How to prevent relapse: Keeping risk in focus

Eight months in, following COVID-19 prevention guidelines can feel like more and more of a challenge. Writing for The Conversation, Jay Maddock, a professor of public health at Texas A&M University, says that the fear that propelled us into life-saving behavior in the spring has eased, putting us at risk of relapse into unhealthy behavior that exposes us — and others — to illness, and worse.

Creating our own risk-assessment model will help us sustain healthy behavior as the pandemic drags on.

Relapse-prevention: Initial PERCEIVED risk

Much as the dieter starts out strong — restricting food intake, maximizing activity — Americans’ pandemic compliance was high when the pandemic forced us into lockdown in March. We stayed home, wore masks if we ventured out, and washed our hands until they chapped. We were terrified as we watched televised images of hospitals and morgues overflow with the frightening reality.

Relapse-prevention: Reduced risk over time

It’s very difficult to sustain extreme behavior. The dieter’s determination falters as the payoff becomes harder to achieve, and old habits push back. As we have settled into the new normal of pandemic life, fear has ebbed. Lockdowns have evaporated even as COVID-19 cases rise. The 10 million cases and 235,000 deaths have become numbers. President Trump’s disinterest in combatting the virus — not wearing a mask, not social distancing, even after contracting COVID-19 — translates into the public’s disinterest. As a beach-goer in Florida said on the news, “I mean, the President got it and he’s fine. If he’s not worried, I’m not worried.”

Relapse-prevention: making your own risk model

It falls to each of us to assess the risk of contracting the virus and the consequences on our lives if we do. I have finally recovered after nearly dying last year during a three-month hospitalization for an illness that left my immune system permanently weak. My husband is also at high risk. Neither one of us wants to spent one more minute in a hospital. So, we’ve incorporated the new protocols into daily life, limiting our exposure and protecting ourselves if we do venture forth. Our county government has imposed a mask mandate, and most people comply even though the governor cancelled local governments’ authority to fine.

Palm Beach County daily COVID-19 cases

The virus is visible to us, in large part because I’ve been tracking the numbers in my Florida area since the end of May, using the daily Department of Health updates published in The Palm Beach Post.

The double digit daily increases grew through the spring, began coming down in the summer — the lockdown worked — and have now begun rising again as Governor Ron DeSantis opened the state wide. He is looking to reduce the frequency of these reports in order to reduce the evidence of risk. Out of sight, out of mind.

We will continue living our lives by the model we’ve developed over the past eight months. We are not isolated. We are not lonely. We are in a community of good people, families with children who came around in greater numbers than ever this Halloween. We were ready for them with a social-distancing delivery system my husband created: a 10 foot candy cannon! It was one of the best Halloweens ever. In a pandemic, which we are learning to live with.

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