I seldom get sick, but I’ve ended up in urgent care twice over the past month. The first time was for fever and body aches and fear of COVID-19, despite the fact that I’m fully vaccinated. The second time, just last week, was because of a wicked sore throat that I feared might be strep throat (because we have just returned from our first time traveling to visit family since December 2019!). Fortunately, negative tests showed neither fear was valid, but the illnesses have still taken their toll on me.

This has left me wondering why I’m getting so sick more frequently. Last week, I asked the nurse practitioner if it could be because masking and avoiding everyone for 15 months had caused me to become more susceptible to germs, and she said that was likely. I’m surprised and frustrated that it took such a short time for this to happen. It has also left me pondering how we navigate healthy communal living moving forward.

It’s a commonly held understanding that communal living leads to the inevitable sharing of germs—and the bolstering of immunity. Think about the high frequency of young children getting sick as they are exposed to other children when they start attending school. These illnesses actually help robust children to naturally develop immunity. There have been some concerns that this immunity would be compromised by a year of Zoom schooling and children not sharing germs and microbes.

There are other factors at play as well. I read recently that the flu which caused the pandemic a century ago didn’t really go away. Instead, it mutated into the precursors of today’s seasonal (and still evolving) flu strains, against which so many of us still get vaccinated every year. We are still sharing those flu strains with each other in our cities and towns today—and one or both of the bugs I caught could be related.

This reminds me of a family story about my paternal grandparents and their keen desire to keep their house clean. They had lived through the 1918 flu pandemic (being born in 1908 and 1915). When research into the flu (and development of stronger microscopes) revealed the fact that we live surrounded by germs, bacteria, and viruses, everyone panicked. By the time my dad and his twin (you might remember them from a poem I shared earlier this year) were born in 1938, cleanliness was next to godliness, as the old saying goes. The family story is that when the twins were crawling around the house, my grandma scrubbed the floors with disinfectant (bleach?) every single day!

I’m still pondering how I’m going to handle my return to communal living in the midst of this pandemic. I still wear a mask to grocery stores, even though it’s not required. While on vacation with family, we did dine indoors at restaurants more than once. (It’s possible that’s where I got the latest bug.) I imagine that it’s better for my body to get back in the habit of developing immunity by being exposed, but I also sense that my older body is having a harder time fighting these bugs than my kindergarten self would have been.

Lots of people are reflecting on how we won’t be going “back to normal” when the pandemic is over. The past can’t be resurrected. Communal living has changed, on multiple levels. There’s a lot we have to figure out, moving forward, where we might not have clarity yet.

Where are you with masks and immunity and self-care? What are your concerns and how are you addressing them?

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