As COVID stages another winter comeback, many Californians don’t appear to care


The Bay Area was a model of cooperation during the early years of the COVID pandemic, as residents sheltered in place, lined up for vaccines and donned masks in public. Many locals looked on with consternation as health precautions became politicized in other parts of the country.

Yet, even in this conscientious region, vigilance hasn’t lasted. As another winter COVID surge grips the region, large numbers of people are forgoing masks and skipping the latest booster — a vital tool in preventing serious illness as immunity from previous shots or infection wanes.

Since the emergence of vaccines and better COVID treatments — and the lifting of blunt governmental measures such as mask mandates — the public approach to the coronavirus has become more laissez-faire. Some call this approach the “figure it out yourself” era of the pandemic. But individual choices still exact a heavy toll on vulnerable populations, such as older and immunocompromised people, some of whom are retreating again from the public square.

Compounding widespread apathy toward the latest surge is considerable confusion over how to behave at this stage in the crisis. Experts say, in particular, that the rollout of the new bivalent vaccine booster — the first to target both the original coronavirus and the omicron family of variants — has been tepid. Without a strong marketing push and government resources put into distribution, many Americans are unaware of the booster’s benefits, or even its existence.

“The situation is that people are left to decide as individuals,” said Denise Herd, a UC Berkeley behavioral sciences professor in the School of Public Health. “Without a lot of information, without a lot of support for some of these public health measures, we’re going to see what we do now.”

To date, only 20.5% of eligible Californians have received the bivalent vaccine, leaving the majority more vulnerable to severe illness. California’s uptake is higher than the national average of 14.6%, but still only a fraction of the 72.5% of people who received the initial two-dose vaccine series. The bivalent vaccine is authorized for Californians older than 6 months, depending on when someone completed their initial two-dose series and when they last received the older “monovalent” booster.

Bay Area counties lead the California average in booster uptake, but the proportion is still relatively low, ranging from 23% to 38% of the eligible population. That may be contributing to the sharp increase in local COVID cases in the past month and rising hospitalizations that further tax a medical system already straining with outbreaks of flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

‘Pandemic fatigue fatigue’ and confusion

Some fatigue with the pandemic is “natural, expected and real,” said Marin County public health officer Matt Willis. He noted that the term has been used since 2020. Perhaps now, “we’re getting pandemic fatigue fatigue,” Willis said.

After all, the ability to self-regulate “is like a muscle that gets tired,” said Benjamin Rosenberg, a psychology professor at Dominican University of California. “Making that risk calculation every time you go out, it’s exhausting,” he said.

A recent Chronicle survey found fewer Bay Area residents wearing masks to go to the supermarket, despite the current COVID resurgence. While not a scientific study, comments offered to reporters — people without masks said they “gave up” and wanted to “move on with life” — underscored the public health challenge of encouraging voluntary compliance.

It’s easier to make healthy decisions when people have clear, credible and accessible information, and for the decision itself to be relatively easy to make, said Stanford medicine Professor Kevin Schulman, who researched marketing campaigns for the initial vaccines in 2021. But in the current pandemic landscape, Schulman said, it’s hard to find those attributes.

“This is no longer a scientific undertaking that all of us are following every week,” Schulman said.

Indeed, added Rosenberg, other “big-ticket items replaced COVID at the top of the list of things people are seeking to read about,” whether inflation, layoffs, Ukraine, abortion rights, the Warriors or the weather. And there’s only so much bad news that’s healthy to absorb: psychologists have actually measured an increase in news-related stress, according to the American Psychological Association.

“Some people are quite literally turning away from information about COVID. It’s almost like an ‘ignorance is bliss’ instinct,” Rosenberg said.

The waning attention is lessening cooperation with public health efforts. A September poll found, for instance, that half of the American public had heard “little or nothing” about the bivalent vaccine.

But lukewarm messaging and the lack of a mass marketing campaign share the blame, Schulman said. “We’re not putting nearly as much effort into this as we put into getting people to vote for somebody,” he said, referring to political ads during the midterm elections.

Information isn’t reaching the people who need it most, added Debbie Toth, CEO of the Pleasant Hill-based nonprofit Choice in Aging. Older people get their information mostly from radio and television news, and sometimes the local newspaper. “I can tell you that older adults are not going to public health websites to look things up,” she said.



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