Just as Florida approached normalcy again, another fierce wave of coronavirus has swept the state.
Cases reached pandemic highs last week. The delta variant is infecting vaccinated people. Kids are landing in pediatric hospitals. And changing guidance on mask-wearing has ignited controversy.
Tampa Bay residents are bearing the brunt of a pandemic that seems endless and inescapable. They have expressed anxiety and dread. Pandemic-induced exhaustion, some say.
“As the numbers kicked back up, it’s like a pit in my stomach,” said Mike Munger of St. Petersburg. “The feeling of, Oh God, here we go again.”
Munger, 35, once thought a sense of relief was near. He went to Rays games and dined indoors with his wife, whom he married a month before the first wave. A nagging fear lingered about the unvaccinated population or the possibility of another shutdown, he said.
With rising caseloads, his worries are now being realized. It’s contributed to a spike in his anxiety.
“We’re in this next stage where not enough vaccines have entered arms,” Munger said. “The new variant’s out. It’s more contagious, grabbing breakthrough cases. It seems to have evolved past the vaccine to some extent. We’re back to square one.”
The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has recently fielded an increase of COVID-related calls on its 24-hour hotline. People request emotional support and share symptoms of mental illness, Crisis Center president and CEO Clara Reynolds said. They mourn their loss of social contact. Some ask for financial assistance for rent or food.
Inquiries sharply dipped in April as more people started getting vaccinated and businesses were rebounding. Then wariness of new variants and a drop-off in vaccination rates pushed the Crisis Center call count from 1,122 in April to 1,461 in May, and 1,539 in June.
Reynolds expects a higher call volume tally for July. August, too, is “the perfect storm,” she said. Hurricane and back-to-school season bring a confluence of new virus-related worries.
The underlying issue though is uncertainty.
“Things that have a finite beginning and end — people can deal with that,” Reynolds said. “With COVID being so open-ended, folks are struggling to manage.”
Emerging variants have infected few vaccinated people, and hospitalized even fewer. So among those who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times, concerns about death or serious illness were not widespread.
Munger, the assistant finance director for the city of Treasure Island, instead fears he could carry the virus asymptomatically and spread it to vulnerable friends and neighbors. Each case, he said, increases the chance the virus will mutate. That could prolong the pandemic by months, or years.
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“What am I afraid of?” he asks. “Being part of the problem.”
A mother to five kids, Steffany Neely, 39, is nervous for back-to-school season sans masks. Her children need to see teachers face-to-face and make friends organically, she said. But Florida now leads the nation in children hospitalized for COVID.
She is upset over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ threat to withhold funding from school districts requiring face coverings, especially in light of the surge.
“I’m terrified, to be honest,” Neely said, “to send them into indoor classrooms with teachers and 33 other students sitting shoulder to shoulder.”
Carrie Werdine, 59, of Tampa feels a similar sense of obligation to wear a mask, to slow the spread. The first thing on her mind is her daughters. This fall, one will play collegiate volleyball in New York. The other is getting married in a large ceremony in Minnesota.
The possibility that those events could be hampered by another round of cancellations or postponements is disquieting. Her vaccinated husband contracted a mild case of COVID last month, fueling her anxieties about returning to the throes of the pandemic.
“I don’t have 10 days to quarantine anymore,” said Werdine, an accountant. “I have too much to celebrate.”
She has largely emptied her social calendar. No more Friday night benefits. No friendly dinners. No parties. “The risk of getting sick isn’t worth it,” she said.
In the initial months of the shutdown, a changed world brought a surge in anxiety and depression — “a mental health pandemic,” as many labeled it. The Tampa Bay region saw an uptick in crisis calls and psychiatry visits.
Munger coped as well as he could then. He cooked barbecue and renovated his home. A backyard butterfly garden was erected with tomatoes, peppers, milkweed and Mexican sunflowers He and his wife even invested in a kiddie pool.
The days still weighed on him though. “Not having the ability to self-regulate, not having friends, the opportunity to blow off steam — it heightened everything,” Munger said.
Late last year, he sought out mental health resources. It helped.
But with 2021 becoming increasingly reminiscent of 2020, his mood has fluctuated.
Now “it’s Groundhog Day all over again,” Munger said.
Like Munger, more Americans believe the coronavirus situation is getting worse than better today, according to a Gallup poll released August 2. That marks the first time since January that pessimism has surpassed optimism in U.S. adults’ view of the pandemic.
And there is little evidence that view will change soon.
Florida has recently seen over 19,000 cases reported daily, and hospitals are managing record numbers of COVID-19 patients — as many as 12,000 at once.
For some, those statistics have prompted smaller fears over what is and isn’t safe, rather than marked shifts in their mental wellbeing. The simple pleasures — eating out or attending concerts — come with mounting risk.
Julia Bell, 20, felt no need to renew her pass to Disney World when it expired last month. She returned to the resort with her mom earlier in the year. Smaller crowds meant she felt “more safe there than the grocery store,” said Bell, a biology student at St. Petersburg College.
With the pandemic worsening, a simmering stress is back.
Bell worries for the safety of immunocompromised and unvaccinated people. Her Crohn’s disease does not increase the likelihood she will contract the virus. But for the time being, Disney is off the agenda.
She feels angry at the government and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention for rolling back mask mandates too quickly. “I felt it was rushed,” she said. “How did I know better than them?”
In South Tampa, Jim Sanson and his family have started wearing masks again in public, as the CDC recommended last week.
He felt a sense of communal responsibility and a tinge of worry prompted in part by his brother’s COVID-19 hospitalization. Sanson credits his ability to work from home for his mental stability. The rush of insecurity he felt last March has luckily not resurfaced.
“Anxiety comes with the unknown,” he said. “Of course, I’m frustrated though. We’ve all been here before already.”
Reynolds at the Crisis Center recommended making peace with the unpredictability of the pandemic. “It’s okay to not be okay,” she said. “Give yourself some grace because we’re not done with COVID-19. And when you’re feeling so debilitated that it impacts your ability to live your life, get help.”
Until the surge flattens again, bay-area residents like Munger are accepting this temporary “new normal.”
He has scheduled visits to his Alabama hometown to see his nephews — all under four years old. Multiple days a week, Munger enjoys seeing his colleagues at Treasure Island City Hall.
He fantasizes about the honeymoon he and his wife never took. They may plan a ten-year anniversary trip instead.
Munger jokes, “The pandemic will be over by then, right?”
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