The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before the pandemic, we’d dismiss a scratchy throat. Now, the sniffles can derail plans.

The endless brain game of assessing infection risks to ourselves and others could be here to stay. (iStock)

Maris Jahnke knows why she often wakes up with a sore throat and some postnasal drip. The air in her South Minneapolis apartment is dry, and she’s slightly allergic to her three cats. But after more than a year of pandemic life, Jahnke’s brain is quick to suggest the possibility of a much more concerning cause for her mild symptoms: “My first thought is, ‘Oh my God, what have I been exposed to? Is this covid?’ ”

Then reason kicks in. She hasn’t gone anywhere in days. She’s fully vaccinated. There’s “no possible way” she’s infected with the coronavirus.

“It’s ridiculous, you know better,” Jahnke, 32, a veterinarian with a background in public health and epidemiology, tells herself. “But also, that’s the default now,” she says.

Jahnke isn’t alone. For many people, the past 20 months have been a crash-course in epidemiology, prompting frequent mental gymnastics at the first sign of symptoms: Is it allergies, or is it covid-19? Is it a tension headache, or is it covid? Is it fatigue, or is it covid?

The coronavirus pandemic has created a greater awareness of the responsibility to care about the health of a co-worker in the next cubicle, a stranger at the bar, or your great-uncle at the end of the holiday table. That awareness has given rise to another pandemic social trend: the often unprompted — and sometimes uncomfortable — need to overanalyze and disclose every runny nose, sore throat or mild body ache coupled with the question: Am I putting myself or others at risk?

“The significance of every choice and every action is just exponential now, and that makes decisions harder than they were before,” Jahnke says.

Anxiety and worry about keeping yourself and others safe can be a weighty burden, says Carolyn Cannuscio, a social epidemiologist and director of research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Public Health Initiatives. Many people may be erring on the side of caution because they want to avoid feeling what Cannuscio calls “anticipatory regret,” or the idea that if you were to cause harm to another person (such as infect them with the coronavirus), you would feel terrible.

So, she says, the question becomes, “What can I do to diffuse that anticipatory regret? And one of the things I can do is to try to share every possible way in which I may be silently carrying SARS-CoV-2.”

One might argue this level of transparency sounds like overthinking or oversharing, or that it seems performative and self-serving. (Plus, who wants to dampen the mood with conversation about symptoms and possible exposures ahead of a fun night out?) But if done with the right motivations and intentions, some people say it’s a piece of pandemic-era etiquette that should remain.

“I think of sharing or disclosing health information as part of the social contract now,” says Cannuscio. “It’s one of the few tools we can use to try to protect one another.”

But talking through risks, whether it’s in your head or in conversations with others, can sometimes create moral and social dilemmas.

Ahead of many social situations, Jahnke turns to a mental “algorithm” she’s developed. “Do I go and potentially infect people or myself? Do I not go and let my friends down and indicate to them, however subconsciously, that my safety is more important than their birthday or spending time with someone I care about?”

Rioghnach Ní Ghrioghair doesn’t like to disappoint others, either.

“[It’s] the fear of social embarrassment — I feel really bad if I have to cancel on people,” says Ní Ghrioghair, 34, a screenwriter and filmmaker based in Berlin. “It’s this tug of war between doing the right thing to get tested and not letting anybody down.”

Bailing can be awkward. If you say too little, you might come off as insensitive. If you say too much, you might seem like you’re overcompensating to cover up a white lie — Ní Ghrioghair acknowledges that “covid is a really handy get-out-of-jail-free-card.”

“If there are circumstances in which you wanted to meet someone, but your heart wasn’t in it or you were tired or you had stuff to do, faking a headache and saying, ‘Oh better get a test’ to get out of a coffee is kind of handy — not that I would do it," she says. “But I think it’s definitely a new socially accepted way to cancel that we didn’t have before.”

As the pandemic has progressed, it feels better, Ní Ghrioghair says, being safe than sorry. That mind-set led her to cancel dinner and drinks with a friend earlier this month when she came down with cold-like symptoms days after returning from a trip. Despite testing negative for the coronavirus and wanting to see her friend, Ní Ghrioghair says she ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

“I felt really, really bad in terms of canceling because there was a lot that we had to talk about that really couldn’t be talked over on the phone,” she says. Explaining why she shouldn’t go to dinner — through a voice note, a text and a call with her friend — was “super awkward and super uncomfortable.”

“I know it was the right thing, but that’s just a new feeling that you have to get used to if you do want to listen to those symptoms and be absolutely sure that you don’t carry any infection into the public,” Ní Ghrioghair says.

Worry and guilt go hand-in-hand with many of the uncertainties brought on by the pandemic. To help assuage fears and accurately assess potential risks, “the best thing to do is always have as transparent a conversation as possible, especially leading up to the holidays,” Cannuscio says. “We have to stay in touch with one another and share these symptoms — even if they might derail plans.”

A lingering stuffy nose recently kept Charles Fischer home from what would have been a night of drinks with friends and watching "RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.” In the past, Fischer, 40, who lives in Miami Beach, Fla., wouldn’t have given his mild cold symptoms a second thought. But even after a negative coronavirus test result and the evening’s host insisting that he was welcome, a still-congested Fischer pumped the brakes. Yes, he was covid-free, but he still wasn’t germ-free.

“It went from the immediate relief of, ‘Okay, I don’t have covid, we can hang out,’ to ‘You know, I still actually do have something. I shouldn’t come over,’ ” Fischer says. So he stayed in and watched the episode at home.

“I would never have done that before” the pandemic, he says, noting that he previously pushed through days in the office while sick. Even though he knows a cold probably won’t “kill someone,” he says he now realizes he doesn’t want to be responsible for spreading any germs to anyone.

“It just feels like the wrong thing to do,” he says.

Even if the threat of the coronavirus diminishes someday, Fischer and others say they’re unlikely to make a full return to their carefree, pre-pandemic ways.

“I don't know how to break that cycle of anxiety,” says Jahnke. “That hyper-vigilance is maybe a sequela of trauma, and I know that's an extreme way to put it, but I think we've got this collective trauma of a very scary, deadly disease rapidly moving through this country.”

“Even when the wave of covid is gone, what remains in the rubble of what we’ve gone through is — what now?”