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With or without COVID vaccines, risk perception is highly personal

By Helena Oliviero, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Troy Warren #picks-all

They greeted each other with the pandemic’s new handshake, slightly awkward elbow bumps, before sitting down to lunch and excitedly rattling off their immediate and long-range plans, now that all eight have been vaccinated.

There were new restaurants to try, vacations in the offing, upcoming visits with grandkids that could now take place without masks or social distancing.

“I think I am going to cry,” said 87-year-old Alan Swersky. “When this pandemic started, I didn’t know if we would ever see our friends again.”

For Swersky and his wife, Lennie, the decision to join close friends for lunch at the St. Regis Atlanta hotel, after a year of isolation, wasn’t a hard one. And he’s looking forward to the weekly poker game starting up again in his Alpharetta neighborhood.

But the retired pharmacist can’t imagine walking into a store without a mask or attending an Atlanta Braves game. To him, it’s just not worth the risk as he tries to resume as normal a life as possible while acknowledging that his age makes him vulnerable to the worst effects of the coronavirus.

All over Georgia, similar calculations are going on, and not just for the elderly.

While experts say vaccines have worked remarkably well so far, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that fully vaccinated people can shed their masks in most situations, there are still concerns. Many worry about emerging variants, how long immunity lasts and whether a vaccinated person can carry the virus asymptomatically and spread it to others. About a third of all Georgians are fully vaccinated, and half of the state’s adults have received a least one dose.

Throughout the pandemic and now, risk perception is highly personal.

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey found growing confidence among respondents that normalcy is returning, with a slight majority saying they would feel safe going out to eat or traveling by air. About half said they now feel safe going to large sporting events. There was an even split between those who were concerned about another surge of COVID-19 cases and those who were not.

Barbara Rothbaum, a psychiatry professor at Emory School of Medicine, said people have been forced to alter their lives dramatically during the pandemic and are in another period of adjustment. “We have to figure out what is an acceptable level of risk.”

Even among the couples lunching at St. Regis, comfort levels on resuming some activities varied. Dr. Paul Levietes — who accepted a hug instead of an elbow bump from his good friend Alan Swersky — said he would be OK with double masking and getting on a plane to see his children and grandchildren. His wife, Marilyn, a cancer survivor, would not be. She worries that they would encounter people on planes not wearing masks, or not wearing them properly. So, for now, the couple will stay put.

“What my wife says goes,” said Levietes.


 

For Swersky, the vaccination opened up the world again after months of staying at home and limiting visits to his open garage. The coronavirus might have posed a mortal threat but it also stole precious time, he said.

“Younger people, hopefully, have many years left,” he said, “but a year of our life staying home could be a third or half of our existence left.”

He was bursting with enthusiasm as he talked about his poker night resuming this month when everyone in the group is fully vaccinated.

“I can’t believe how much I can’t wait for this card game,” said Swersky. “One of the players said it was like Christmas in May. That’s a good way of describing it.”


 

‘Baby steps’ toward normalcy

In releasing new guidance on masks Thursday, the CDC said fully vaccinated people only need to wear masks in a handful of settings, such as in a hospital or while traveling on a train, plane or bus. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky pointed to several recent studies that show vaccines are more than 90% effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths. The vaccines work even against the variants that are circulating in the U.S., she emphasized.

The effectiveness of the vaccines should allow Americans to return to many of their pre-pandemic activities, but some feel anxious about doing so, said Dr. Jay Varkey, associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. It’s important to recognize that people have different risk tolerance levels, he said.

This could be something that the public will have to grapple with for a very long time. Many experts believe the country may not reach herd immunity for years, maybe not ever. But, even if the virus will be here for a while, it will hopefully become a more manageable and controllable threat, they say.

Rothbaum said people will need to make risk-benefit calculations. Take, for example, driving in Atlanta, she said. Most people don’t evaluate the risk of driving before getting into a car to drive from Point A to Point B because that is now a well-established, acceptable level of risk.

And staying home during the pandemic, isolated, is not risk-free either. Look at online school, she said. Keeping children at home — away from their friends, teachers and activities — may prevent children from getting COVID-19, but it can also harm them, leading to loneliness, depression and academic challenges.

For people looking to resume many of their normal activities, Varkey recommends “baby steps.” Start maybe with an outdoor cookout as opposed to “going to do Karaoke with 100 people,” he said.

Varkey has felt comfortable getting his hair cut throughout the pandemic. “I know my stylist well, and we have had honest conversations. I knew she was being diligent about mask wearing, and we are both vaccinated now.”

But, when it comes to going to large sporting events, he would err on the side of caution. The last time he attended an Atlanta United game, before that team and the Atlanta Braves returned to full capacity, he went with two vaccinated friends. He wore a mask the entire time, except when the three found a spot where they could socially distance and each drink a beer.

Now that there will be more people at the games, he wouldn’t rule out going. But, he said, he would keep the mask on the entire time and skip the beer.

Masking up isn’t just a way of protecting himself. He’s worried about others who are not vaccinated. It may be possible for people who are immunized to unwittingly spread the virus, he said.

“If enough people get vaccinated, they will be able to resume many normal activities safely,” he said. The trend line is encouraging, he said.

‘I have hope’


 

Elisheva Wimberly, a senior at Georgia State University, said she’s not comfortable getting vaccinated right now but didn’t rule it out at some point in the future. The 22-year-old said she follows the daily tally of infections closely and adjusts her behavior accordingly. She’ll continue wearing masks and avoiding packed music venues and other places she thinks are not safe.

“A lot of people my age think they are invincible,” said Wimberly, who lives in Atlanta. “I wouldn’t say I feel invincible, but I am a college student who wants to explore the world around her and that includes travel and partying and meeting people.”

In Smyrna, Cheryl Thompson Williams still wears a mask every time she leaves her home, even when walking outside, just in case she comes across a large group of people.

Her church, Zion Hill Baptist, continues to hold church services virtually, and she also participates in weekly online Bible study.

But she is getting out more, now that she’s vaccinated. The 74-year-old recently went shopping for clothes for the first time since the pandemic started. And she recently met friends at a restaurant.


 

“I pray a lot. Life is going to be different, but I have hope,” she said.

Not long ago, Smyrna lifted its mask mandate. On the social media app Nextdoor, Williams solicited opinions on the move. She got more than 200 responses that illustrated the wide-ranging perspectives about the pandemic and whether masks and social distancing is still — or ever was — needed.

Williams, who was sick with COVID-19 in July, thinks it’s too early to put away the masks. Others, like Bill Vardoulis, a 57-year-old software engineer, welcomed the news.

In day-to-day decisions, Vardoulis said, “I tried not to let (COVID) affect my life too much.”


 

He and his wife had not planned to get vaccinated, but they recently changed their minds. One of his wife’s favorite doctors is going through cancer treatment and said she could see only patients who were vaccinated.

Throughout the pandemic, he has dined out with his wife and traveled to the Northeast to see family and friends. He wore masks as required.

“It wasn’t like I was reckless, going to a club with 100 people. I wasn’t looking for (COVID),” he said. But he also wasn’t overly concerned.

“Just because you have COVID, it doesn’t mean you are going to die,” Vardoulis said. “I understand some people get very sick with COVID. But, in reality, a very small percentage of people die. … I didn’t want to tempt fate, but I refused to sit and cower in the corner.”

No longer nervous

Kim Verska is the managing partner of the Atlanta office of Culhane Meadows, a virtual law firm.

She’s spent much of the past year socializing within a small pod of people. But she and her family forged ahead with a Disney World trip in late December. She said she was “pretty nervous” but found the amusement park’s safety measures reassuring.

Now that she’s vaccinated, she’s no longer nervous. She hosted an 80th birthday party for her mother, making sure all of the guests were vaccinated. An infant child too young to get vaccinated was the only exception.


 

Verska feels a sense of freedom. “I can’t think of anything I would want to do that we are not doing,” she said.

At the same time, she has a new sense of appreciation for even routine outings, like running errands.

“I had a business lunch at Panera, and it was awesome. Would you ever think you would be so happy for a business lunch at Panera?” she said. “It felt amazing to feel normal, to have a sandwich with an old friend.”