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There are things everyone can do to help lower stress and reduce “shelter fatigue” in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.
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As we approach one of the most social, familial holidays of the year, the Centers for Disease Control is urging everyone to limit in-person contact for Thanksgiving, posting a stark warning of uncontrolled infectious spread on its website.

“More than 1 million COVID-19 cases were reported in the United States over the last 7 days,” the warning began. “As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with. Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu.”

That echoes the sentiment of Dr. Anthony Fauci, in an interview with USA TODAY’s Editorial Board last week, who cautioned that the seemingly “innocent” family and friend dinner gatherings at home have become the source of many outbreaks.

“Because of the almost intuitive instinct that when you’re with people you know ... and no one appears to be physically ill, that it’s OK to congregate 10, 12 people for drinks or a meal or what have you, but it’s indoors because the weather is cold, that’s where we’re seeing these types of outbreaks,” Fauci explained.

After the National Capital Region - like much of the Northeast - withdrew in mid-March for shelter-in-place orders, everyone was on high alert. Weeks turned to months, and maintaining safety protocols became more of a challenge. Even for professional firefighters.

“The team had done a good job of keeping things clean and washing hands,” said Fort Belvoir Fire Chief Shane Crutcher, who has to manage a workforce that not only works around the clock, but also lives with each other for days. “Access control had been thorough and keeping track of who comes in the building, but on Labor Day, we had a close call, which put nine of us under quarantine.

“Luckily, after three days, we were released from isolation,” Crutcher said. “What we didn’t do well, is wearing masks in the firehouse.”

Crutcher admitted that was an eye opener. He said that event had him invite a garrison public health evaluation, which highlighted further discrepancies, such as not covering water fountains and leaving extra chairs in meeting rooms.

Not hosting – or declining – a Thanksgiving gathering is very hard to do, as it goes against the human instinct to be social, according to Lt. Col. Peter Armanas, Chief, Department of Behavioral Health Consultation Liaison, and Fort Belvoir Installation Director of Psychological Health.

“The normal behavior we go through day to day involve social interactions, and we’re drawn incredibly strongly into a lot of social interactions with other people. So with social distancing, we’re trying to interrupt or change what is a deeply ingrained impulse for humans to interact closely with other people. Even a mask is something you’re drawn to remove,” Armanas said.

Crucial times like this require leadership at all levels, he stressed.

“Even as a parent, you’re the leader; as a teacher. There’s a leader in most of our interactions, and you need people to take leadership and demonstrate appropriate behaviors,” said Armanas.

To maintain resilience in the months to come, he suggested a disciplined rhythm in all things: work, social activities, exercise and healthy eating.

“You need to continue, as much as you can, a good rhythm,” said Armanas. “It’s not healthy to relax on, sleep on, and WORK on your couch. As much as possible it’s important for happiness to have productive work cycles. Set aside your work time and treat it like the office; dress up like you do at the office. Set a work environment with minimum distractions. Set hours and stick to it.”

As social animals, the best antidote to anxiety and isolation is, unsurprisingly, someone else.

“Regardless of the source of that anxiety, the best way to cope is to talk to someone else,” Armanas advised. “Talk to people about your anxieties – that may be a close friend, a counselor, coach, or religious leader. People need to have people they can trust to speak with,” acknowledging that it may be more difficult with limited face-to-face contact with peers.

Fortunately, Fort Belvoir provides one of the largest arrays of behavioral health in the military healthcare system, and Armanas said they are still providing all those services in-person and online.

“We’re trying to reset a little, and put ourselves in a better posture,” said Crutcher, noting that they’ve been lucky, so far. None of the firefighters have fallen victim to COVID fatigue.

See the Fort Belvoir Community resource guide for assistance for counseling and mental health services at https://crg.amedd.army.mil/guides/mdw/belvoir/Pages/default.aspx. To learn more about the updated Virginia COVID-19 measures, visit https://www.governor.virginia.gov/executive-actions.

This article originally ran in the Belvoir Eagle on November 23, 2020.