Updated February 8, 2022 at 3:11 p.m. EST|Published January 28, 2022 at 4:00 p.m. EST
HOUSTON — The El Campo Impact 13-and-under girls volleyball team was down by one point in their opening tournament of the year. It was Kamryn Thompson’s turn to serve, and it was a winner. Cheers and screams rose from the packed crowd of hundreds ofmaskless coaches, parents and siblings in a mid-January gathering that felt as if the coronavirus had never hit.
About 15 miles away, Gabriela Hernandez was trapped behind a glass partition in a pediatric intensive care unit jammed with severely ill children battling covid-19. Her daughter, Kimberly, who is immunocompromised, had tested positive for the virus, andnowher body was going haywire. Hernandez and the hospital’s medical teams were frustrated about the choices that have helped propel the virus’ spread and put vulnerable people like Kimberly at risk.
The split-screen reality of American life amid a pandemic has never been as stark as at this moment, in the third year of a crisis that people had expected would long be over.
“I know people who have died because of this and people don’t believe it,” Hernandez said. “You have to believe it. You have to know that this is happening.”
The point at which a pandemic ends is not a discrete event marked by a celebration in the streets, like at the conclusion of a war. It’s more of a gradual process in which humans who have developed some immunity learn to live alongside a virus that has become less lethal. Some argue that time has come, citing evidence that the omicron variant is causing less severe disease than the delta variant in many people. Other people point to overwhelmed hospitals and a climbing death toll to implore people to continue taking precautions to get through this surge and then reassess.
Those dueling perspectives are playing out as the United States set a record for new coronavirusinfections in January, surpassing 800,000 a day for the first time, according to The Post’s seven-day tracking average. The number had fallen to just above 300,000 as of Saturday. Hospitalizations have plateaued, but deaths are rising — surpassing more than 2,600 a day on average. The last time the numbers were so high was in February 2021, when the country was emerging from the worst of last winter’s wave.
Both sides blame the other for elongating the pandemic, but the debate is in some ways less polarized than in the past.
Six former health advisers to President Biden have argued that it is time the country stoppedbeing in a “perpetual state of emergency” and adopt a “new normal” strategy of living with the coronavirus that would curb its worst effects but not seek to eradicate it. Even Democratic governors who ordered strict closures in earlier waves are not doing so now, citingtools such as vaccines and treatments; businesses and schools remain open in most places nationwide. After nearly two years of restrictions, even the most compliant Americans, who got their shots, meticulously wore masks andavoided crowded places, express exhaustion.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Jan. 28 found that big majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans said they feel “tired” and “frustrated” about the state of the pandemic. People were more worried about omicron’s impact on the economy and local hospitals than its impact on their personal lives, the poll found.
Fear is giving away to inevitability, among those who feel protected from the virus’ worst effects because they are vaccinated as well as those who believe covid’s risks are exaggerated. Empathy toward the vulnerable is giving way to worries about jobs and the strain on family and friends.
‘Is it worth it?’
Finishing a snack from the concession stand at the volleyball tournament, Misty Dehoyos, 43, said enough is enough. She’s vaccinated and wore a mask for more than a year. She and her husband, Felipe, were infected with the coronavirus shortly before Christmas, and their symptoms were pretty much like those of a cold. The couple decided they wouldn’t isolate from their unvaccinated children, ages 11, 16 and 19. Even if the children got the virus, the couple figured the illnesses probably would be mild, and as a bonus, might help protect them against a more severe variant in the future. The kids never felt sick or tested positive.
“It’s time,” Dehoyos said. “We have to adapt. There’s no way to eradicate it.”
Dehoyos said she’s happy that mostthings in Texas are fully open. At the volleyball tournament last year, everyone had to wear masks, spectators were limited and the ball had to be wiped with disinfectant before every serve. Now those restrictions are gone, with only one remaining: The teams don’t switch courts aftereach set.
But Dehoyos said she’s frustrated that the rest of the country hasn’t followed suit. A friend had a trip planned to San Francisco, she said, but may cancel after learning California has an indoor mask mandate, and that San Francisco, along with nearby Oakland, Berkeley and Contra Costa County, require proof of vaccination at restaurants — none of which sounded very fun for a vacation getaway, she said.
From the pandemic’s earliest days, Texas — like some other Republican-controlled states — has been looser with coronavirus restrictions than those on the East and West coasts. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has banned mask and vaccine mandates as an infringement on personal rights — measures criticized by the Biden administration and being fought in court by cities and school districts as necessary for public safety.
Despite Abbott’s at-times-combative tone against U.S. public health officials, a number of parents here who decline to wear masks, or get themselves or their children vaccinated, insisted their decisions had little to do with politics.
Deep in the back of the gym, on the sidelines of Court No. 6, Brooke Smith, 30, said it came down to a lack of trust in government leaders — on both sides of the aisle.
For the past two years, she said, she believes that information given to the public has been twisted to fit a political or public health goal. At the beginning of the pandemic, top Trump administration officials including Robert Redfield, then director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Anthony S. Fauci discouraged people from wearing masks — a posture they acknowledged later was partly because of concerns about the inadequate supply for health workers. Later, under President Biden, public health officials repeatedly touted the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine as equal to other two-shot vaccines that were made using a different technology. Studies have since shown the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines offer more protection.
In both these cases, Smith acknowledged, scientific knowledge had evolved. But she said the situation does not inspire her confidence in the vaccines. “They developed it too fast,” Smith said. “I feel like they keep talking about new issues.” Hundreds of millions of Americans have received the shots under the most rigorous monitoring in U.S. history, and serious safety problems have been extremely rare.
She said that neither she nor her five children, who range in age from 2 to 13, are vaccinated. The family got covid in early January but had mild cases, and everyone recovered quickly.
While Smith said she worries about immunocompromised neighbors and friends, she also worries about those who have lost jobs as a result of the economic turmoil stemming from pandemic restrictions and uncertainties. “They took it too far in my opinion,” she said.
Tanya Burrow, 46, an El Campo team mom with four children, was unfazed by the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. Schools opened in her area without masks, so her daughter Abby is used to it. No one in the family is vaccinated, and they don’t regularly use masks. She gave Abby, 13, a choice as to whether to wear a mask while she is playing, and the girl said no.
“I get to play volleyball, and we don’t have to wear masks like last year,” Abby chimed in. “That was treacherous.”
Kamryn’s mom, Keshia Hardway, an administrative assistant for a home health company, is one of only a few parents interviewed who said they arevaccinated. She said it was required for her job, but she has no plans to vaccinate her two oldest children, Kamryn, 12, and an 11-year-old son. She’s still trying to decide about her 7-year-old daughter, who has allergies and may be at greater risk for complications.
She’s also worried about long-term effects since the vaccines have not been around very long. The most concerning issue reported has been the exceedingly rare cases of myocarditis, a kind of heart inflammation. The CDC has said the cases were mostly mild and largely affected male teenagers and young men. In the case of her two girls, Hardway worries more about fertility. She knows the information circulated early on about vaccines affecting fertility was false, and that millions of vaccinated women have gotten pregnant and given birth. A study this month funded by the National Institutes of Health showed no evidence that vaccines make it harder to conceive.
Yet Hardway remains hesitant. “I feel like we’re all going to get it,” she says of coronavirus infections. “It doesn’t matter what precautions we take. … People are weighing freedom versus what’s probably going to be mild symptoms. Is it worth it?”
The 2.1 square miles around Texas Children’s Hospital, known as a “super neighborhood” with 60 hospitals, medical schools and related businesses, feels like a different world from that of the nearby volleyball tournament. The streets here are filled with masked people trying to keep socially distant as they rush to and from appointments, surgeries and labs that are at the center of the fight against the coronavirus.
After more than 30 years in medicine, Lara Shekerdemian, chief of critical care at Texas Children’s, is no stranger to tragedy. But what has frustrated her lately is to “see a child suffering that would not need intensive care, had the clock been turned back” and the child been vaccinated. Earlier this month, the number of children with covid being cared for at the hospital hit a record of more than 85 in one day. The previous high during the delta wave in the summer was 65.
“We didn’t think this is what 2022 was going to be like for us. We thought it was going to be a new day, a new year. … And, of course, it’s not very different,” Shekerdemian said. “We’re kind of disheartened.”
Nicole Leathers, an intensive care nurse, said that during the pandemic’s early days, they had a lot of staff and few pediatric patients. Now they are inundated with sick children and are short-staffed as a result of burnout and colleagues leaving the industry or out sick with covid. She said it has been jolting to see so many young children, especially those younger than 5 who are not yet eligible for vaccines, coming into the hospital lately.
She described her anguish after she and her team performed CPR on a childwith covid. The doctors and nurses were in full protective gear, which made it hot and difficult to see and hear. On top of worrying about the child, her heart was breaking for the family member next to them who was terrified but unable to leave the room because of infection precautions. They got the child stabilized, but she remembers “walking out of that and wringing my shirt out as sweat dripped out, physically exhausted, emotionally exhausted, and thinking, ‘This would have been hard without a pandemic. It’s just now 10 times harder.’
“We’re just really kind of getting to this point of max exhaustion and grief and, you know, pulling up our bootstraps to see how can we just keep going,” she said.
Chris Crouch, 38, has been on both sides of the pandemic’s split reality. Until his pregnant wife found herself in intensive care battling covid, he had been adamantly anti-vaccine and only wore a mask when required. Now, after nearly losing her, he is angry about people who not only refuse to wear masks themselves but also mock others for doing so.
“We don’t know their reason on why they’re socially distancing or why they’re wearing a mask. So don’t judge them,” he said. “Just accept it and just respect it, because you don’t know what they’ve gone through or what their family members are going through.”
Kimberly Garcia Hernandez, 13, and her family have also suffered from the world opening up around them.
The seventh-grader is vaccinated but has an autoimmune condition that means the shots probably don’t spur her body to develop a full immune response — if any at all. She had come to the hospital Jan. 4 with diarrhea and tested positive for the coronavirus, andher condition spiraled downward from there. She had a colon infection. Her kidneys started to fail, so she was put on dialysis. Then she developed life-threatening clots. Doctors said it was difficult to tell what was caused by covid and what was caused by her immune condition, but the combination was terrifying.
Ten days after she came to the hospital, Kimberly was conscious and her condition more stable, but she remained in intensive care because her blood pressure was sky-high. Besides her severe illness, her mother said Kimberly has become hopeless and depressed in the hospital, although she had always been a “happy, cheerful girl,” singing and dancing and joking that her favorite subject in school is “boys.”
“There are days when she doesn’t want anything anymore, she doesn’t talk to anyone, she doesn’t say anything,” Gabriela Hernandez said.
The worst part, her mother said, is that both of them are in strict isolation, unable to leave the hospital room at all because of the risk of spreading the virus, despite having done everything right — masking, using antibacterial gel and being fully vaccinated. Gabriela is presumed to have the coronavirus because of her close contact with her daughter. It feels like “a prison,” she said.
Her family had taken the virus seriously, she said, but it wasn’t until her daughter was hospitalized that she came to understand the far-reaching complications of covid-19: ″I didn’t really know the ravages it caused. … I thought it was just a flu.”
The isolation, on top of her daughter’s frightening condition, has been at times unbearable.
“That is a very ugly thing people should know, that it causes fear when you already have it,” she said. Everyone who comes into the room, from the doctors and nurses to the cleaning staff, “becomes an astronaut” with full protective gear.
“I see them and I say, ‘Wow, can I be so scary for having covid?’”
Drea Cornejo, Jacqueline Dupree and Emily Guskin contributed to this report. Dupree and Guskin reported from Washington.
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