The COVID-19 pandemic is already fading into the background of life for most Ohioans, but Rachelle Eaton may never go another day without being reminded of the virus.
Eaton, 52, of Ravenna, said she was healthy and being abundantly cautious when she caught the virus in January. Weeks with severe symptoms turned to months and it eventually became clear to Eaton that she was suffering from long COVID, a condition which little is still known about but appears to causes long-term complications.
Almost 11 months after first contracting COVID, Eaton still struggles to breath and needs to use supplemental oxygen.
She had to quit her job as an accountant due to constant “brain fog.” She gets easily confused by numbers and can’t remember significant life events, such as her son’s high school graduation a little more than a year ago.
“I just thought I was that person not getting over COVID. … I am completely disabled now,” Eaton said. “Long COVID is like being tortured every single day.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, it will leave a lasting scar on society that will fade over time. However, for those who were impacted the most, like Eaton, the memory of the virus will last far longer — if not forever.
Around 36% of COVID survivors like Eaton, who are often called long haulers, are still dealing with symptoms months after recovering, according to a study published in September in the PLOS Medicine journal. So far, the virus has killed more than 762,000 Americans, including over 25,000 Ohioan, state and federal data shows.
With any tragedy, such as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, people remember things differently if they were directly affected, said Betsy Linnell, an assistant professor of psychology and public mental health expert at Cedarville University. Unlike the terrorist attacks, which were confined to a single day, everyone may have a different “flashbulb” moment when the reality of COVID sunk in, Linnell said.
For one person, it could be when they lost a loved one to the virus. For another it could be the day they lost a job, Linnell said.
“People who were (touched by) COVID will have a much more salient memory. That just kind of shapes the experience differently,” Linnell said.
Memories of pandemic: ‘The best in people’
Along with Eaton, there is another kind of person who without question will remember the pandemic differently than others, Linnell said.
Health care workers have borne the brunt of the virus since it first popped up in Ohio in March 2020. While many people have already begun to return to some pre-pandemic normalcy, health care workers are still dealing with an on-and-off onslaught of new virus patients, that never completely wanes.
Linnell worries the drawn-out nature of the pandemic will lead to mental health issues among frontline workers and people who suffered the most serious consequences of the virus.
“This long-term angst we’re feeling makes COVID different,” she said. “It is stretched out; it is really the fatigue of the unknown. It has almost become the new normal we’re living.”
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In times of trauma, Linnell said victories become oversized in a person’s memory. That’s OK though, because people need good things to get them through the bad stuff, she said.
Although the beginning of the pandemic was a scary time, it’s those positives that stick out in the memory of Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, medical director of infectious diseases for OhioHealth.
“People were fearful of things we didn’t know,” he said. “But, we have seen the best in people. Some people have really risen to the occasion.”
Medical workers like Gastaldo, have often been likened to soldiers during the pandemic.
Overnight, people began describing the daily jobs of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists as if they were heading to the frontlines of a military conflict. On more than one occasion, Gov. Mike DeWine said Ohioans were “at war” with COVID-19.
When the pandemic ends, that’s exactly how Gastaldo imagines it will be remembered: as one of the greatest wars in a generation.
“I think history will put this in the same context as World War I and World War II,” Gastaldo said. “We are really at war against this virus.”
What a COVID museum might look like
Wars are often remembered and reflected upon in museums — diseases, not so much.
That’s likely to change with COVID-19. But with everyone staying home to slow down the spread of the virus, much of the pandemic has been documented online and in social media, making it harder for an organization like Ohio History Connection to document, said curator Lisa Wood.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of different perspectives and opinions. It’s going to be challenging to preserve all of that,” Wood said. “People don’t always write a letter to the editor anymore. They make a post on Facebook.”
Some things historians might be able to preserve are signs on school buildings saying they were closed or caution tape blocking the use of a playground, Wood said.
Ohio History Connection is already seeking donations and when it comes to figuring out what to keep, the organization is collecting both everyday items and things that became more iconic during the pandemic, said curator Cliff Eckle.
For instance, former Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton was asked to donate one of her white lab coats to the museum group. Acton, who faced intense criticism and praise, took on sort of a folk-hero status for appearing in her lab coat during daily informational TV appearances in the early days of the pandemic.
The virus led DeWine to delay a March 2020 primary election. So Ohio History Connection collected protective gear that poll workers wore and a stylus voters used so they didn’t have to put their fingers all over touch screen machines to cast ballots.
“There’s a definite sense of life before COVID and life after COVID,” Eckle said. “What we try to anticipate is in the future when people want to talk about this time period, what will they think of?”
‘It takes time’ for historical understanding of pandemic
A lot of time must pass before people will be able to look at the pandemic through a historic lens, without politics and personal opinions clouding that viewpoint, said Wood, who is an expert on the 1970 Kent State shootings.
It’s difficult to know how much time must pass before people see something as historical, Wood said. Even 51 years out, Wood said the Kent State shooting, in which the Ohio National Guard fired on students during an anti-war protest, killing four and wounding nine, still conjures a lot of emotion and controversy.
“I think it takes time; it takes a critical distance. … I don’t know if 50 years is long enough or not,” Wood said. “I don’t know if COVID will be a massive chapter in a history book or if it’s going to be a paragraph.”
The kind of perspective only time can bring is something Eaton found herself pondering on a recent November day.
The pandemic would probably go down as one of the most divisive times in history Eaton said. It’ll probably feel like this surreal period, she said, that people talk about from time to time but don’t give much more than a passing thought.
Eaton may never have that luxury herself.
She’s attempted to make the best of her long COVID by trying to bring attention to it in hopes that people get vaccinated. No matter what she does though, the memory of the virus and the toll it’s taken on her body may persist in her as long as she lives.
“Pretty soon this is going to be just a memory, kind of like 9/11. There’ll be a 20-year anniversary and they’ll do a documentary,” Eaton said. “Everyone will move on. They’ll be going to concerts, bars and restaurants and meanwhile I can’t walk down to the basement to do laundry. I don’t know how to feel about that.”