Welcome to COVID Questions, TIME’s advice column. We’re trying to make living through the pandemic a little easier, with expert-backed answers to your toughest coronavirus-related dilemmas. While we can’t and don’t offer medical advice—those questions should go to your doctor—we hope this column will help you sort through this stressful and confusing time. Got a question? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, K.K. in California asks:
My son is almost two, and he was born prematurely at 33 weeks. We don’t ever want to see him in the hospital again, and especially not because we were careless. Once lockdowns began last year, we took the virus seriously right away, and felt like most of our community and friends were doing the same.
However, lately, we have felt like we are the only ones still taking COVID seriously. We follow everything that the health experts say but increasingly come across people who approach too closely, do not wear masks, have friends over inside, go on vacations, et cetera.
Are we doing something wrong? Are we being overly cautious? Sometimes given our surroundings it feels that way. And I also worry that our toddler doesn’t get any exposure playing with other children. Are we making the right choices? Are we alone?
*This question has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
It makes total sense that you would be concerned for your son. For the most part, children his age have been spared from the worst of COVID-19, but the virus can be devastating for people with underlying conditions—and being born prematurely may count as one, even though your son is now almost two.
As you probably know, people born prematurely sometimes have health problems for life; many also have under-developed respiratory systems, which is especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s not much research on prematurity and COVID-19 specifically, but one February 2021 study from researchers at Children’s Hospital Colorado found that kids who were born preterm were at increased risk of being hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19.
Dr. Samuel Dominguez, one of the study’s authors, says that risk is most serious for preterm babies, and gets progressively lower as a child grows up (assuming their health is fairly stable). Nonetheless, “we do know for other respiratory viruses that premature kids are at risk for more severe disease,” Dominguez says. “Premature kids often have problems with their lungs, so we worry about respiratory infections in that population in particular.”
The bottom line, Dominguez says, is that your family—just like all families—should be following public-health guidelines, including wearing masks, social distancing and keeping social interactions outdoors to the extent possible, at least until you’re vaccinated.
As for whether your son is suffering due to reduced social interactions, Dr. Sandra Friedman, director of developmental pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Colorado, says the most important thing is to keep up with regular doctor’s visits, even during the pandemic. Your son’s physician should perform age-appropriate developmental screenings that can alert you to any potential issues. If those screens appear normal, “if you play with your son, read to him, narrate activities while they are occurring and provide him with an enriched environment, he should continue to do well,” Friedman says.
But that only addresses half of your letter. You’re also asking another question: “Why does it feel like everyone else has forgotten about the pandemic?”
I wish I knew the answer, because I’ve had this conversation with friends many times! At the very least, know that you aren’t alone in feeling alternately over-cautious and confident you’re doing the right thing. You’re also far from the only person still taking precautions. Some data actually show that more people in the U.S. are wearing masks and social distancing now compared to a few months ago, believe it or not.
But statistics aren’t super helpful when you’re faced with daily, in-person reminders that your loved ones are going back to pre-pandemic life while you’re still in quarantine mode.
It may help to cut down on those reminders, says Dr. Jessi Gold, an assistant psychiatry professor at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. If you have certain friends or family members whose behavior makes you feel particularly anxious, or with whom you constantly butt heads about what’s safe to do right now, you may want to temporarily ease back from those relationships, or at least swear off talking about the pandemic together. Simply muting people’s vacation posts on social media can go a long way, too.
It may also help to reach out to loved ones, or even friendly acquaintances, who seem to view the pandemic similarly to the way you do. “It’s never good to be in a complete echo chamber,” Gold says, “but in circumstances where you feel really alone…it can be helpful to seek out someone who understands.”
Remind yourself of why you’re taking precautions, too. “You can sometimes evaluate a thought with evidence,” Gold suggests. When you start to feel like the only one who cares about the virus, remember that you’re basing your choices off the advice of the nation’s top health officials, not some arbitrary decision on your part. “If you take a step back and realize that you’re living in line with your values, that’s important, too,” Gold adds. Thinking of your son, and your desire to keep him safe, may give you strength.
And make sure you’re taking care of yourself, Gold says. The pandemic is hard and stressful, and no amount of self-care will change that. But taking even a few minutes a day to read, take a bath, exercise, watch your favorite reality show or whatever helps you recharge may help you stay motivated enough to do it all again tomorrow. And take comfort in the fact that more people are getting vaccinated every day, which means better times are ahead.
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Contributor: Jamie Ducharme