CHICAGO, Illinois — We all know someone who has been taking extra precautions during the pandemic: That friend who declines to go out or travel or a family-member vigilant about wearing masks and handwashing. Avoiding risk and exposure is understandable. What happens if that person gets COVID? Experts say aside from the physical challenge, the embarrassment and guilt some people are feeling about being judged is a real phenomenon.
“We did get vaccinated. And so, me working at home, I figured, ‘Okay, I have a lot less exposure,’” said Angelique Atwell a mother, wife and life coach.
For nearly two years Atwell took precautions to avoid getting COVID. But, just before Christmas, as things began opening in her home state of Texas, the 28-year-old, who was fully vaccinated, got infected.
“I think there's this weird, yeah, like stigma about having it,” said Atwell. “It's almost it's like shameful when you have to tell people.”
With a surge in cases setting records in many parts of the country, many Americans who have been conscientiously masking, social distancing and fully vaccinated are finding it harder to escape COVID. And that’s leading to what experts have dubbed "COVID shame."
“I think the part of the shame part is that people are concerned about how other people are viewing them, not just their personal guilt about maybe decisions they made, but how they're getting COVID,” said Dr. Sheehan Fisher, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
He says in recent months, he’s seeing more patients coping with the phenomenon of "COVID shame."
“They're concerned that others may view their sickness or that they're getting that diagnosis as an indicator of their social activity or even sometimes it's gotten convoluted with politics,” said Fisher.
For many people—like Atwell, who had been careful during the pandemic by avoiding travel, large gatherings and even stepping back from friends and family—coming down with COVID fills their heads with nerve-racking questions.
“Who have I seen? Who do I need to tell? Where was I without a mask? Who could I have potentially exposed? And so, that went through my mind of like, I really hope that I did not expose anyone,” said Atwell.
Experts say it’s important to keep things in perspective.
Understand that getting COVID doesn’t equal recklessness. Despite being vaccinated, boosted, and wearing masks, there is still a risk for contracting the virus. You can’t control what others think and it’s important not to overcompensate.
“Because then that can lead to other mental health issues where they are so isolated or they're so anxious, or you’re feeling sad that it starts to become a bigger problem,” said Sheehan.
Atwell, who is also a life coach, says for her it was important to give herself some grace.
“I had to tell myself, ‘You're not morally wrong or bad for doing this.’ It's not like, ‘Hey, I intentionally went out with the intent to get sick and then expose other people,’” she said.
And for those who haven’t come down with COVID, experts say they should extend some grace as well by being less judgmental and not assuming someone who gets sick is necessarily irresponsible.