Palo Alto High School's News and Features Publication

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Infectious indifference: An increasing desensitization to COVID-19


As sophomore Nadia Soberg locks her bike to the racks in front of the science building, she reaches into her jacket pocket and slips on a black face mask — a movement that she repeats so often, it might as well be automatic. On the way to class, she waves to friends as she passes by, unsure of whether they’ll be comfortable enough for a hug, a greeting that used to be a regular part of her morning routine. Once at her desk, her mind drifts to the overwhelming amount of tests scheduled that week as the teacher walks in and begins to drone on about the need to stay home if they’re sick. She’s already been hearing the same sentences for two years — she sees no point in paying attention anymore.

New norms

Adapting to COVID restrictions has meant drastic changes in how people work, learn and live their lives. Entire communities went into lockdown, schools transitioned to virtual learning and hundreds of businesses were forced to shut down. Meanwhile, wearing masks in public spaces and keeping distance from others became second nature.

“At this point, we see it [COVID] almost more like it’s just disruptive and not as a crazy fear-inducing thing.”

— Christoper Farina, psychology teacher

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But as the novelty of mask-wearing and constant rapid testing has begun to wear off, many people’s views on the dangers of COVID-19 have also shifted. After being bombarded day after day with the same pandemic-related headlines and recommendations, have we become desensitized to COVID? How have our mindsets around the pandemic changed as schools and other facilities reopen and return to some degree of normalcy?

“In a weird way, I feel less afraid of it [contracting Omicron] — I think it’s mostly just being fed up with COVID and after having so many people I know get it, I kind of feel like ‘Whatever happens, happens,’” sophomore Sirisha Mitra said. “Of course, I don’t want to get COVID, but I am less afraid of the virus now than in March of 2020.”

One study from UC Davis suggests that general levels of public anxiety in response to social media posts and articles about the coronavirus have diminished over time.

“Desensitization helps people cope with scary experiences,” said Hannah Stevens, the paper’s lead author. “When we are repeatedly exposed to something frightening or stressful, we kind of get accustomed to it, or at least to respond less strongly to it.”

Stevens says this increasing desensitization correlates with a decreased number of people complying with public health guidelines. She hopes the findings of her study will prompt more conversation around how to ease COVID-related burnout.

For some, however, this decreased sense of anxiety surrounding pandemic-related news has been a positive change for their mental health. 

“In the beginning, I was so anxious and I really think it was causing me a mental health concern,” Palo Alto High School parent Rachel Cleary said. “So for me, being somewhat desensitized, or at least being less anxious has, I think, been really healthy.”

Omicron’s impact

Last summer, the number of new COVID cases in Santa Clara County was gradually declining and vaccination rates among residents were on the rise. As many public schools returned to in-person learning, it seemed to many as though the world was beginning a slow transition back to its pre-pandemic state.

“For sure, anxiety has changed over the course of the pandemic,” Paly psychology teacher Christopher Farina said. “Since we’ve had the vaccine, especially in this community in Santa Clara County, we have a ridiculously high vaccination rate, and that feels really secure. At this point, we see it [COVID] almost more like it’s just disruptive and not as a crazy fear-inducing thing.”

Desensitization helps people to cope with scary experiences.”

— Hannah Stevens, researcher

However, as the Omicron variant spread to the U.S. in December, global cases skyrocketed. Universities such as UCLA and Stanford re-implemented virtual learning, casting uncertainty over previous hopes for returning to normal.

Despite Omicron’s high transmission rates, more and more research has emerged suggesting that Omicron symptoms are typically less dangerous than previous strains. This new data has prompted more people to view Omicron as an inconvenience rather than a health-threatening emergency.

“I don’t think it’s as much because I’m concerned about my own health if I were to catch COVID; it’s more about the disruption that it would cause,” Farina said. “If I catch it, then I’m out of work for five days— it’s just a logistical nightmare.”

This has also sparked debate on how to handle re-openings — do we plan for shutdowns when surges arise or learn to live while managing the virus?

“Do we need to go back to shutting things down? Or do we just treat it like the flu now?” Farina said. “That’s a tough one to answer because, for some individuals or families, they do feel that logistical impact more than others. And for others, they’re just by themselves living in an apartment, and it’s like, ‘Why can’t I just go to a restaurant?’”

Paly perspective

The decision of whether to implement temporary online learning options or keep schools open during the recent Omicron surge has been a polarizing issue among Paly students, parents and faculty. Some strongly support keeping schools open while others believe that Paly should offer a virtual option.

“I have such an overwhelming gratitude for the school administrators, staff, faculty and everybody who shows up and keeps kids where they’re able to socialize and learn and live in community,” Cleary said. “That’s the most important part of living — being a part of a community, and school is integral to that.”

Strict masking policies and the distribution of free rapid tests to students and faculty are some measures that have been implemented thus far to create a safer learning environment. 

Amid all these new opinions surrounding recent surges, many feel a sense of burnout around constant coronavirus restrictions. To add to the issue, the opening of previously shut down stores and restaurants also provokes a lack of caution as people begin to congregate in public areas. The public has begun to become desensitized to news covering COVID and have placed this deadly disease — which has caused over 5 million deaths worldwide according to the New York Times — at the back of their minds. 

“Throughout the pandemic, the public has been repeatedly exposed to scary media reports of COVID health risk and deaths,” Stevens said. “It is not surprising that over time, individuals may be experiencing diminished anxiety, even in the face of an increasing threat. While our study cannot re-sensitize the public, I hope that it can be an impetus to get that discussion started. Hopefully, it will help people recognize that just because they’re not feeling acutely anxious doesn’t mean the problem has gone away.”

Do you know someone who had or has covid?