The reality of the pandemic is settling in. So is America’s anxiety


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(CNN)It’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” but there’s a whole heck of a lot to make people anxious and afraid as we barrel into the holiday season.

The news Friday did nothing to help.

Spiking Covid-19 cases. One expert predicted a “viral blizzard” is coming — and infected patients are filling up American hospitals, again.

    A sick joke spread on TikTok about school shootings. It was vague, but still emptied some American schools.

      The coronavirus and school shootings aren’t related, but it seems the way we gather in public as a society — to work, to learn, to travel and to live — is evolving in uncomfortable ways.

        A feedback loop of worry persists

        That a vague rumor on TikTok could disrupt so many people for a day showed the power of social media and the fear of danger in the classroom, created by school shooting after school shooting.

          As CNN reported, school districts in states ranging from Minnesota to Texas shut down schools on Friday “in response to a wave of videos, some mentioning specific schools, suggesting that students avoid coming to class on Dec. 17.” Districts in other states, including Georgia, beefed up security and let parents know they were on top of things.

          Why did this happen? What’s befuddling is that no one seems to know exactly how the rumor began.

          TikTok blamed local media reports for amplifying a trend it said was not actually on its platform.

          There’s a valid debate over how journalists should approach this type of story. Amplifying a joke or a rumor about school shootings is bad. If schools are shutting their doors and putting parents and students on edge, it is news.

          One federal law enforcement source told CNN’s Brian Fung and Geneva Sands the fear is that the news coverage of the hoax inspires an actual school shooter.

          Students today are growing up with shooting drills to protect themselves against the unlikely but possible event of shootings, and masks to ward off the deadly virus.

          Overwhelmed. Many teachers have had enough, as CNN found when it asked teachers to share their stories. Many asked that their names be withheld to avoid retribution and told stories of being frustrated and overwhelmed.

          “Every day it feels like I’m wading through this quicksand that keeps trying to pull me under,” said Angela, a teacher at a small, alternative high school in Washington state. “I’m trying to reach the edge, but I can’t quite grab it,” she said.

          Put this alongside the stories of nurses and other health care workers at their wits’ end after nearly two years of battling Covid-19.

          Reality is setting in

          On the pandemic front, Americans who have done everything right — vaccinations, boosters and masks — face the predicament of realizing the advice from the government may well change in a month or two as the virus changes.

          Public health officials may have always said fighting the disease would require a layered approach, but their guidance has evolved in confusing ways as the virus has evolved. Masks were not recommended for the public. Then they were recommended. Then they were required in some places. Then it was OK for the vaccinated to drop them. Now they’re recommended again and required in some places.

          Vaccines were pushed as the main way to address the virus. They still are. But boosters have been added into the equation.

          The government may move methodically and follow the science in its recommendations. Right now, the question is when it will update its definition of “fully vaccinated” to include booster shots. For now, it is simply pushing for booster shots for everyone who is eligible. From the outside looking in, the process feels opaque and slow.

          What should now be abundantly clear is that two-dose vaccines alone won’t stop Covid-19, new variants may still emerge and masks are not going anywhere. It feels like we are still very far removed from a post-pandemic reality.

          Vigilance and vaccines are still required. It’s a matter of how many people die and whether hospitals are overwhelmed as we get there.

          That’s weighty stuff to consider when traveling for the holidays. CNN talked to experts about whether it is still a good idea to gather with loved ones.

          The answer, as always: it depends.

          “Think about your vaccine as a very good raincoat,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. “If you are going out into a drizzle, you’re probably going to be well protected and not get wet.

          “But if you’re going into a thunderstorm, there’s a higher chance of you getting wet, despite that very good raincoat.”

          I’m honestly not sure how much it’s raining right now, but outbreaks of Covid-19 in hypervaccinated professional sports leagues, shuttered Broadway shows and reports of filling hospitals make for a cloudy forecast.

          Just when it feels like something approaching a pre-pandemic level of ease is on the horizon, there’s a new spike.

          And emerging from the pandemic has created its own problems. A nationwide wave of “smash-and-grab” crimes and rising homicide rates make it seem like social order is somehow in danger.

          People are worried and worn out

          General unease might not be a quantifiable thing, but there’s evidence of frustration in public opinion polling.

          In January 2020, 21% of Americans said things in the country were going “very well,” according to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS. In a CNN poll released this week, that figure was 3%.

          In January 2020, less than half said things were going “pretty / very badly.” Now, it’s almost two-thirds.

          A different poll, from Monmouth University, asked if people were worn out by the pandemic. It’s not shocking that most people, 60%, said they were worn out.

            Nearly half of people said they were angry about how Covid-19 has affected their daily lives. Both Republicans and Democrats felt worn out, but Republicans were much more likely to report anger.

            To say Americans are “on edge” is just about the most hackneyed turn of phrase in the news business, but this holiday season it might actually be true.