It has been more than three years since the novel coronavirus upended the world, and although evolving variants make it difficult to fully predict what’s to come, it’s safe to say the virus is overall not as deadly and dangerous as it was in 2020.
In other words, we are learning to live with COVID-19.
Part of that adaptation includes understanding that, similar to other respiratory diseases, COVID-19 is likely to become more prevalent in the fall and winter months. Colder, drier environments allow these viruses, including influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), to thrive. And with more people spending time indoors, transmission becomes easier.
The convergence of COVID-19, flu and RSV spiking during the winter was dubbed a “tripledemic” last year, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this year could bring similar challenges.
The chance of an emergent COVID-19 variant; uncertainty surrounding vaccine level uptake, particularly for the RSV vaccine in older adults and infants; and not knowing which influenza viruses will dominate—which affects the efficacy of this year’s flu vaccine—are all disease-specific factors that could impact illness spread and hospitalization rates, according to the CDC.
This prediction combined with the fact that COVID-19 cases have slowly been on the rise in South Jersey has left local residents with mixed feelings. Some are still approaching the novel coronavirus with caution, whereas others have thrown that caution to the wind.
“It’s no longer just this scary thing that we have pretty much no data on. That was the panic in the beginning … that for some people it’s a death sentence and others are totally fine,” Alison Dunlap of Cherry Hill says. “Now that we know more and how long the virus lasts, it just gives us a better sense of control over our environment.
“I’m just glad that things are sort of back to normal.”
It’s all in the numbers
Many South Jerseyans we spoke with agree that the amount of COVID-19 cases will influence what precautions, if any, they decide to take.
“The numbers would direct my reaction. If all of a sudden they started to go up significantly, I would think, yeah, stay away from the super spreaders,” Frank Vasile says. “But I’d have to see that happen.”
The Mount Laurel resident finds comfort in being vaccinated—he’s gotten his flu shot and plans to get another COVID-19 booster and the RSV vaccine this season, too. He also has confidence in masking.
“The precautions that I took during COVID’s heyday worked for me. I didn’t get sick through the entire thing,” Vasile says. “I was sick last Christmas, but it was after my third booster and it was mild.”
With masking, Vasile was even able to avoid the common cold for more than two years.
“It’s here to stay,” he says of COVID. “We just have to be able to control it ourselves, control the transmissions. … What do they say? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Debra Loggia, of Marlton, agrees that the number of cases would impact her decision-making.
“I’m one of those people that relies on the data and I trust the data,” she says.
As a realtor, Loggia’s career regularly puts her in contact with the public. If COVID-19 cases continue to increase, she would consider wearing a mask in certain crowded situations and on airplanes—but she wouldn’t avoid gatherings or doing her job.
Haddonfield Mayor Colleen Bianco Bezich does not anticipate avoiding large indoor gatherings or get-togethers with friends this season, although if COVID-19 cases continue to increase, that could change.
“At this time, I am not worried at all. However, if cases rise, I would likely mask and avoid close contact, like handshakes and hugs, before deciding to avoid [events] altogether,” Bianco Bezich says. “And, of course, timing matters. The closer we are to holidays when seeing family and friends is the priority, the more cautious I will be about bigger crowds.”
Common sense prevails
In 2020, many families skipped large holiday gatherings hoping to curb COVID-19 transmission and keep their loved ones safe. As the years have gone on and COVID restrictions have eased, this precaution has fallen out of favor.
“I think we’re all pretty understanding that if we’re sick, we wouldn’t be meeting up or joining in,” Marlton’s Joe Chun says. “I think we’re comfortable with that.”
When Jennifer Harry gets together with family for the holidays, celebrations easily top more than 50 people. These festivities were canceled in 2020, but they’ve worked to be together since.
“Every year there’s been a decent amount of people missing due to illness,” Harry, of Cherry Hill, says. “We leave it up to family. We ask if you’re exposed or sick [that] you don’t come.”
For others, such as Joe Adams, it’s not worthwhile—or necessary—to let a sore throat or spate of sneezing impact the holidays.
“It comes down to making smart decisions,” the Berlin resident says. “Not every cold or cough is a reason you need to stay home. … We’ll be celebrating the holidays as we always did and making sure we’re all together because that’s what’s important.”
Adams works in the food service industry, arguably one of the hardest-hit sectors in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. He felt the 2020 mandates and reactions were “a little bit too severe,” and that restaurants shouldn’t have been shut down.
“To me, sense and logic need to be the driving factor in most decisions, and I didn’t see a lot of that,” Adams explains. “People need to be aware that in social settings, there’s an opportunity [for infection]. I also think with the immunity that Mother Nature provides, we’re in a much better spot than several years ago.”
At this point, there aren’t too many extra precautions Bianco Bezich plans to take when it comes to COVID-19. In order to better protect family members with comorbidities and vulnerable immune systems, she anticipates anyone who is eligible for and can safely receive a COVID-19 booster will do so.
“I may mask in large crowds or avoid some functions altogether in the lead-up to the holidays if there is a higher likelihood of COVID,” Bianco Bezich explains. “But generally, practicing good hand hygiene and staying home when feeling sick will remain my go-to.”
Hand washing is paramount in Justine Collins’ Washington Township home, too. As someone who works in the township’s school system with a preteen and teenager at home, Collins always tries to ensure her family is careful with washing hands, covering sneezes and coughs, and practicing good hygiene during the winter months—not just because of COVID-19.
“As far as the regular precautions that you would normally take in the wintertime, that’s all we’re looking at right now,” she says.
This will be the first fall and winter since 2020 where Collins and her family members are not especially worried about COVID-19. Having already had the virus and knowing current variants are not as severe as earlier in the pandemic creates a sense of security.
“You’ve got to do your best for you and your family,” Collins says. “For me and my family, let’s just take things as they come and try to stay healthy.”
Nobody wants to get sick with COVID-19, Collins says, but she acknowledges it could happen anywhere, not just at busier venues.
“You can’t live your life afraid to be participating in society,” she says.
Building up immunity
A lot of locals have already dealt with another round—or, for the more fortunate ones, their first round—of COVID-19 in recent weeks. For many who have, the experience has made them more confident going into the coming cold-weather seasons.
Washington Township residents Julia Marrone and Rose Atkinson work together in a local school system, and both recently came down with COVID-19. Per school policy, they missed a few days of work, but then it was back to business as usual.
“I think, for me, now that I have had it, I’m hoping I’m at least good for six months, which would take me to March,” Atkinson optimistically says.
Marrone was surprised to test positive, and the experience has made her reconsider getting a COVID-19 booster.
“I may go get the shot,” she says. “I really didn’t want to, but after the immunity period, I might.”
Like Marrone, there are a lot of local residents who don’t initially anticipate getting the latest COVID-19 booster. But the vaccine brings peace of mind to those who have gotten it—or plan to.
“I’ll definitely be getting the flu vaccine and I’ll be making an appointment to get the [updated] COVID vaccine,” Sue Anolik, of Mount Laurel, says. “I’ve taken every COVID vaccine there is.”
Voorhees resident Jeana Hoffman is getting vaccinated, too, in addition to returning to masking as the season gets underway.
“I plan to get the COVID booster in the upcoming weeks and will most likely start masking up again during the winter months when I’m in an indoor crowded area or on public transportation,” she says. “I have ordered the extra COVID tests being given out via the government and plan to take them before attending high-risk events.”
Hoffman says COVID-19—or any other respiratory illness—will not necessarily dissuade her from attending events. She understands the risks.
“I will always be more vigilant than I was before the pandemic, but I still plan on attending events, unless I am not feeling well or I know I will be seeing high-risk individuals immediately after,” she says.
Chun and his family, at this point, are not masking. But that’s not to say it’s out of the question.
“I probably should be extra cautious, but I’m not,” Chun says. “I would consider masking if cases are on the rise, if there’s more concern on the news.”
Meanwhile, Becky McGowan is confident in protection the vaccine provides her and her family.
“We’re all vaccinated, so we’re just going to go with the flow,” the Moorestown resident says. “I actually give my kids the choice whether or not they want to wear masks at this point. … Sometimes they want to wear them, but sometimes they don’t. Unless there’s a mandate, I’ll let them choose.”
Mindful of others
Protecting family and friends is a driving factor behind COVID-19 precautions for many people, especially when there are young children or senior citizens in the picture. For instance, with a new grandchild on the way, Anolik anticipates being extra cautious when it comes to illness transmission over the coming months.
“I’m probably going to be a little more careful because I don’t want to transmit anything to the baby,” she says.
If cases go up, Anolik isn’t ruling out returning to masking up to stay healthy.
“I have been very lax about wearing masks the last couple months. I wore them consistently for two years, and I think I’m just kind of over it. I just want to live a normal life,” she admits.
When Atkinson contracted COVID-19, she had spent time with her 6-month-old grandson just days beforehand. He didn’t end up being infected, but the situation brought about some anxiety.
“I want to say I’m a pretty healthy person, and I think, ‘I will be OK if I get it,’” she says. “But I think about other people.”
McGowan says she doesn’t foresee changing any of her upcoming plans unless someone is sick, but she says she also will be more mindful when it comes to her parents due to their age.
“They’ve both had it and they [have been] vaccinated,” she says, “but I would definitely be more careful around my parents.”
Back to (a new) normal
When it comes to COVID-19, an overarching theme among locals is that it’s time to accept the fact that the virus is here to stay. It’s time to shelf the fear and get back to normal—or at least a new normal.
“This is a departure from how I was when COVID first started, but I’m trusting people to let me know if they have any symptoms or if they’ve tested positive,” Dunlap says. “I don’t know if I’ll be actively asking people if they’ve tested. I don’t anticipate micro-managing.
“We already all [had COVID-19] at some point. We’re also up-to-date on vaccines and all that,” she continues. “At this point, it’s like, what else can you do?”
Despite recently contracting the disease, Marrone is ready to move on from the fear of the novel coronavirus, too. Fortunately, her case was mild—as it is for many at this point in time—which makes it easier to face.
“I’m just going to roll with it,” Marrone says. “After those two years [early in the pandemic], you’ve got to live.”
Bianco Bezich says COVID-19 won’t change her holiday plans, but football might.
“The only thing that stands to alter our holidays as of now is the Eagles game day schedule,” she says. “Because my husband and I both work on game days, the home games on Christmas and New Year’s Eve mean we are shifting our traditional celebrations with family and friends a bit.
“I’m hoping COVID has no impact at all this year and everyone is healthy!”
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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 20, Issue 7 (October 2023)