or even mild covid were far outweighed by the specter of not being able to be together over the winter break.”
Contradictions appear at every turn — between federal quarantine guidelines and those of local school systems, even between like-minded friends who make different calculations about when and where their kids should be masked — and each family has to make its own way.
“We have to find a balance,” said Trevett Hooper, who owns Butterjoint, a foodie destination near the University of Pittsburgh. “We have to consider what it means for people to be cooped up — what it does to their mental health, for depression, for a lot of problems. We have to find a sensible middle ground.”
Hooper, 46, has at various points during the pandemic shut down his eatery, opened to sell grocery items, opened for takeout only, opened entirely and now closed his doors once again because he and several staffers caught the virus.
Assessing risk while trying not to be overwhelmed by crosscurrents of information has become a key part of Hooper’s work. He used to read the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Atlantic, but he’s gone cold turkey on all of those. Nor does he watch the local TV news or check local health department sites.
“I just stopped it all for my mental health,” he said. “In my stage of life, I need to focus on my kids and on my business.”
Hooper still scans the Web for news and keeps tabs on what other restaurants are doing. He’s found the CDC guidelines helpful but said he has “gone beyond that. As a business owner, I feel like you just kind of make it up as you go along, and you do the best you can.”
What he finds frustrating is the lack of a clear middle path, a course people can follow somewhere between “people fighting mad who don’t want to do anything [and] people who are trying to follow the rules 110 percent to make sure that nothing ever happens” to them.
“Covid tells us something about America now,” Hooper said. “It’s just so clear how we’re at war with each other. I worry about how people are getting their information. . . . I think we have to be smart about this, but it doesn’t mean going back to March 2020.”
The long slog of the pandemic — now in its 23rd month — has left Jeffrey Hile almost numb. A contractor and engineer who lives in Wexford, north of Pittsburgh, Hile is an avid Trump supporter who drove three hours to get vaccinated as soon as it was possible. He got boosted, avoids restaurants and wears a mask when out in public.
“I have hand sanitizer everywhere,” he said. “It’s a wonder I have skin left.”
But despite needing to protect his 84-year-old mother, who resides in an assisted-living facility, Hile steers clear of news about the virus and directives from the government.
“I don’t think they know what is really is going on,” he said. Although he’s trained as an engineer, Hile, 59, said he doesn’t wade into scientific reports on covid or debates over whether the pandemic is waning. Instead, he relies mostly on advice from his girlfriend’s brother, an eye doctor “who reads everything.”
“To me, it’s all sort of a crapshoot,” he said. “I think people are just fed up. . . . They got tired of it, and they are just going to do what they want. I am so busy with my mother that I don’t think about it. If you don’t have much going on in your life, though, you think about covid. And if you are thinking about it all the time, you will go nuts.”