When it comes to wildfires wreaking havoc across the country, there seems to be no safe distance to be found from their fallout. This point was made even more troublingly clear by a new report just published in the journal Science Advances. As reported by NPR, the study estimates that inhaling the toxic particles in wildfire smoke has contributed to thousands of additional COVID-19 cases. The study implicated higher levels of air pollution from wildfires in amplifying both cases and deaths in scores of counties in Oregon, Washington and especially California.
At the same time, a new large-scale study published in the Journals of Gerontology and reported in the New York Times adds yet another new warning — beware, COVID-19 can look different in older patients. As infections continue to increase, so do hospitalizations among older adults. Says lead author of the study, Allison Marziliano, a social and health psychologist at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, “Clinicians should know, older adults should know, their caregivers should know: If you see certain atypical symptoms, it could be Covid.”
“When the researchers combed through the electronic health records of nearly 5,000 people, all over the age of 65, who were hospitalized for Covid at a dozen Northwell hospitals in March and April of 2020, they found that one-third had arrived with other symptoms, unexpected ones,” writes Times reporter Paula Span.
“Older adults don’t always present like other adults,” said Dr. Maria Carney, a geriatrician who was also involved in the Northwell study. “They may not mount a fever. Their metabolisms are different.”
Adds Dr. Eleftherios Mylonakis, chief of infectious diseases at Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, understanding that something as vague as weakness, confusion or appetite loss might signal a COVID-19 infection could make a world of difference. A COVID-19 diagnosis can ward off needless tests and procedures and help protect friends and family who can then isolate and get tested themselves, thereby helping contain the spread of the virus.
What these two stories, and all the other COVID-19-related ones that flood the daily news, remind me of is something else that is sweeping across the country and around the world. It is not new, just relentlessly present and rising — renewed COVID-19 anxiety. It can be traumatic. It can be debilitating. It can change us in ways we don’t like.
“We’re wired, we’re hypervigilant and we’re tired; so many decisions, so much information,” laments Dr. Lucy McBride, a primary care physician in Washington, D.C., in a recent interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “It takes a toll on our bodies and minds.”
“There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for human behavior in a pandemic,” she adds. “We really need to drill down into what it is that gives us a sense of safety and security, what it is we need to feel protected from disease and despair in tandem, and that is going to look different for each person.”
She goes on to say that when we are exhausted and our guard is down, we are more prone to anxiety that is out of proportion to reality. “That then drives behaviors that may not be appropriate for that particular situation,” says McBride. To deal with it, “let’s recognize it, let’s name it,” she adds.
According to Harvard Health, while temporary anxiety can be a healthy response to uncertainty and danger, generalized anxiety disorder is just that — a disorder. It is a clinical condition often characterized by debilitating worry and agitation about nothing in particular. “People with generalized anxiety disorder tend to worry about everyday matters. They can’t shake the feeling that something bad will happen and they will not be prepared … Physical symptoms are common too, and can include a racing heart, dry mouth, upset stomach, muscle tension, sweating, trembling, and irritability. These bodily expressions of anxiety can have a negative effect on physical health.”
In taming worry in excess and anxiety, therapists try to help people recognize when they are “misinterpreting events, exaggerating difficulties or making unnecessarily pessimistic assumptions,” and by offering “new ways to respond to anxiety-provoking situations.”
In a separate post on Harvard Health, Dr. Annie Brewster writes that she believes one thing certainly can be said about all of us: “We have been changed by the pandemic, individually and collectively. Our life stories have shifted and will continue to shift in response to what we have experienced.”
Brewster, a specialist in the field of narrative psychology, has dedicated much of the past decade to helping people heal through storytelling, which she describes as an inherently social practice, one that fosters intimacy and connection with others. “Studies have shown that digging into our personal stories, reflecting on them, and editing them as our lives evolve, is good for us,” she writes. “Sharing them with others, though it makes us vulnerable, is an important part of this healing … If I have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that community sustains us.”
So, there it is, this other cloud hovering above us. One we thought had blown away. It brings with it potential months of persistent, excessive worry, fatigue, difficulty sleeping or restlessness, trouble concentrating, irritability, muscle tension and feeling tense and on edge. All danger signs of generalized anxiety disorder. They are back.