When the plane touched down in Chicago, I sighed with relief. After meticulous planning, we were returning from a two-week trip to Lima, Peru. We hadn’t seen my partner’s sister — soon to turn 91 years old — for five years and felt that with thorough precautions, we could keep ourselves and our loved ones safe while in Peru during the pandemic.
That sigh of relief soon turned to alarm as we deplaned and saw virtually no one masked or practicing social distancing in the terminal. It was as if the pandemic was over, and any precautions had long been forgotten. I felt I had entered the Twilight Zone.
I have a rare autoimmune disease that affects my lungs. I do not live my life in a bubble, but I try to do what I can to avoid health challenges. Powerful immune suppressants that treat the autoimmune disorder dampened my immune response, and I did not mount an immune response to the COVID-19 vaccines. To prepare for the trip to Peru, after quite a bit of bureaucratic wrangling, I received the Evusheld pre-exposure treatment.
I have been reflecting on the sense of danger I felt when the plane landed in the U.S. Why did I feel safer in Peru than I did coming back to the States? After all, Peru was one of the countries most affected initially by COVID-19, which drew attention for one of the highest death rates from COVID-19. And Peru has plenty of critical problems — a polarized political landscape, economic woes, education and health sectors teetering on collapse, violence and stark social inequalities. But evidence of serious public health measures against the continuing pandemic were visible all around, and perhaps because of this, I felt more secure.
When we were in Lima, KN95 masks were mandatory. If a KN95 mask was not used, two “regular” masks were required when in public. And people wore them correctly — not like unwanted fashion accessories, grazing their nostrils and hanging off one ear, but secured over their noses and mouths. Entering all public venues required proof of vaccination. Most people I met had received at least three vaccine shots. People stared at me blankly when I asked if they were bothered by the masks, and they looked at me as if I was just this side of crazy when I asked about vaccine refusal. “Why would anyone do that?” asked a friend.
As we prepared to return home, we navigated the bureaucracy to get our papers in order. We were required to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test no more than one day prior to our flight. This was a hassle, but a crop of home testing services had emerged as a cottage industry in Lima. A young woman, dressed in full lab technician garb, evaluated us on the spot for a reasonable fee with official verification of the negative test result.
Twelve days after our return, my partner began to feel ill, achy and tired, with a dry cough. We used a government-provided COVID-19 home test to evaluate her. To our dismay, the test result was an immediate and strong positive. The following day, I awoke with a foreboding sense that an unwelcome invader was in my body. I tested positive for COVID-19 too. After alerting my primary care provider, I began taking the antiviral medication Paxlovid. I can’t say that it has hastened recovery but I do know that I am feeling better and I am grateful for the ability to access this treatment.
We received all kinds of offers of support after we got COVID-19. A friend on the East Coast sent us mail-order chicken soup. People have been calling to see if we need anything and to check to make sure that we are both breathing. It is comforting. We need each other at times like these.
But what we need even more is a commitment as a society to avoiding further unnecessary acute and chronic illness and mortality related to COVID-19. On Monday, the Peruvian Ministry of Health issued an epidemiological alert because of rising cases of COVID-19, and a return to stricter regulations is sure to follow. I’m doubtful the same will occur in the U.S., where numbers have again been rising.
It was wonderful to see our family. We took a calculated risk in going to Peru, and the irony of becoming infected with COVID-19 after returning to the U.S. is not lost on me.
So, back in Chicago, I will continue to mask up for myself and others. As I wear the mask, I will withstand the glare of those who seem to think that the pandemic is over. Will you?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Barbara Shaw is an assistant professor of community, systems and mental health nursing at Rush University’s College of Nursing.
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