By Theresa L. Bohannan
As a teen in the 90s, there was a lot to deal with — the Rodney King beating and subsequent L.A. riots, the death of Kurt Cobain, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, OJ…. but nothing seemed as indelible and frightening as the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the early years when there were few treatments, getting HIV was a death sentence. As an adolescent, it felt very likely that I would grow up only to later die of AIDS. In hindsight, my sophomoric assessment was disproportionate and has become even more so today with expanded treatment options and longevity. However, at the time there were so many horror stories — and nothing scared me more than watching the movie “Kids”, where the protagonist of the movie learns she is HIV positive after her first sexual encounter. This movie was widely criticized at the time, and it remains as shocking today as it was 25 years ago. It was a cautionary tale of kids engaging in risky behaviors and transmitting deadly diseases.
Now, here we are again amidst another epidemic that has radically changed our lives. The difference today is that risky behavior is defined as going to bars, restaurants, or any indoor space with large numbers of people. I can’t imagine explaining to my 16-year-old self that not only is it dangerous to have unprotected sex but so is going out with your friends on a Friday night.
I write this as I enter my second week of quarantine after someone who had COVID-19 walked right through my front door. Our family took all the precautions to limit our exposures by staying home and wearing masks in public. Even though we followed all the guidance, my husband shares custody of his son and in such cases, there is little one can do to protect one’s household from another. Because our youngest son was born with a severe heart condition, we have taken special precautions to ensure his safety by testing his brother each time he comes back to our home. My stepson was asymptomatic when he tested positive and is a testament to how widely this virus has propagated in our community. Now all of us are in isolation in our own home. My 5-year-old has not seen other kids his age for months, and now cannot even get a hug from us. We fear what happens if he gets ill.
When people cavalierly say “if you are at risk, just stay home,” they don’t realize that doing so will not guarantee that you won’t be exposed to COVID, even if you follow all the recommendations. That kind of statement is a total disregard for those who are vulnerable and most at risk. People don’t want to be inconvenienced by social distancing recommendations or they refuse to wear masks in public and yammer on about their freedoms. What about the freedom to live in a community that is safe for everyone, not just for those who think they are immune or feel untouched by this disease? One just has to read about the recent death of Nick Cordero to see how ruthless this virus can be even to those who are young and healthy.
With HIV/AIDS, if an individual chose to engage in risky behaviors, it put only him/her and their partner in danger, not the entire community. COVID-19 is different. What each of us chooses to do can affect everyone because the virus is so contagious. I understand the desire to return to normal, however, we are just not there. As long as people take risks, we will not be able to fully reopen anything, much less our schools. As more news stories document COVID-19 outbreaks linked to a house party or a night out at the club or church services, I hope people pause to think about how their individual actions may contribute to someone else’s early death.
Don’t shirk your own responsibility onto the shoulders of families with children or parents with underlying conditions. Alone, we cannot save ourselves, and you can put our families at extreme risk. Please, put on a mask when you are out in public! It is literally the least you can do. Not for yourself, but for others. This pandemic is a marathon, not a race. We need to act collectively to stop the spread.
Theresa Bohannan is a lifelong Nevadan, wife and mother. She earned her Master's of Public Health degree from UNR and previously worked as an epidemiologist at the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health. She is currently a member of the Patient Protection Commission.