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Health

Going maskless? Not until my Covid scars begin to heal – STAT – STAT – STAT

I am a physician. A scientist. A researcher. I understand the inner workings and rationale behind clinical trials, study analyses, and the development of public health guidelines.

I am also a Black man, a same gender loving man, and a person living with HIV who is trying to get by during the Covid-19 era, just like everyone else. This pandemic has affected me much more than I would ever care to admit, which makes me, above all things, human.

So while many have celebrated the latest CDC guidelines on the fully vaccinated being able to go maskless as a short-term victory, my feelings are more mixed.

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The start of the pandemic seemed surreal to me. My father had just passed away in upstate New York. I had taken an unpaid leave of absence from work to be with my mother and help her handle my father’s possessions, sell their home of 20-plus years, and facilitate her safe pilgrimage to California to live with my sister.

It was mid-January, 2020, and the rumblings in the U.S. of a new, fatal virus were faint. They quickly became louder. By March, hospitals began overflowing with Covid-19 patients. Medical staff were becoming burnt out and systems were overwhelmed.

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Then came the shutdowns of public spaces and events. Mask mandates. Travel restrictions. Physical distancing requirements that became thinly veiled experiments in human tolerance of social isolation.

It hit closer to home when friends who were feeling ill or had tested positive for the coronavirus started calling me for medical advice. Some were hospitalized; others fought through their symptoms at home. One friend died on an early spring day only months after celebrating his 40th birthday. Daily social media postings from friends and colleagues detailed how loved ones had succumbed to the disease.

It’s felt like one hazy, protracted nightmare that I sometimes I thought I would never awake from. Some days I found it hard to get out of bed and function.

Fortunately, we began getting some good news. Vaccines were quickly developed, tested, and distributed in record time. I got mine as soon as I knew I would be going back to seeing patients. Now, as rates of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have been dropping, restrictions are being lifted.

CDC guidelines issued this week inform me that, as someone who is fully vaccinated, I can “resume activities that I did prior to the pandemic.” That means I can often go maskless. The physician and scientist in me leapt for joy upon hearing these evidence-based recommendations. The human in me, however, isn’t as enthusiastic.

Nothing for me is “normal” anymore. While I feel somewhat safer after being vaccinated, I still cringe knowing the element of narcissistic American culture that hijacked the pandemic narrative for the past year is still out there in droves. Too many Americans don’t care about anyone’s health but their own, and that frightens me. I find myself longing for scientists to develop a vaccination to protect me from their particular brand of self-centered recklessness and stupidity that could injure myself or someone I love.

I was in Savannah, Ga., this past weekend. As I walked past an older man and woman to go down a staircase to the Riverwalk area, the man coughed. I almost lost it because all of us were maskless. I surprised myself with how vehemently I pulled away from him and how thankful I was that my head was turned in the opposite direction as I scurried down the staircase, putting distance between me and him.

Despite being a fully vaccinated physician, researcher, and scientist, I’m a human being who is afraid of this virus.

During the pandemic, we all had to grow increasingly comfortable with uncertainty, especially about what the future holds. This is our proverbial first time at the rodeo.

Covid-19, and the subsequent public health measures deployed to fight it, have taken a toll on mental health for many people — depression, isolation, anxiety, insomnia, and more. Much has even been said about this generation of youth and the negative emotional impact this has had on school children.

Covid-19 has presented us — children and adults alike — with a particularly insidious form of trauma for more than a year now. It’s like shards of glass burrowing under the skin in a sick daily ritual we can’t opt out of. A microscopic organism that few people had ever heard of before 2020 has forced us to rely on Zoom calls, FaceTime, elbow bumps, and head nods when really all we long for are in-person conversations, handshakes, and long hugs.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.”

I’m pretty sure that applies to me.

You can talk all you want about going maskless and getting back to “normal” this summer. Though I know what the science says — and I trust it — you may have to give me a little more time to catch up with you.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left a scar on me that will take some time to heal, and I don’t know whether I’m quite ready to fully ditch the mask and place my trust in a country that has yet to earn it.

David Malebranche is an Atlanta-based internal medicine physician specializing in sexual health and the prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

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