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Dying to connect or dying unconnected: Two realities of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Coronavirus testing center located at Barcroft Community Center in the Arlington, Virginia.

Worldwide the coronavirus has drastically disrupted the way we live, work, play, worship, travel, mourn the loss of loved ones and friends, and even approach dying. Many people are anxious to get back to their normal activities across the globe despite the threat of a resurgence of a coronavirus infectious disease outbreak. 

With the American death toll surpassing 110,000, leading public health officials and some of the nation’s highest-ranking officials and others continue to issue warnings relative to opening up the country too fast or too soon. Experts predict that a resurgence could be more deadly if the COVID-19 virus returns during the upcoming flu season in the United States. 

Depictions of large gatherings at beaches and other outdoor activities are cause for alarm as many of these depictions are void of the protective measures (e.g., universal masking, social distancing) known to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. After an extensive review of 172 studies, researchers concluded that wearing facemasks in public and maintaining social distancing are two of the most effective weapons in combatting the immediate threat of COVID-19. 

Despite these findings, in some instances, some of our preventive measures seemed to have fallen by the wayside. The need to remain committed to protecting each other and ourselves has never been greater in the fight to eliminate the deadly grip of COVID -19. Our desire to connect with others must not outweigh our efforts to reduce the risk of becoming infected or infecting others with the deadly virus. 

The need for these same protective measures has altered how we support those who are approaching death and how we mourn the loss of loved ones impacted by the coronavirus. Less visible are the many people who are alone facing the final stages of this illness in hospitals, long-term care facilities, or other places. Many individuals affected by the coronavirus have had to transition alone, in part, due to the strict necessary protective measures put in place to prevent further spread of the virus. 

Because of the fear of contagion, health-related facilities have instituted stringent visitor restrictions, often leaving those in isolation without the traditional connectivity to loved ones and friends when many individuals desire to connect with others in person. The true impact of the loss of direct face-to-face interaction as one approaches death is immeasurable for both individuals and loved ones. 

While some institutions use video chats or other electronic means to establish some form of connection during these difficult times, the extent or impact of such practices is unknown. We must do better to address the needs of those in isolation and dying alone in the time of COVID-19.

The desire to connect with others is a need we all share. Our ability to connect with others on our timing and choosing is something that we should not take for granted. This may not be the case for those who are alone battling the coronavirus. 

As I reflect on the many people who have succumbed to the virus alone, adhering to safety measures during this pandemic is a minimal price to pay. The harsh realities of the CDOVID-9 pandemic beckon us all to cherish life and to make wise choices when it comes to preventing further spread of the virus and protecting the well-being of others. 

Janice Phillips, RN, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing, the Director of Nursing Research and Health Equity at the Rush University Medical Center. 


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