Like a scene from a pre-pandemic summer, people make their way up the hill from the ferry terminal after arriving Sunday, June 27, on Peaks Island. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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While many Mainers may be excited at the prospect of life returning to a strong sense of pre-pandemic normalcy this summer, for others the seemingly abrupt reopening of the world in recent weeks – especially after spending more than a year isolated and on high alert about COVID-19 – can be a source of anxiety.

Earlier in the pandemic, for those able to leave their homes, routine tasks like visiting the grocery store required several new steps: remembering to bring a mask and hand sanitizer, budgeting time to wait in line, and maybe mentally preparing to be around strangers for the first time in weeks.

With those precautions mostly lifted now after 15 months, it can feel like something is missing.

Portland resident Caelainn Costello said while last year restrictions seemed to roll out gradually, the opposite felt true as things reopened.

“It was like a switch flipped and all of that was suddenly OK again. There wasn’t any slow reintroduction to normal life,” Costello, a teacher, said. “I think that’s why I was hesitant to go to the grocery store without a mask on even though I (am) fully vaccinated.”

She also said it has been strange to work in an environment where masks are required indoors, but required elsewhere.

Costello said she has also seen some of her students hesitant to do away with their masks – even after being told they no longer have to wear masks outdoors, she said some children continue to wear them.

“It seemed like a security blanket to them,” she said. “Something they’ve been forced to be accustomed to and then all of a sudden they can abandon it.”

Costello said she is beginning to feel better about going maskless in certain circumstances, but still finds it difficult to trust that everyone unmasked in public has been fully vaccinated.

Nicole Taylor, who also lives in Portland, echoed that sentiment. Despite being fully vaccinated, she said she still feels “weird guilt” when doing everyday activities without a mask.

Taylor still wears a mask “just in case” in stores, she said, “but then I feel like a weirdo that I have one, because no one else does.”

Both Costello and Taylor also noted there seems to be a new assumption that wearing a mask means a person is an “anti-vaxxer” or not vaccinated, which is not always true.

Portland psychologist Alexandra Lash said the pandemic has been a collective trauma for society. Her best advice for people feeling anxious now is to take “baby steps,” she said, and be kind to themselves. 

Portland clinical psychologist Alexandra Lash. (Contributed)

Some pandemic behaviors, like excessively using hand sanitizer, double masking, and staying apprised of the most recent safety recommendations, Lash added, may have been “protective mechanisms” that helped soothe anxiety for some people in an otherwise uncontrollable situation during the past year.

“I believe in vaccinations one trillion percent, but just because we know cognitively that we’re in a safer place, it doesn’t mean that these protective behaviors that we’ve established kind of trickle away,” Lash said. “And the way that they quell our anxiety, that doesn’t just go away.”

The constant updating of restrictions and health information about COVID-19 during the last year may have also caused confusion for people who want to err on the side of caution.

According to the CDC, people who are fully vaccinated can resume the activities they had before the pandemic. A person is fully vaccinated when it has been two weeks since either their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, or two weeks since receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Activities that fully vaccinated people are permitted to do include traveling throughout the United States without having a COVID-19 test or quarantining before or after travel, going maskless, and coming in close contact with others who are fully vaccinated. 

According to Yale Medicine, the Pfizer vaccine is 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in people without prior infection, and Moderna is 94.1 percent effective. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to Yale, is 72 percent effective overall, and 86 percent effective at preventing severe COVID-19 in the U.S.

In terms of variants, Yale states Pfizer has been found to be more than 95 percent effective against preventing severe disease or death from the variants of COVID-19 first detected in the U.K. and South Africa. Some research has suggested Moderna may also be protective against the variants, but the subject is still being studied. 

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has also been shown to offer protection against the U.K. variant. According to analyses by the Federal Drug Administration released in February, the Johnson & Johnson shot was 64 percent effective overall against COVID-19 and 82 percent effective against severe illness in South Africa, where the second variant was first detected.

Despite encouragement from the facts, however, Lash acknowledged that some people may need to start slowly when it comes to reentering the world.

She suggested fully vaccinated people could attend a small, outdoor barbecue with people in their COVID-19 pod and take off their masks there as a way to test the waters.

Lash also noted that different masking policies at private businesses can add to the stress and confusion. Rules differ, for example, depending on the grocery store where you shop in Portland; she said she recently went grocery shopping and found it strange to see other people’s faces. 

Whether the pandemic may have caused previously healthy people to develop mental health struggles is not yet known, Lash said, although the drastic changes in lifestyle caused by COVID-19 may have been more difficult for some than others.

Some people might have relied heavily on having a set routine, the freedom to go wherever they want, or the interpersonal relationships found in the workplace, she said, and may be struggling with having those taken away.

Recent data also illustrates the national mental health crisis that arose from the pandemic. 

A Boston University study published last fall found the number of U.S. adults who reported being depressed last year more than tripled, from 8.5 percent before the pandemic to 27.8 percent.

Lash said people are adaptable by nature, but that does not discount the difficulty that could come with bouncing back from the pandemic.

“We’ve all adapted to this way of being as our new norm, so flopping back again is difficult,” she said. “I think there’s a big, big difference between what we cognitively know to be true and safe versus what we emotionally feel to be safe.”