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‘Winter is coming’: RI health experts warn of ‘COVID fatigue’ as seasons change

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When the coronavirus pandemic hit locally, Rhode Islanders quickly adapted to a new way of living that mostly required avoiding physical contact with one another.

But mental health experts say once it became clear that the public health emergency would last months – not weeks – people’s stress levels began to rise.

“Around here, we’re all good for a blizzard,” said Dr. Peter Oppenheimer, a clinical psychologist and director of professional affairs at the Rhode Island Psychological Association, a trade group that represents about 220 mental health providers.

“We know to hunker down and at some point, they tell us the roads are clear and we can go out and resume our lives,” he added. “But when people started to realize that this was going to go on for a long time, and the resolution might not be clear, that really took a lot of people down to a point of anxiety and stress that they weren’t feeling before.”

The initial wave of worry was alleviated to some degree once coronavirus cases and hospitalizations subsided. Colder March days gave way to warmer weather, allowing people to get outside and enjoy some social activities in lower-risk environments, since the disease spreads less efficiently outdoors.

But now as the weather begins to turn cold again, Oppenheimer, along with state leaders and public health experts, are warning of “COVID fatigue,” a newly coined term to describe the exhaustion and impatience people are feeling after more than seven months into a pandemic with no clear end in sight.

“As they say on the TV show: ‘Winter is coming,’” Oppenheimer said, referring to the HBO hit “Game of Thrones.”

“It’s going to be a long, dark, difficult winter for a lot of people to stay home and accept the isolation they have to have to be safe,” he added. “Our ability to socialize outside is going to be limited.”

National experts are sounding a similar warning. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who previously served as President Trump’s FDA commissioner, said Sunday he thinks the country is “probably in the seventh inning” of the pandemic.

“We have two or three very hard months ahead of us,” Gottlieb said during a “Face the Nation” interview on CBS. “I think this is probably going to be the hardest phase of this pandemic.”

“The good news is that we have a lot of medical treatments and better medical care so we’re going to do a better job of preserving life,” Gottlieb continued. “The bad news is I think we’re going to end up infecting a lot more people. And so we need to get through these next two to three months and we’ve made it this far. I know people are exhausted, but we’re in this about eight, nine months now, and we have a short period of time to go.”

Beyond taking a new toll on people’s mental health, state leaders believe COVID fatigue has also contributed to a recent surge of cases and hospitalizations in Rhode Island. While Gov. Gina Raimondo and her top health officials say Rhode Islanders are generally good about wearing masks and keeping distance from one another, they also say residents are quick to remove their masks when around close friends and people they know well outside of their immediate families.

“We’re all kind of tired of it; this concept of COVID fatigue is real,” Raimondo said Monday during a Facebook Live with the state’s medical director, Dr. James McDonald. “The problem with this virus is that when you let your guard down, it comes roaring back.”

Cases have been trending upward since the beginning of September in Rhode Island. topping 300 last Wednesday for the first time since the spring lockdown. And while total testing has also grown — which some argue reveals more cases, not a rise in disease prevalence — a corresponding uptick in hospitalizations and positivity has public health experts concerned heading into winter.

“We’re stuck with the pandemic and we don’t get to choose when the pandemic ends,” McDonald said. “It’s one of those things that we just have to learn how to live with.”

Colder weather aside, Oppenheimer said there are other factors contributing to people’s stress levels, including the upcoming presidential election.

Oppenheimer called the onslaught of news related to COVID-19 alongside coverage of the election “a double whammy.”

“It’s making it even harder for people to cope and contend with what they need to do,” he said.

Oppenheimer pointed to an American Psychological Association survey released Tuesday, showing three in every five adult respondents said the number of concurrent issues America faces is “overwhelming them.” And nearly eight in every 10 adults said the pandemic is a “significant source of stress in their lives.”

To handle some of the stress, Oppenheimer offered a variety of steps people can take, including the following:

  • Accept that the pandemic is real and it’s something we have to live with
  • Don’t overdo it with COVIID-19 and political news
  • Focus on self-care; take breaks; practice mindfulness; find ways to have fun
  • Take steps to improve sleep (turn off electronics, if necessary)
  • Eat better and exercise (limit alcohol consumption)
  • Get a change of scenery on occasion
  • Stay in touch with important people in your life
  • Allow yourself not to be at your best: “sometimes getting by is OK”
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help
  • Follow public health guidance that’s based in science

Oppenheimer also encouraged Rhode Islanders not to pin too much hope on a vaccine being a silver bullet to the pandemic, saying, “I worry that we’re setting ourselves up for frustration.” It’s important to have hope, he added, but setting expectations too high could lead to frustration, and it’s healthier to “focus on how to live day-to-day.”

“It’ll be great to be out, see friends, go to restaurants, see our families and feel like life is resuming in a fairly normal way,” he said. “Until then, it’s about hunkering down and being at peace. This is what we have to do to get there.”  

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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