Anne Helen Petersen is the author of three books, most recently "Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation," and writes the newsletter Culture Study.
August 6, 2021 at 2:25 p.m. EDT
Back in May, something spectacular happened. My extended friend group — whose socializing, like so much of the world’s, had been limited to fleeting, outdoor meetups for more than a year — spent the weekend together. Two of us were turning 40, and the last of the friends to get vaccinated would be two weeks out from her second shot when we met. Partners and parents took the kids, and we just sat around and reveled in our proximity to one another.
There was no talk of who got tested and where, whether it was okay to use the bathroom indoors, or the local test positivity rate. We were fully vaccinated, and that was all that mattered.
Or at least, it was then.
The delta variant has changed that calculus. Breakthrough cases are still incredibly rare, but the fact that vaccinated, infected people can transmit the disease has forced us once more to reconsider behaviors, like that birthday weekend, that previously felt safe. And at the moment, we’re particularly poorly suited to deal with the nuance demanded by those new calculations. For the vaccinated, it’s not that we don’t want to care about and protect one another. It’s that we’re exhausted from the year and a half of fear and anxiety and unknowns that came before.
For most of that May weekend, I felt like I was floating: I had been longing for intimacy and a respite from covid anxiety for so long that its absence felt unreal. My relief was a result of being with other people, but more specifically, it came from being with other people and thinking and talking about things that had nothing to do with the pandemic.
Part of that relief disappeared the second we got back in our cars to go home: Some of us had family and friends all over the world who weren’t vaccinated yet. Some had to figure out how and when they felt comfortable with their kids being with kids from other households. Others were still pleading with and persuading loved ones to get the vaccine — even breaking up over it — or paying close attention, as my extended family has, to its efficacy for the immunosuppressed.
But overall, for a blissful few weeks, confusion and unease were in notable decline in the United States. The emails I’d signed up to receive from officials here in Montana, informing me of coronavirus cases county by county, went from daily to weekly. The local mask mandate was lifted, and the Saturday farmers markets — a locus of the community in summer — transformed into a sea of familiar faces. I bought tickets to an (outdoor) concert! I flew (just for an hour, but still) on a plane. I RSVP’d for weddings. I made plans, lots of them.
My various group texts, including the ones with the women who’d come together for that weekend in May, went largely dormant. There was far less need to text, after all, when we were actually hanging out together. Sure, my newly vibrant social life felt exhausting, but it also felt like an ever-strengthening muscle. Maybe this week, I told myself sometime in late June, I’ll hang out with people two nights in a row and not need three full days to recover!
Hot Vaxxed Summer didn’t just mean wearing all the clothes we hadn’t had an audience for over the last year. It was a feeling of possibility. People went on dates, and drank beers inside, and didn’t worry about giving a fatal illness to their grandparents. Twitter felt incrementally less hostile: The witching hour I’d become accustomed to over the course of the pandemic — right about happy hour on the East Coast, when people were funneling their post-work fatigue into being annoyed and/or angry online — had largely disappeared. There was still real, enduring grief over the losses of the previous year. But there was also a lot of joy.
Some of that joy is, of course, still here. But the new information on the spread of the delta variant, even among vaccinated people, is discombobulating. The variant is almost behaving like a different virus, not only in the way it spreads but also in the risks that accompany it. It’s still the coronavirus, but the way we should be thinking about it — and assessing the dangers — has changed.
The problem is that most of us are incapable of processing the reality of a new pandemic. Not because we don’t understand math or have thrown caution entirely to the wind, but because our capacity to comprehend information with nuance, particularly information about health, is gone. That capacity has not yet recuperated from the total exhaustion of the pre-vaccination months. Workers are burned out at their jobs, parents are burned out at parenting, and pretty much everyone is burned out on hearing about the coronavirus.
But burnout doesn’t mean that you stop doing your job, or stop parenting or stop absorbing information about the virus. It just means you do all of those things poorly. You’re more impatient with your kids, your co-workers or your partner. Your fuse, your tolerance, your capacity to extend others the sort of grace you’d like to receive — they disappear.
Which is why it doesn’t really matter if the latest information comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a Twitter thread or a beleaguered local health official — we’re back on the same creaky merry-go-round of distrust and anxiety, of under- and overreaction. Companies are reversing or pushing back their back-in-the-office dates. A handful of cities are reissuing mask mandates. All the old debates and animus are back online, too: endless fights about masks, and vaccines, and teachers unions, HVAC systems and hygiene theater. Last week, a dormant text thread popped up from a friend wondering if and how she should push back on a long-planned meeting with colleagues. We all chimed in with advice, citing local vaccination rates, wondering if there was a way they could move it outside.
It all feels so familiar — and so horribly wearisome.
Back in March, when it became clear that the majority of the U.S. population would soon have access to the vaccine, I wrote about not being ready — at least not yet — for things to go back to “normal.” There was too much trauma, both societal and quotidian, still unprocessed. I needed more time and space, not email blasts from companies about the ragers I could start planning around summer weddings. We, at least in the United States, were still recuperating.
Trying to have these conversations again already is like trying to run a half-marathon the day after you’ve run a marathon. Our emotional strength has begun to return, but the wherewithal to do hard things with grace and determination takes far longer to truly replenish. We’re still working on how to even think about forgiving people who acted during the pandemic in ways that feel unforgivable.
You can call reactions to breakthrough delta cases knee-jerk or disproportional, but they are manifestations of a very real fear: of the disease, yes, but also of returning to that place of swirling unknown, of questioning every decision you make for yourself and your family. The issue isn’t whether there are ways to endure this next wave of the pandemic. It’s whether we can muster the reserves to make the decisions to do so.
The bookend of my summer is another 40th birthday party. It’ll be the same group as before, and we’ll be in a city with a high vaccination rate and low (current) spread. We’re already asking ourselves: Are we going to do rapid tests ahead of time? Is that enough? Should we stay outside for the entirety? Mask inside? Cancel? I’m exhausted just typing it, and I know the anticipatory text thread is going to get so complicated and annoying, and whatever we’re thinking now will probably change in the weeks and days leading up to the party.
The questions about that day, like the questions we’ll all continue to ask about how to protect ourselves and others in the months to come, are hard. Everyone’s vulnerability and risk tolerance are different. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But finding ways to keep hold of that post-vaccine intimacy and joy — that’s worth it.