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To make it through COVID fatigue, get an accountability partner

This morning, I hit a lockdown low point. I considered going to the salon for a haircut. It’s one of those things I cancelled in March and delayed until sometime far away. I made an appointment for a date that felt, back then, frighteningly distant and put the haircut out of my mind. But today I looked at my calendar and realized the date had arrived. My appointment was scheduled for this Friday.

Reader, before you get too worried, I cancelled the haircut. I have asthma. COVID-19 cases in my area are rising. I decided it’s just not worth it. But what worries me is that in the moment, almost talked myself into getting the haircut.

I have been a lockdown nut. Friends have taken to teasing me by saying they’re going to go to a restaurant just to watch me freak out. A few weeks ago, I wiped an eggplant down with a Clorox wipe before putting it in the fridge. So the idea that I was seriously considering an activity ranked 7 out of 10 on the COVID-19 risk chart gave me pause.

Source: Texas Medical Association

I don’t think I’m alone in getting a little wobbly about my lockdown limits. In the United States, we’ve been living-amid-pandemic for four months now. We have COVID fatigue, and we want all of this to be over. It’s worse now that all those appointments, dates, vacations, and normal activities we pushed until ‘sometime this summer’ are starting to sneak up on us. But COVID-19 cases are still rising (or rising again, or never stopped rising) in the United States.

The challenge for me isn’t around where to draw the lines, or with the fact that some people’s lines are different than mine — everyone has to set their own limits! No, the hard part about lockdown fatigue is how hard it makes sticking to my own predetermined limits. How am I supposed to stay vigilant (however that looks for me) when it feels like this will never end? For when should I reasonably reschedule my hair cut? 2022?

Reevaluate the risks

The first step is taking a look at the numbers in your area. My favorite place to do this is the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. There, I zoom in on my county and see how our cases are changing. In Minneapolis, my county is a deep purple, meaning we have a lot of cases per 100k people. That means I should be extra careful.

The darkest purple counties are the ones with the most confirmed cases per 100k people. Image: Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center

In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was easier to say ‘no’ to tempting activities because the pandemic felt finite. If COVID-19 was only going to last for a few weeks or months, I could wait to go on vacation or get a haircut or browse the aisles of a bookstore. All I had to do was think, “I can wait until this is all over!”

Now, because I don’t know how long this will last, I have a hard time deciding what my priorities should be. That’s especially true because the economy’s priorities don’t match up with health and safety recommendations. On a walk around the neighborhood, I now often see people eating on a restaurant patio despite the county’s rising cases. Even for me, it’s easy to think it might be worth it to grab a quick sandwich. It looks so safe! And all of those other people are doing it.

So I’ve started asking myself a somewhat sinister question when I find myself seriously wanting to break quarantine: If I end up in the hospital later, will I be glad I did [insert risky activity]? If someone else ends up in the hospital, will it have been worth it?

The answer, more often than not, is no.

That gut check works for me in the moment, but psychologists have also recommended that each of us make a list of the activities we need to do to survive and the ones we just want to do. They say to evaluate the risks of each of our wants and decide what’s worth it to you. That way, it might be possible for each person to decide what works for them.

It’s important to do your own risk evaluation instead of just relying on a chart, lovely as the above one from Texas Medical Association is. That’s because while getting a haircut might make me feel too anxious to be worth it, someone else might draw a different line for themselves.

As we’ve been reminded time after time in this pandemic, there is no no-risk activity. Anyone could contract COVID-19 – even the most cautious among us. You could end up in the hospital from getting a delivery, walking the dog with a mask on, or going to the grocery store. You could get the coronavirus from working an essential job to pay rent, too. Since no activity is no-risk, we have to make our own choices about what’s worth it and what isn’t.

More: One large gathering is riskier than 10 small ones: the math of COVID-19 spread

Get an accountability partner

Right now, your partner probably can’t be trusted to decide if something is safe enough to do. Your parents, either. The people who love you most in the world want you to be happy. They also want things to go back to normal! They want you to get a haircut if that’s what you want! (Or maybe they want you to be safe inside bubble wrap, never to leave the house again.)

So you need someone else to turn to. Enter: your accountability partner. An accountability partner is traditionally someone who helps you with health or wellness goals. Think — a workout buddy or a friend who’s writing a novel just like you. You hold each other accountable for taking steps to reach your goals. The same can work with COVID.

The best part is that your accountability partner can be imaginary.

If you find yourself trying to think through the risks associated with activities that fall outside of your comfort zone, think of the safest person you know — the person who hasn’t taken any risks since the pandemic started, the person who sends you articles about the risks of contracting or spreading COVID-19. When you’re really tempted to throw all caution to the wind, think of that person. How would they respond if you told them what you were going to do?

When it comes down to it, you probably won’t even have to talk to a real-life accountability partner. Just imagining their response will be enough. That’s because this kind of ‘accountability partner’ is really a way of checking in with yourself. It’s an imaginary exercise that’s really a gut check for what you know to be true about what you should do.

Rewrite your COVID timeline

It’s time to rethink when this will all be over. It’s hard, but the numbers suggest our lives will be different for a long time to come.  The state of California just announced new closures. Students in Los Angeles and San Diego (among other cities) will not be returning to in-person school come fall.

Most people I’ve talked to say they’re mentally preparing themselves for another year of this. Some say they think it’ll take two or three years before we have a vaccine and can return to life as it was before.

Either way, we each need to rewrite our own timelines. Everything might not come to a standstill again like it did in March and April, but we’ll be in a state of “COVID-weird” for a long while. It’s worth talking this through with the people you live with. What are everyone’s expectations? How realistic are those expectations? What’s a timeline you can cope with? Remember that you might have to revise it again later.

I haven’t rescheduled my haircut for later this summer or even in the fall. When I thought about what’s “worth it” to me, and when I imagined my accountability partners, I realized I was okay with my hair growing long and uneven. I’m curious to find out what it looks like in a year, if that’s how long it takes. Until then, it’s not like anyone will be able to see me.


  • 8 Comments

    • hbic

      Are there a lot of documented cases of COVID transmission via hair salon? There’s the famous counterexample of the two infected Missouri stylists and their 140+ negative clients. Ranking the risk of a haircut as equal to flying on a plane or attending a wedding (both of which have led to thousands of documented cases) seems bonkers to me.

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      • Kelsey DonkStaff hbic

        Thanks for reading! To me, the desire to get a haircut was just a case of something that was actually outside of my personal boundaries. Since I’m at a high risk, and the CDC notes, “The closer you are to other people who may be infected, the greater your risk of getting sick,” it’s not something I’m comfortable with. But I think the larger thing here is that I’m noticing my own fatigue and struggling to find ways to stay vigilant, even though I’m at a high risk of infection! And I think we agree—everything is on a spectrum, there is no no-risk activity, and everyone has to draw their own lines. Wishing you health and safety!

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    • Cia

      I’d say that you should get a haircut now. Remember the hair stylists at Great Cuts in Springfield, Missouri? They had symptoms of Covid but didn’t know yet that that’s what it was as they cut the hair of something like 130 people. But because both they and the people whose hair they cut were wearing masks, NONE of the customers got Covid. I guarantee you that your stylist will be wearing a mask. And I’m certain you would be too. In the article on how to know when to reopen which was on The Prepared, there was a comment by a doctor who said that as long as he was wearing a mask, he felt no fear even being a few inches away from a TB patient. Austria saw its infection rate drop by 90% shortly after it passed its mask mandate.

      My city, Columbia, Missouri, just passed a mask mandate which will last at least three months. I’m sure we will see Covid brought under control.

      I don’t think it’s good to ask How would I feel if I  … and it caused me to get Covid and I landed in the hospital? I’m also very anxious and imagine different worst-case scenarios. I hate to drive, and am well aware that whenever you go anywhere in your car, death may be the result. I took my daughter to the Maya Riviera as a graduation present, and was consumed with anxiety, from te planes crashing or being hijacked, to different horrible wrong place wrong time scenarios. Dengue, typhoid, yellow fever (we took nosodes to prevent). But it was absolutely the best trip of my life, (relatively) inexpensive, but absolutely perfect, we took taxis everywhere, even between cities, cheap, and the drivers and I talked and laughed and exchanged stories and experiences the whole way! We took normal safety and health precautions, and that was enough.

      We’re in this for the long haul. But that means getting used to masks and social distancing, etc., being judicious, maybe not going to rock concerts or football games, but other than that, let’s see what happens if everyone wears masks and goes back to low-key normal life. CV I’d getting milder, though numerically cases are exploding. Worldometer charts now show only 1% of cases being severe or critical. And I’ll bet that if everyone involved in any activity were wearing masks, the infection rate would be very low. Remember that H1N1 and H3N2 flu are also deadly to many people.

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      • Kelsey DonkStaff Cia

        Thanks so much for reading and for this thoughtful comment! Everyone has to set their own limits, and that’s both the blessing and the curse of this time! As someone with anxiety, I agree it’s so hard to know when it’s time to push yourself outside of your comfort zone—and that’s true in normal times. COVID just makes it harder! Wishing you health and safety.

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      • Cia Cia

        I first wrote that everyone has to make his own decisions, but then erased it. I have stopped commenting at a vaccine-critical site where I posted and wrote a few articles for nine years because I was so shocked at the nearly total group consensus that masks were bad, deprived the wearer of oxygen, and social distancing, closures, etc., were violations of their civil rights and were wrecking the economy and depriving people of their livelihoods. I agree that a balance must be made, and that many valid differences of opinion should be expressed and are at least within our right to free speech. I don’t agree that they have the right to disregard the rights of others, but unless the mask mandates have legal force, and they should, I’m afraid that their freedom to make their own decisions and establish their limits in an irresponsible way will continue to leave the virus uncontrolled.

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    • July Lewis

      I appreciate the article and the comments! I’m feeling the exact same COVID fatigue. Cases are low in my area and I’m getting less sure about my high level of caution. I used to feel good about it, like I was smart and prepper-minded. Today I’m just sad about missing out on stuff and wonder if I’m being unnecessarily cautious. At least I’m not the only one….

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    • Hardened

      Spot on, Kelsey!  As you point out, we each have different risk profiles and choices.  It’s getting more challenging to adhere to our self-defined policies and your suggestion is an excellent tool for supporting self-integrity.

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    • Totally Skelebones

      What makes it harder for me are the wildly conflicting sets of expectations. I’m fine with butchering my own hair for the foreseeable future (it’s kind of fun tbh), but how long until I get called out at work for looking like an unprofessional crazy person? My SO was guilted/threatened/tricked into going to a larger-than-advertised family event as cases rise again in our state. It feels insane that people are still trying to hold us to pre-pandemic expectations.

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