In the 22 months that COVID has had the U.S. under siege, it's been a rollercoaster ride of societal phases — from full-on shock and terror and traumatic grief to a bit of blessed relief (remember "hot vax summer"?) to more stunned fear (thanks, Delta) followed by an autumnal ray of light.
Now, as Omicron grips the nation with more than 500,000 new cases a day and schools, businesses and events grapple with whether or not to shut down or carry on, people are finding themselves in yet another distinct chapter — one marked by numbness, conflicting-info fatigue and confusion.
A tweet that went viral last week, from technology attorney and legal scholar Tiffany Li, seemed to say it best:
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. You need PCR. There are zero appointments in your area.
— Tiffany C. Li (@tiffanycli) January 4, 2022
"Stay indoors. But also return in person," it read. "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. You need PCR. There are zero appointments in your area."
With more than 60,000 retweets and 287,000 likes, the tweet clearly hit a nerve — something Li apologized for in a subsequent tweet:
This tweet is taking off, which, lol, sorry this is reverberating for all of you. We’re all in this together, I guess. Even the antivaxxers, whether they believe it or not!
— Tiffany C. Li (@tiffanycli) January 4, 2022
Others took the opportunity to riff on Li's snapshot summation:
And educate your kids, keep them off screens, get them tested, while working full time. Even if your schools/daycare shut or are not safe. And also prepare to teach your courses in-person & online because who knows? And don't forget to make time for self-care! It's all impossible
— Dr. Rachel Shelton (@DrRachelShelton) January 4, 2022
And if you find the proper test, & you are positive, stay home 10 days if you have symptoms, but also go back to work after 5 days, depending on the severity of disease. What? No Drs available to tell you how severe. Well, just do whatever.
— marsha stewart (@okieandokwit) January 4, 2022
Suddenly no one trusts the CDC, the same people who saved our lives last year. Their info isn’t wrong, science changes every second. Yes, supplies are impossible to find. Remember when we used to re-wear the same mask for a month?
— Michael (@NiinjaSlayer_) January 9, 2022
"The guidance is constantly shifting," Li, an assistant professor of law at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, told NBC Boston following her tweet, which brought her an avalanche of new followers and career opportunities. "There's been so much confusion and just exhaustion, this pandemic has been going on for so long, I think at this point we're all just looking for an end."
Li tells Yahoo Life, "I was surprised the tweet went this viral but not surprised others are feeling the same confusion and exhaustion. At least we can all laugh about it a little!”
But Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is always in flux due to the very nature of science, has still brought folks to a new level of confusion, some say, pointing to advice like this: "Stay home for 5 days. If you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving after 5 days, you can leave your house. Continue to wear a mask around others for 5 additional days."
How people are reacting to an overload of mixed-messaging — and systemic challenges
If you find that the mere shifting and conflicting information is what's leaving you exhausted and a bit paralyzed, that's not surprising, according to a recent study out of Rutgers University and published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, examining how contradictory health information impacts responses.
"I think the takeaway is generally that exposure to conflicting information takes more energy to process," lead study author and Rutgers psychology grad student Patrick Barnwell tells Yahoo Life. He notes that cognitive dissonance — the state of having inconsistent thoughts or beliefs — is part of what's so taxing right now.
The changing rules for isolating people who have COVID-19 left school administrators navigating in the dark Thursday night as they announced that students can return to class while still sick. https://t.co/leWy03YWkG
— Times Union (@timesunion) January 8, 2022
"We're balancing these two things, like, 'I want to be healthy, but I also want to go out,' and that leads to this kind of unhappiness … and anxiety,” he says. And with constant exposure to this conflict, "People hit a threshold of concern, a point of fatigue … and eventually come up with an answer and just go with it." Adding to the upset right now is the idea of having to go backward, he says, noting, "It's hard for people to go back to something they've stopped doing – mask wearing, for example. It's complicated for people, mentally, to come up with a rule and then change the rule."
According to Auburn University professor emeritus of sociology L. Allen Furr, "The mixed-message problem has been with us for quite a while," starting with when people seized upon Dr. Anthony Fauci's early shift on masking and then moving into even more incendiary messages on everything from "drinking Lysol to taking medicine meant for deworming large animals," he says. As far as where we're at now? "I would probably call it 'contradiction fatigue,'" he adds.
The CDC has updated its isolation guidance. They still don't recommend a rapid test after 5 days, but say if you take one and it's positive, isolated people should continue isolating for 5 more days. Those who leave isolation are urged not to fly on planes or eat in restaurants.
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) January 4, 2022
That contradictory messaging, Furr explains, leads us "to become more frustrated and more angry and maybe even more depressed, because we really rely on health experts, and when we feel we can't trust those experts — for whatever reason, right or wrong — it makes us feel out of control … and vulnerable."
Sandy Silverman, a New York City–based therapist, has noticed much of her client base entering a new phase with this latest surge. "What I am seeing in this past week or two is a lot of exhaustion, flatness and resignation," along with "less fear and less anxiety," she tells Yahoo Life. "I would also say that, generally speaking, the work is more intense. I've talked with colleagues who feel this too: People are really struggling … that's been true throughout COVID, but in different ways at different times," especially for those with histories of trauma — particularly if that involved "being stuck in a house that was violent or abusive or unpredictable."
People feel "worn down," Silverman says, "and I do think that it's harder because it seemed to be getting closer to what things were pre-COVID, and now we are back again." Not to mention, she adds, that "waiting on line for tests around the holidays had a lot of people pissed off," especially since more affluent people could pay and avoid the wait. "So there is, of course, a class difference happening."
Still, regarding Li's viral tweet and a search for meaning about where we're at, social psychologist Carol Tavris, who cowrote a piece in the Atlantic examining the role of cognitive dissonance in a pandemic, warns not to look into it too deeply, as it's just "plain old human humor in the face of adversity, uncertainty, frustration and complication," she says.
"Of course, we are all exhausted by the conflicting information: Some important (the very nature of science is to keep working to improve guidelines and understanding in the face of a rapidly changing disease); some from ignorant, conspiracy-mongering politicized bubbles that conflict with mainstream advice," Tavris tells Yahoo Life.
"Humans are not good at living with uncertainty, period. We want clear guidelines," she explains. "In the face of a deeply divided nation, clarity and uniformity in agreement in how to behave socially are harder to achieve. Laughing at absurdity helps, as long as we then get vaccinated and wear a damn mask."
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