At one-year mark of COVID-19 in Iowa, counselors say emotional impact will linger beyond vaccine rollout

After a year of fear and anger during the COVID-19 pandemic, people won't return to normal overnight, therapists say. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Three hundred sixty-five days. Five thousand, five hundred and sixty deaths. 

Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the first known cases of COVID-19 in Iowa. 

“In some ways, I can hardly believe it’s already been a year. In others, it seems like forever since almost anything has felt normal,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said on March 3, when she was vaccinated at a press conference. “And yet finally, there’s a renewed sense of hope and optimism.”

After a year of canceled events, health scares and Zoom celebrations, Iowa’s vaccine distribution is underway and life is slowly approaching normalcy. Several summertime traditions will return in 2021, including the Iowa State Fair and the Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market. President Joe Biden has promised there will be enough doses of the vaccine for every adult by the end of May.

But some mental health and grief professionals cautioned that the emotional impact of the pandemic will linger long after Iowans get their shots.

Des Moines mental health therapist Andrea Jones said it was “like night and day” when the pandemic hit. Clients shifted from “normal problems” to newfound health and financial concerns.

“People were absolutely coming in with a lot of anxiety and fear about what the pandemic meant for them, worries that their loved ones or themselves would possibly get COVID,” Jones said.

Grieving after the death of a loved one also became more complicated, said UnityPoint bereavement counselor Anne Alesch. Support groups were unable to meet in person, and many older clients did not have access to video-calling services like Zoom.

“People need support now more than ever, because they’re lonely,” Alesch said. “And it’s been hard to give it to them.”

In addition to fear, grief and anxiety, the pandemic brought another powerful emotion: anger. Jones and Alesch said many of their clients were upset both with the government response to the pandemic, and with neighbors who did not take safety measures seriously. Reynolds did not issue any kind of mask mandate until November, when cases were at their worst, and never issued a stay-at-home order.

“People were very upset that they’re trying to follow precautions, and then they look over and see their friends and families … going to bars, eating out, in crowds, not wearing masks,” Jones said.

Alesch agreed:  “I think there’s going to be grief over what was lost to us, and a lot of people will want to (point) fingers at different parties and figures … There’s a sense that something’s been taken from us, and we’re not going to ever get it back.”

Now, one year later, Iowa’s mask and social-distancing restrictions are lifted — despite CDC recommendations to the contrary — and the vaccine rollout has begun

Reynolds received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine during a press conference last week. The following groups are eligible for a vaccine in Iowa:

On Monday, the CDC published the first official guidance for fully vaccinated people. Fully vaccinated individuals can spend time with other vaccinated people indoors without masks or social distancing. That means hugging family members, visiting people in group homes and spending time with friends again.

Iowa has administered 940,000 doses of the vaccine. So far, 20% of the population has received at least one shot, according to data from the New York Times, and 9.2% has been fully vaccinated.

Still, Jones and Alesch said the return to normalcy may be slow and difficult — and that the lingering anger and anxiety of the pandemic won’t go away overnight, especially for high-risk groups.

“It’s going to be a long time before they feel okay again, and that’s because for so long, they’ve been told that the world is a scary place for them to be out in,” Alesch said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take for them to feel comfortable and safe again.”

Katie Akin
Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.