News Special Report

COVID-19 Survivors and Experts Share Pandemic's 'Silver Linings'

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As we mark the second anniversary of the first COVID-19 case identified in the United States, many negative aspects of our shared trauma -- political disagreements, family members hospitalized, and over 850,000 American deaths -- are well known to us.

But no matter how dark the storm clouds, some people still focus on the small patches of blue sky. Experts say this "benefit finding" during a challenging pandemic is a sign of resilience -- one with lessons for all of us.

Sydney White's father contracted COVID-19 in August, was quickly hospitalized, and died days later. Although not vaccinated, "he was perfectly healthy, exercised a lot, was very active and overall healthy," says White, a recent graduate of Clemson University in South Carolina.

After her father's funeral, White's grandmother tested positive for COVID-19. She eventually recovered, and then White contracted the disease but had only minor symptoms.

Through all this, the family came together, in no small part because of the support of their church community, which reached out to help her family by offering any kind of help they needed.

Even after all this, White remains resilient. "I think actually getting COVID was good for me getting through this [death of my dad]. It sounds strange to say, but it gave me time to process everything."

Posttraumatic Personal Growth

Studies have emerged over the past 2 years examining possible positives from the pandemic. For example, 73% of more than 9,300 people reported at least one unexpected silver lining in the pandemic, according to a Pew Research survey taken in an August and September 2020.

Meanwhile, researchers from Clemson University surveyed 179 Amazon MTurk employees in June and July 2020. They asked participants about their COVID-19 experiences, including any positives.

"Some people were indeed able to find a silver lining in the COVID-19 virus situation," says lead author Robin M. Kowalski, PhD, Centennial professor in the Department of Psychology at Clemson.

Finding benefit or meaning in the COVID-19 crisis was associated with posttraumatic growth, gratitude, and mental health.

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 affected satisfaction related to work, family, mental health, finances, and other factors. The study findings were published online last March in the Journal of Health Psychology.

Because benefit finding is an adaptive mechanism, some people will still be able to identify positives even as winter lingers and the Omicron variant increases in circulation in the U.S., Kowalski says.

"People who are able to find meaning even in the worst of situations can weather those storms better than those who don't," she says.

Positive Doctor Perspective

Improved management of rapidly progressing hypoxia is one of seven "uplifting effects of the pandemic" highlighted by George Washington University professors of emergency medicine Breanne Jacobs, MD, and Rita Manfredi, MD, in a January 2021 editorial in Academic Emergency Medicine.

The rapid development of telemedicine, respect for frontline providers, and addressing doctors' mental health and disclosure policies are other clinical bright spots they note.

"In general, many of the silver linings have arisen largely because COVID-19 has pushed medicine as an industry to innovate on how we can continue to deliver quality patient care with increasingly scarce personnel and physical infrastructure," Jacobs says.

Meanwhile, other doctors have publicly shared their positive COVID-19 insights on social media via the hashtag #silverlinings.

Critical care fellow Sunil Ramaswamy, MD, made this observation on Twitter: "One of the more beautiful things I've noticed about this #COVID19 crisis is that everyone is saying 'be safe' and 'be healthy.' People seem to genuinely care. It's all about the #silverlinings"

Primary care resident Gray Moonen, MD, sees a positive role for medical trainees. He tweeted, "It is a privilege to be a medical resident right now...things are uncertain and will be rough. We can leverage our platform to advocate for change, become better clinicians and leaders and have a lasting positive impact on our community #COVID19…seeking the #silverlinings"

Insights From Isolation

Roisin Guihen, MD, says the COVID-19 experience over the last 2 years has changed many aspects of her life, like how she views her family, herself, and her education. That experience changed recently when she came down with COVID-19.

"3 vaccines and 2 years spent dodging those infamous COVID germs and the virus has finally caught up with me! Nothing like a positive PCR to make you appreciate your overall health #grateful #COVID19 #hse"

"I myself contracted COVID only this week (day 6 today)," Guihen wrote in an email Jan. 15. "I've been self-isolating all week and for the first time in many years have gotten quite used to my own company."

Guihen feels grateful for the time she has spent alone recently, a rarity for her before COVID-19, saying it "reminded me of who I am outside the hospital and what I most enjoy."

Earlier, the pandemic upended her medical education. "My second-to-last year as a medicine student in Ireland occurred during the midst of the first COVID wave. To express in writing the level of uncertainty, stress, and disorganization that came with that year would be impossible.

"I'm grateful that I'm here, that my family is here, that the majority of patients with COVID in hospital now don't require oxygen," Guihen says. "I'm grateful that we have made it through and learned so much along the way."

Infectious Disease Doctor's Positives

Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, MPH, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is most optimistic about the FDA's emergency use authorization of the COVID-19 oral antiviral treatment Paxlovid.

Widespread availability of the pill could "address so much of our staffing problems, because we could keep people out of the hospital and we could prevent severe illness," she says.

Marrazzo says studies show the pill reduced severity of illness and hospitalization rates by about 90%. Having agents such as Paxlovid available "will be very helpful."

Fewer Social Obligations

Everyday folks on Twitter have also been sharing their positives about the pandemic using the hashtags #COVID19 and #silverlinings.

In one exchange, for example, a self-described introvert wrote that the pandemic became a perfect excuse to avoid large gatherings:

Another Twitter user learned the value of vaccines, from relatives who were alive before the lifesavers were in widespread use.

Appreciating Togetherness

A frequently mentioned benefit of the pandemic was that people got to spend more time with family, the Pew survey shows. For example, 33% of Americans said they were able to spend more time with spouses, children, and other family members. Others noted that remote video calls allowed them to connect with more distant loved ones.

People shared similar stories on social media. Michelle Aldridge wrote that the pandemic gave her more time to play games with family:

"Bingo with @Neil_Zee The silver lining of the pandemic is quality family time. #bingo #yyc #COVID19 #SocialDistanacing #silverlinings"

"Gilzow" shared this positive on Twitter:

"I get an extra hour *minimum* per day to annoy my children. Yesterday it was singing songs loudly out of tune, with horribly incorrect lyrics."

Lean on Others for Support

Another silver lining, according to White, the Clemson grad who lost her father, is that so many people are facing COVID-19 pandemic challenges simultaneously. "One of the positive things is that others were going through this, not just me. Other families have lost fathers from COVID, too.

"Try to find a group of people you can lean on -- through your church, your activities -- to help guide you through what is going on," she said. "Together we could uplift each other."

White remains resilient even as she continues to mourn her father's death.

"My dad was my biggest supporter. He would have wanted me to get through this."

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