Lauren McKenzie, who is 35 and lives in Surprise, Arizona, recently flew to California to attend a funeral. On the flight back, she felt a familiar tingle in her neck, muscle tension building up in her chest. Oh no: she had to sneeze, in an airport, during a pandemic.
“The urge to take off my mask was so strong,” McKenzie said. “Then the logic kicked in: I had to sneeze into the mask.”
Her fellow passengers waiting at the gate stared, their eyes dripping judgement. “I thought, ‘I did my civic duty, people!’ It’s nasty, but I did it. That was the weirdest feeling, the panic of that sneeze. Everyone told me to change my mask, which I did—obviously.”
As the pandemic drags on into its seventh month and the temperature begins to dip, a new season brings familiar new rituals. Autumn means Halloween, pumpkin spice, cozy sweaters, scented candles—and the judgiest flu season humanity has ever seen.
The coronavirus kicked off a worldwide hyper-vigilance of personal health; any errant sore throat or mild headache could be the first sign of a deadly infectious disease. Or it could be nothing. Or it could be the flu.
“Our brains are so primed to be focused on symptoms and illness, we can’t help it,” Dr. Nicole Beurkens, a psychologist based in Michigan, said. “Somebody sneezes in Costco, and suddenly our brains think, ‘How could they do that?’”
Chalk it up to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, not the far-left West German militant group, but a type of cognitive bias. “Our brain is primed to think about what it wants to focus on,” Dr. Beurkens said. “We’re hearing about COVID now, so when we see people who have garden variety colds, or sneeze, we’re going to think ‘That’s so irresponsible.’ That would never have occurred to us at this time last year.”
Start thinking about something and suddenly you see it everywhere. Sort of like how coronavirus spreads—one person has it, and then suddenly 34 others do.
See: the White House outbreak. With little reliable information coming from the president’s administration, many are left to speculate about who “looks” sick.
We are all armchair epidemiologists now, especially during the Vice Presidential Debate when Mike Pence’s eyes appeared to be red. Some thought it was obvious that meant he was sick, though conjunctivitis is a rare symptom of coronavirus.
Trump’s infamous tan disappeared during his stay at Walter Reed—a sure sign, others insisted, of the seriousness of his case. (Or just that his usual make-up person was not in attendance.)
McKenzie is riding out the pandemic at home with her mother, an at-risk patient with pre-existing conditions. She felt “plague anxiety” in March that eased into an acceptance of the things she could control—wearing a mask, social distancing. “The crazy started to go away,” McKenzie said.
But then Trump caught the virus. “I was sitting down watching television, and I started to feel a cough. I almost went into a full anxiety attack. That hasn’t happened in months,” she said. “It stinks. It’s happening to me again—worrying about my mom and having her catch it. It’s happening to everyone else. It’s a redo of anxiety, constantly.”
The Vice Presidential Debate made it worse. “That dude did not look good at all,” she said.
Rachel, a 29 year-old who lives in Bavaria, Germany, also feels uneasy whenever she hears a stray sneeze. Her coworker has had a coughing problem for over a year now—it’s definitely not COVID-related. But Rachel says the wheezing still sets her off.
“I have absolutely had the urge to cough in public as well,” Rachel, who asked that her real name not be used, said. “I try to stop myself because I don’t want others around me to worry, but if I absolutely have to, I cough into my armpit and try to cough only once.”
Dr. Kathleen Jordan, an infectious disease expert and senior vice president of medical affairs for the women’s health startup Tia, noted that there can be a lot of “overlap” in symptoms of the cold, flu, and coronavirus.
“As we enter the flu season, it will become difficult to discern the difference between the flu and COVID from [a patient’s] home,” Dr. Jordan said. “There are certainly some flu symptoms that would warrant coronavirus testing, like trouble breathing, confusion, blue-ish lips and face.”
According to the CDC, symptoms of coronavirus and the flu are so similar that “it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone” — tests are the best way to quell anxiety.
So get tested if you need to. Sneeze behind your mask if you must. But try to be patient with yourself and others. A death stare might not be the best way to respond to a stranger coughing in an airport.
“Usually, when we’re shaming other people, it’s about our own fears and insecurities,” Dr. Beurkens said. “If I am feeling really motivated to shame someone for what they are doing—how dare you go back into the office?—I should turn that back on myself. What is that about for me? That is probably about my fear of getting sick or my fear for my elderly grandmother. But shame is not productive for us, or them.”
As McKenzie put it, “Coughing in public, you feel like all eyes are on you. And then you feel judged when someone else does it! There’s this constant hypocrisy. The 2020 thoughts that we’ve had are all so new and interesting and terrible, all at once.”