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'Startling': Americans feel increased anxiety as Covid cases surge

Days before the holidays and as coronavirus cases spiked, many Americans expressed renewed anxiety and reservations about seeing friends and family.
City residents wait in a line extending around the block to receive free at-home rapid Covid-19 test kits in Philadelphia on Dec. 20, 2021.
Residents wait in a line extending around the block to get free at-home rapid Covid-19 test kits Monday in Philadelphia.Matt Rourke / AP

As Melissa Chomintra waited for her flight at the Indianapolis airport Monday, she felt anxious.

Chomintra, an assistant professor at Purdue University, has long been looking forward to visiting her father in Las Vegas for the holidays, but she nearly changed her mind the day before she was scheduled to leave.

The spike in Covid cases driven by the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus had given her pause, she said. Although she is vaccinated and has had a booster shot, she worries that she could still unintentionally spread the virus to her father, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

But his ongoing isolation and his months of struggles to fill out disability paper worried her, too.

"It feels like society's faced with this ultimate test of the holidays, and we're all making a Sophie's choice in this moment," Chomintra said.

Anxiety is one of the many emotions people are contending with as they are being forced to pivot so swiftly from planning holiday parties to possibly hunkering down. The feeling is joined by disappointment, frustration and uncertainty, as many had hoped the country was progressing past the pandemic.

In response, people across the country expressed a sense of déjà vu back to spring 2020, when tests were hard to come by, schools were shutting down, and seeing family and friends felt like a risk, rather than a social pleasure.

After a week of coronavirus spikes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the omicron variant has supplanted the delta variant as the most dominant strain in the U.S. Cities throughout the country are reporting new case records, and some are sharing an anxiety that the U.S. is returning to the dark ages of quarantine.

While the country has come far — with a much superior testing infrastructure, more access to at-home testing and, most notably, easy access to vaccines — some expressed a return to the internal bargaining that was common during lockdown.

Reid Jenkins, a musician who lives on the Upper West Side in New York City, tested positive even though he has been fully vaccinated with a booster shot. Still recovering Monday, he said he was walloped by the beginnings of a fever but was skeptical that it was Covid at first.

After an initial negative test, he received a positive test over the weekend, confirming his fears that his was a breakthrough case. After having followed the news reports and talked to friends, he said, it felt like the city was once again being overtaken by the virus.

“I think a lot of people are shocked that’s still going on and that it’s also so bad,” Jenkins said, although he shared hope and optimism that this wave would be short. “The pace at which it took over is so startling. It feels like it happened overnight.”

Many said it has become hard to ignore the lines for tests that stretch for blocks, the skyrocketing of demand for vaccine booster shots and the uncertainty of families and friends rethinking their plans days before the holidays.

Local leaders and medical professionals have again emphasized the frequently shared methods to protect against spreading the disease: vaccines, frequent testing, masks, social distancing, hand-washing and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated areas.

The Biden administration and health officials have emphasized that booster shots are particularly effective at combatting the disease, but only about 61 million people in the U.S. have had them so far — less than a third of those who are eligible.

Despite the lagging numbers, with omicron anxiety spreading, officials across the country have reported a jump in the number of people seeking Covid booster shots, which have been shown to reduce the risk of becoming infected by the variant.

Steve Holland, 54, waited nearly an hour Monday to get a third dose of the Moderna vaccine at a packed Walgreens pharmacy in Houston. Holland said he had been putting off getting the shot but decided to book an appointment after he read about Covid outbreaks’ leading to canceled performances, sporting events and holiday parties across the city.

“I’m doing this so I can see my grandkids for Christmas,” Holland said, adding that he doesn’t plan to significantly cut back on social outings. “I’m not too worried personally, but I do worry about the toll this is taking on our nurses and doctors.”

Vaccination waits aren't the only thing people are contending with, however, as lines for Covid tests snake their way down blocks in cities and towns nationwide. Many people had pursued the tests in hope of protecting their families ahead of the holidays.

Still, some shared a wariness to see family.

Los Angeles resident Talia Placencia, 30, waited in line to get a test Monday after she had tested positive for Covid on Dec. 7. Placencia had had a negative result already, but she said she wanted to get another to ensure that the disease had passed.

“I’m feeling pretty hesitant to see family for Christmas,” she said. “It’s not that important. It’s just like a day — I’d rather be safe.”

In response to the growing outbreaks, Placencia said she and her friends are "going back to their tiny pods."

“It’s funny to be in this for so long and then still not really know how to go about life," she said. "I feel really anxious."

Melody Butler, 35, a nurse and mother of four in Lindenhurst, New York, said she remains frustrated that members of her community refused to wear masks and fought Covid precautions, particularly as omicron cases are beginning to spike.

In response to the latest case counts, Butler said her family had decided to cancel a trip to Florida and were limiting the big family gatherings that she loves having over the holidays.

“I’m afraid of my home being a source of an outbreak,” she said.

Fear and uncertainty seem increasingly commonplace, many said, but there was comfort in knowing that it's a shared experience.

Back in Indianapolis, just 30 minutes until her flight was set to board, Chomintra said she continued to contend with all the "what ifs" swirling in her head.

"Through all this, you're just bartering with yourself and making all these life choices that you hope work out correctly," she said. "But I know I'm not the only person doing this."

Phil McCausland and Jean Lee reported from New York; Mike Hixenbaugh reported from Houston; Tyler Kingkade reported from Los Angeles.