Happy New Year!…we hope. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has reconstructed the Calculus equation for making a best guess as to when some measure of settling into “new normal” will occur. Two steps forward, one step back. Panamá is caught in the same topsy-turvy daily ambiguity as the rest of the world regarding what behaviors qualify as more or less safe or amid efforts to go forward with work and home life balanced with acceptable levels of risk in both.
At least we are both boosted…finally.
Toward the end of November we shopped at Panama’s upscale MultiPlaza mall in the Punta Pacifica neighborhood. We had gone there in search of the tembleques (beaded flower-like headpieces), necklaces, and shoes Audrey needed to accessorize the Panamanian attire she would wear when joining on stage at ISP’s PAC (Performing Arts Center) in traditional Panamanian dances in her school’s bicentennial Independence Day celebration. While hunting for the store where she was instructed to purchase them, on the mall’s bottom floor we happened upon a huge COVID-19 vaccination site run by Pacifica Salud (our Johns Hopkins-affiliated hospital next door to the mall). Seeing that they offered Pfizer vaccine booster shots without appointments, we decided to hop into line. Very quickly an attendant came to check our vaccination and other documents. Audrey qualified, but because six months had not yet passed since Brian’s second AstraZeneca vaccine shot, the attendant said he would have to wait. So Brian continued hunting for the store selling Audrey’s dance attire accessories while Audrey eased forward gradually through the line, moving toward getting boosted with all the speed of a sloth in Panama’s rainforest. When Brian called Audrey half an hour later to say he had given up his failed hunt for the store, she told him she had received her shot and just needed to wait the obligatory post-shot 15 minutes to ensure no adverse reactions.
She had no adverse reaction to the shot, and Brian had no adverse reaction to waiting to reach his six month date on January 1. Except, of course, that January 1 was New Year’s Day and we figured no shots would be available. So he waited a couple more days until January 3 when he could piggy back getting boosted with a doctor appointment he had that morning in the consultorios (doctors’ offices) at Pacifica Salud. Finishing his checkup just before noon, he navigated the typically bad stretch of traffic on Boulevard Pacifica, taking only about 15 minutes to travel the 350 meters from Pacifica Salud to the parking lot at MultiPlaza. Lucky Audrey had waited only 30 minutes to get her booster in November. When Brian arrived at the vaccination site, an attendant pointed toward what Brian thought was the back of the line by the mall’s doors.
Upon his reaching that spot, she pointed again, indicating farther out through the doors, and said, “Afuera.” Outside. Stepping outside into the underground garage, Brian saw that the line continued to the far end of the parking structure – at least 60 or 70 people ahead of him just to get back inside. Apparently, since Audrey’s booster in November and the proliferation of Omicron the vaccination business has been good in Panamá. So Brian had to wait outside in line nearly an hour sweating in a hot garage just to reenter air conditioning before continuing to wait in a designated “sala de espera” (waiting room) packed with the same 60-70 people in rows of chairs…before moving to a third waiting location outside the vaccination room…before waiting in the vaccination room registration line…before taking a seat to wait for his turn to get boosted. After nearly two hours of waiting, the boosting itself went quickly and easily, with Brian pleased to get a Pfizer boost to his AstraZeneca vaccination shots. Panamá is updating its concept of “fully vaccinated” to mean three shots, not two, so now we both are up-to-date in being up-to-date.
As such, we felt ready to step further toward life as we once were used to living it. One thing we have missed terribly: entertaining. Audrey decided it was time to reacquaint ourselves with that practice, and invited the leadership team of her school to an afternoon “soirée” in our new home with wine and hors d’oeuvres.
Everyone was vaccinated and we welcomed each person by inviting them to leave their masks on or take them off as they wish, no peer pressure either way. As it was a very homogeneous group of which almost everyone either worked together or was the significant other of someone who works at ISP, and with ISP having a staff vaccination mandate for some time, most people took off their masks. Some left them on. We had a good time, and it felt so good to entertain again.
And, Omicron being what it is, we then waited to see if anyone at the party subsequently reported a COVID diagnosis. That was made easier by ISP’s requirement that all staff get cleared to return after the holiday break with a negative PCR test last weekend before staff reported back this week for some professional development days and then for the start of the second semester. Two of the two dozen people who had been our guests did test positive, but so far it looks like they became positive (and contagious) after the party. Still, with case numbers in Panama skyrocketing in the last week, we feel like the window of opportunity for big entertaining has closed again and do not plan to tempt Omicron fate to that extent for some time.
On another track, while Panamá seemed to manage Omicron well in December, Brian auditioned for and joined Cantemus Panamá, an SATB choral group of expats and Panamanians that sings sacred music in multiple languages. He has missed his choral involvement in the U.S. since we moved abroad, and hoped when we decided in 2019 upon Panamá as our next billet that he could find a group here for musical and social enjoyment. Joining Cantemus Panamá thrilled him, with his first concert scheduled for this Sunday to reprise the group’s December presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio. For the last couple weeks he rehearsed on his own, both in his home office and during his walks on the promenade of Avenida Paseo Del Mar, singing softly while music played via Bluetooth in his head for no one else to hear, and hoping passers-by who saw the white-haired guy with floppy sun hat in t-shirt and walking shorts singing the bass part to Handel’s Messiah – without apparent accompaniment – did not think him schizophrenic.
But COVID had its way with musical plans as well, and Sunday’s concert has been canceled – at least for now – because several choristers and soloists have recently joined Panama’s wave of positive COVID test results. He hopes they can reschedule the Messiah concert, and that plans later this year to sing Bach’s “Christ Lag In Todesbanden” and Haydn’s “The Creation” come to fruition. We shall see.
So “up-to-date” with our boosters grants only tempered relief in the Age of Omicron. As per ISP’s declaration that Audrey sent out last week, and as Omicron quintupled Panama’s COVID numbers in the first week of January (and still more in this second week), on Sunday we walked four blocks to the north side of Costa del Este to get tested at the drive-thru/walk-thru testing facility set up in a parking lot next to the Super Rey grocery store. Both negative. Whew! And how fortunate we felt to have such easy and cheap testing available when tests in the U.S. are hard to find and, when finally found, often cost several times what testing costs here.
After testing we walked over to Town Center so Audrey could get a caprese snack. We also got a reminder lesson on Panamanian National holidays when Audrey was told she could not order a cup of sangria because it was Día de los Mártires (Martyrs Day). The January 9 commemoration each year remembers the 1964 flag protest which began when Panamanian students marched into the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone to hoist the Panamanian flag next to the U.S. flag that “Zonian” students had raised at Balboa High School. A scuffle ensued that resulted somehow in the Panamanian flag tearing, and days of rioting followed in which 28 Panamanians and four Americans died. After caprese, we walked home appreciative to live in a Panama with still-complicated but less-intense dynamics between Panamanian and American elements.
Besides the ISP staff testing mandate, getting tested also was good to reinforce our negative status before next Monday when Brian’s uncle will become our first international visitor since we arrived in Panamá 18 months ago. Another thing we loved from the Before Times was hosting visitors. With Panama managing COVID well through the last several months, we looked forward to Brian’s uncle marking a restart in that part of our lives as well.
How quickly things can change! We still look forward to his visit, but with us and him all accepting the “unless it does not happen” caveat that pervades our times. In preparation for his arrival, Brian has been researching and setting up tours for while he is here. We will open up to spending time with tour guides, but not with large groups of other tourists. And as a final check before Brian’s uncle comes, we will get tested one more time this weekend to ensure he has a COVID-free zone in which to stay…unless he picks it up on a flight or in an airport on his way to Panamá.
Meanwhile, Audrey’s ISP COVID test mandate before staff returned to campus led to more than 15 percent of staff testing positive – people who traveled during the three-week break, and people who went nowhere. Consequently, she had to push back the return of students for the second semester until next week, and also expanded the testing mandate to include students before they return. Teachers are preparing for students mixed between on campus and online once again, at least for a short term.
We started writing this post more than a week ago with a very different emphasis. We began 2022 with confidence in Panama’s management of COVID numbers despite Omicron blowing up so quickly elsewhere in the world. We hoped that we would soon emerge from two years of pandemic haze – not that COVID would be gone, but that it would settle into a stable presence around which we could shape new lives. As we already said, how quickly things can change. Like everyone, we are trying to determine the path forward in the current pandemic phase to find the balance between living as normally as possible while being as responsible as we can. Consistency on either front yields to living in the massive gray area between the two extremes. After all this time, we find ourselves still in the realm of everything we choose to do or not do coming down to a risk-reward assessment. We want to boost our hopes for 2022. So far, it is a bit better…until it is not…but then it is…before it is not. [Sigh.]
On your mark, get set, here we go!