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Health Officials Urge Caution As 'Pandemic Fatigue' Sets In

Dallas County officials say it's not time to let up on safety measures like social distancing as the region faces a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Dallas County officials say it's not time to let up on safety measures like social distancing as the region faces a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Dallas resident Kate Mackley can't bring herself to delete her mother's number.

"She's still in my phone's favorites," Mackley said. "She's right there at the top of the list, even though clearly that phone number doesn't work anymore, and clearly she's not going to answer it."

Mackley's mother Karla died of COVID-19 in April. She lived at Monticello West, a long-term care facility in Dallas that saw many residents test positive early on in the pandemic. A spokesperson for Monticello West said the senior living facility has since "dramatically turned things around," and has not had "any residents with an active positive COVID test" since June 5.

"The strangest thing was having her funeral over Zoom," Mackley said.

She remembers how odd it was to end the video call that day, without the comforting presence of loved ones or the rituals of an in-person funeral. It felt like the grieving process was cut short.

"Not only do we still have this, you know, digital ghost that stays with us after we pass, but now our grieving has even become digital and secondhand," she said. "It's very strange."

Losing her mother early on in the pandemic drove home the danger of the virus. It's been months since Mackley has gotten together with close friends or seen some of her extended family. She understands that people are having a hard time staying apart after months of isolation. She is too.

"I'm getting to the point of like, 'oh I just don't want to limit what I'm doing,' but of course I have to," Mackley said, "and I understand that and intellectually understand that, but it's hard to emotionally understand that."

For months, public health officials have reiterated the need for social distancing, avoiding crowds and wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. And yet, key metrics like hospitalizations and case counts are trending in the wrong direction.

People are not taking safety measures as seriously as "pandemic fatigue" sets in, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services.

"We just have to be vigilant through this, and we can't let up because that's what we're seeing," Huang said. "A lot of people are relaxing, and so we're seeing a lot of cases, a lot of spread happening."

Huang said mixed messages from local and state leaders are also making compliance harder. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said he will not issue another statewide lockdowndespite climbing cases. Meanwhile, Dallas County's COVID-19 risk level is still in the red zone, which indicates a high risk of transmission and advises residents to stay home.

Huang said health officials are trying to stress the science as safety measures become increasingly politicized.

"That's where we did have to sort of pivot," he said. "The philosophy is just because you can doesn't mean you should, and so even though these things then were being opened up from the state level, we are just providing our local guidance. This is not what the science is recommending."

Huang knows long-term isolation is taking a toll on mental health. Symptomsof anxiety and depression are widespread among Americans during the pandemic.

"This has been a long period of stress, and it's been high intensity stress," Huang said. "It's changing everyone's life, and it's understandable why people are getting tired of it. We're all getting tired of it. I'm getting tired of it."

Huang encourages North Texans to get outside, practice self-care and find safe ways to connect with others. He's hopeful, saying promising news about vaccine trials shows there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Still, Huang said it's not yet time to ease up on precautions. Dallas County is asking people to reconsider travel ahead of Thanksgiving. Families are encouraged to celebrate virtually or gather around the table with the people they live with. There will be more Thanksgiving dinners to come, Huang said, but the choices made this year could have lasting consequences.

Many new infections in Dallas County have been tied to small gatherings, like birthday parties, weddings and get-togethers at bars and restaurants.

"They just think, 'oh I'm just going to go to this one party, or I'm just going to do this one thing,' and that's where you get the spread, and you just have to be vigilant," Huang said. "You just have to be doing this all the time."

Got a tip? Email Syeda Hasan at Shasan@kera.org. You can follow Syeda on Twitter @SyedaReports

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Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Syeda Hasan is KUT's development and affordability reporter. She previously worked as a reporter at Houston Public Media covering county government, immigrant and refugee communities, homelessness and the Sandra Bland case. Her work has been heard nationally on public radio shows such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Marketplace.