Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 8, 2021

‘Back to normal’? Yeah, right: A Covid reality check from a New Zealander in LA

Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

New Zealand had a late start on vaccines, and a lot of us are looking enviously at other countries that began vaccinating earlier. But if you think things are now back to normal elsewhere, think again, writes Rosie Carnahan-Darby.

Like so many others, I am a serial Facebook commenter. Last week, after reading comment, after comment, after news story about how Aotearoa should open up “like the rest of the world”, I snapped. By snapped, I mean I hurriedly wrote a post in my pyjamas after half a coffee while trying to make my kid finish his homework.

Surprisingly, more people than just my mum read it. The gist of it was that no, the rest of the world has not opened up, and we are not “back to normal”. We did not fling the doors open and declare the pandemic over. We are not back to the heady pre-March 2020 times of bars, socialising and kids huddling in groups around video games.

My family and I are New Zealanders, but we’ve lived in Los Angeles for a number of years. When the pandemic hit, like the proverbial rats from a sinking ship we fled from LA to New Zealand. After the initial lockdown we enjoyed a year of relative freedom. I video-called friends in LA from concerts without a mask on, while they bemoaned yet another month locked in their houses while their kids tried to focus on remote learning.

In May 2021 we returned to Los Angeles. By that time, cases in LA were down to about 100 a day, and people were getting vaccinated, including kids over 12. We were very nervous to be moving from an essentially Covid-free country to one where the virus was widespread, but our friends helped us settle in to this “new normal” – which mainly meant avoiding each other except for the occasional socially-distanced wine in the back yard. At this point, most of our friends’ kids had been back at school, unvaccinated, for about a month. Schools in Los Angeles had been remote learning for over a year.

In a fit of confidence, with vaccinations going well, LA County “opened up” on June 15. This meant no masks, and you could dine indoors – an incredibly abrupt about-turn from the previously strict safety rules. Almost immediately, cases started rising, peaking at about 4000 a day. You can imagine our trepidation as parents about sending an unvaccinated child back to school.

A 6-year-old boy is tested for Covid before the start of the school year in mid-August 2021. Los Angeles schools require all students and teachers to be tested weekly. (Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Soon after, California’s governor reinstated the mask mandate and cases gradually began drifting back down. So now, in November 2021, how do our lives look in this new “new normal”?

Here’s how my day goes: Every morning I fill in a health check online for both my kids. My eldest is 15 and vaccinated, the youngest, Theo, is 11, and not. The health check basically declares that they are free of symptoms and have not left LA or the state in the past 10 days, nor had contact with anyone that has tested positive. We then screenshot that health check and must show it for the kids to gain access to school.

Once at school, the kids are masked all day, even for PE. I went from hating wearing a mask when we got back in May to just accepting it. My kids don’t even notice; they put masks on at the same time as their shoes and don’t take them off till they get home. When they eat at school they can take their masks off, but they must sit on green circles to ensure proper distancing and are separated from their friends across the table by a plexiglass screen.

While this might seem like overkill, of the five cases so far at the school my kids go to, none have then passed the virus on to a classmate.

In August, before kids went back to school, and when we were starting to feel brave, we went camping with friends. My 11-year-old was the only unvaccinated one, so the entire group decided to get tested the day we left to ensure his safety.

Two weeks later we went camping again, this time with a big group from his school. We were a little laissez faire about it, figuring since all the adults were vaccinated and the kids had all been tested at school we were likely fine. Famous last words. One kid tested positive on the Tuesday after the weekend and the entire grade was sent home for a week to make certain it hadn’t spread beyond that one child. It had not, thankfully. But we learned our lesson: if we want to have some small freedoms – like going on a camping trip – the trade-off is being prepared to be stuck at home if someone comes down with Covid.

Public health experts and school staff at an information event for teachers prior to the reopening of LA schools, July 2021 (Photo: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

We do go out to dinner. There is a comforting feeling of safety among widely spaced tables and staff all in masks. Having said that, a few of our favourite restaurants remain empty every night – but still killing it in takeaways. And as long as our youngest is unvaccinated, we favour restaurants where you can eat outside. All across the city, carparks and footpaths have been turned over to restaurant seating to meet the demand for less risky outdoor dining. An added advantage is that our Covid puppy (come on, we all got one one!) can come with us.

When people come to our house we automatically explain that we are all vaccinated, and they confirm they are too, then we ask them to stay masked around our 11-year-old. Everyone, whether a visiting tradie or close friend, respects that. Admittedly, we relax those rules around friends we know are as careful as us, and we have an added layer of reassurance knowing the kids are tested every week at school. But we are always mindful of how our actions can impact unvaccinated kids at school and vulnerable people in the wider community.

Weekly testing at school has been a game changer, allowing asymptomatic cases to be picked up before they pass the virus on to other kids. And any time someone in our house has a sniffle or hayfever we are off to the local testing station or I grab an at-home testing kit from the nearest drugstore.

My husband and I go to gigs, but with widespread vaccine passport requirements you know everyone there is double vaccinated (and masked), so you know the stats are on your side. And boy do I know the stats! On average, you are five times as likely to catch Covid if you are unvaccinated. The more people vaxxed, the less transmission, and the safer our vulnerable will be.

You need to show vaccination certificate to enter venues, bars, restaurants, and you have to be vaccinated to attend school. If you’re not vaccinated, many of these places will accept a negative Covid test from that day. So nobody is being forced to be vaxxed, but life certainly is easier and feels safer if you are.

So Aotearoa, we are not back to normal. We are living with Covid, but without anything like the kind of freedom we had two years ago. We won’t even get on a plane with our youngest until he is vaccinated. From experience I can tell you with absolute certainty: the idea that other governments are “getting on with it” and leaving Covid restrictions behind is simply nonsense.

A postscript: As I write, the CDC has just announced it has approved vaccinations for 5-11 year olds here in the US. I was like a millennial trying to get tickets to Coachella when I heard, and managed to snag Theo an appointment for tomorrow. He declared this week the best week ever, as he is finally getting his vaccination too!

New Zealander Rosie Carnahan-Darby lives in Los Angeles with her husband Rhys and sons Finn and Theo.

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