As COVID ushers in another return of winter, many Californians don’t seem to care

As COVID ushers in another return of winter, many Californians don’t seem to care

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The Bay Area was a model of cooperation in the early years of the COVID pandemic, as residents sheltered in place, lined up for vaccines and wore masks in public. Many locals watched in horror as health precautions became politicized in other parts of the country.

Yet, even in this conscientious region, vigilance has not lasted. Like
new winter COVID spike
covers the region, a large number of people are
refusal of masks
skipping the latest booster
— a vital tool for preventing serious illness as immunity from previous vaccines or infection wanes.

Since the advent of vaccines and better treatments for COVID—and the rollback of draconian government measures like mask mandates—the public’s approach to
has become
more laissez-faire.
Some call this approach
“figure it out for yourself”
the pandemic era. But individual choices still take a toll on vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and immunocompromised, some of whom are once again withdrawing from the public square.

Widespread apathy toward the latest spike is compounded by considerable confusion about how to behave at this stage of the crisis. In particular, experts say the introduction of the new bivalent vaccine booster – the first to target both the original coronavirus and the omicron family of variants – has been lukewarm. Without a strong marketing push and government resources released for distribution, many Americans are unaware of the booster’s benefits or even that it exists.

“The situation is that people are left to decide as individuals,” said Dennis Hurd, a professor of behavioral science at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “Without a lot of information, without a lot of support for some of these public health measures, we’ll see what we do now.”

To date, only 20.5% of eligible Californians have received the bivalent vaccine, leaving the majority more vulnerable to severe disease. California’s absorption is higher than
average for the country 14.6%,
but still only a fraction of the 72.5% of people who received the initial two-dose vaccine series. The bivalent vaccine is authorized for Californians
older than 6 months,

depending on
when someone finished their initial two-dose series and when they last received the older ‘monovalent’ booster.

Bay Area counties lead the California average in booster uptake, but the ratio is still relatively low, ranging from 23 percent to 38 percent of the eligible population. This may contribute to
sharp increase in local cases of COVID
in the last month and
increasing hospitalizations
which further tax a medical system already burdened by outbreaks of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

“Pandemic fatigue” and confusion

Some pandemic fatigue is “natural, expected and real,” said Marin County Public Health Officer Matt Willis. He noted that the deadline
used since 2020
Perhaps now “we’re getting pandemic fatigue,” Willis said.

After all, the ability to self-regulate “is like a muscle that gets tired,” said Benjamin Rosenberg, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California. “Doing that risk calculation every time you go out is exhausting,” he said.

a recent Chronicle survey
found that fewer Bay Area residents are wearing masks to go to the supermarket, despite the ongoing resurgence of COVID. While not a scientific study, the comments offered to reporters — people without masks said they had “surrendered” and wanted to “get on with life” — highlighted the public health challenge of encouraging voluntary compliance.

It’s easier to make healthy decisions when people have clear, reliable and accessible information, and when the decision itself is relatively easy to make, said Stanford professor of medicine Kevin Shulman, who researched marketing campaigns for the initial vaccines in 2021. But in the current pandemic landscape, Shulman said, those attributes are hard to find.

“It’s no longer a scientific endeavor that we all follow every week,” Shulman said.

Indeed, Rosenberg added, other “precious items have replaced COVID at the top of the list of things people want to read about,” whether inflation, layoffs, Ukraine, abortion rights, the Warriors or the weather. And there’s so much bad news that’s healthy to take in: psychologists have actually measured
increase in stress related to news,
according to the American Psychological Association.

“Some people are literally avoiding information about COVID. It’s almost like an “ignorance is bliss” instinct, Rosenberg said.

Diminishing attention reduces cooperation with public health efforts. A study in September found that, for example
half of the American public
has heard “little or nothing” about the bivalent vaccine.

But tepid messaging and the lack of a mass marketing campaign share the blame, Shulman said. “We don’t put nearly as much effort into that as we do into getting people to vote for somebody,” he said, referring to political ads during the midterm elections.

Information is not reaching the people who need it most, added Debbie Toth, CEO of the Pleasant Hill-based nonprofit Choice in Aging. Older people get information mostly from radio and television news, and sometimes from the local newspaper. “I can tell you that older people don’t go to public health websites to look things up,” she said.

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